Civil Liberties Take a Dive

Peaceful demonstrators shot and beaten. Students expelled for wearing T-shirts opposing the president. A Girl Scout threatened with arrest for silently protesting the war on a street corner. Protesters plucked from the sidewalk ahead of a presidential motorcade and forced into a “protest pit” a third of a mile away. A teacher fired for posting student art a principal deemed “not sufficiently pro-war.” These are dangerous times in America. But a new report by the ACLU outlining the widespread assault on civil liberties since September 11, 2001, by federal, state and local authorities also provides stirring evidence of growing grass-roots resistance to these attacks.

The report, titled “Freedom Under Fire: Dissent in Post-9/11 America,” might well have been titled “Boldness Under Fire.” It tells the stories of people across the country who have risked arrest to protest the domestic and aggressive war policies of the Bush administration since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center-all of them cases in which the ACLU has intervened, either before government bodies or in court.
Cases like Bretton Barber, a 15-year-old sophomore who refused a demand by his high school that he turn inside out a T-shirt he was wearing saying “International Terrorist” and depicting the image of President Bush. Barber faced suspension rather than buckle under to censorship, and the ACLU has agreed to take the case to court.

Or like that of A.J. Brown in Durham, North Carolina, who was visited at her home by Secret Service agents and local police. The agents were looking for a poster on the wall of the young woman’s house that an anonymous snitch had reported as “anti-American.” (The poster, a critique of the death penalty, depicted a group of lynched bodies hanging behind a picture of President Bush and read, “We hang on your every word.”)

“There is a pall over our country,” the ACLU writes. “The responses to dissent by many government officials, as described in this report, so clearly violate the letter and spirit of the supreme law of the land that they threaten the underpinnings of democracy itself.”
Repressive and threatening measures by federal, state and local officials have included illegal spying, infiltration, violent actions, and intimidation, and have often been supported by local authorities. During a September 2002 demonstration near the White House, capital police deliberately herded 400 peaceful demonstrators into a trap and then attacked and arrested them, in a case that is still being challenged by the ACLU. In Oakland, California, using rubber and wooden bullets, police fired on people peacefully protesting the use of the city’s port facilities for shipping military equipment.

But the report, released in May, notes that a broad citizen response to these measures has been building. ACLU membership is growing, and more than 114 communities have already passed legislation designed to uphold and protect civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. “We now have over 104 communities, including the state of Hawaii-together representing over 11.1 million people-that have passed Bill of Rights Protection resolutions,” says Damon Moglen, national field coordinator for the ACLU.
Local resolutions vary in their wording, but many are explicit in instructing local police authorities not to cooperate with federal activities that threaten legitimate First Amendment rights or other freedoms. “The tempo of these resolutions has exploded,” says Moglen. “It’s a grassroots revolution.”

The movement is encouraging Democratic and even some less conservative Republican politicians to take a more public stand against threats to civil liberties. In May, when the Tucson, Arizona, City Council was debating passage of one such resolution, they received a letter from Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, Tucson’s congressional representative, who expressed “deep concern about the ramifications of the USA Patriot Act.” Grijalva offered his “full support” to the resolution, which he said “reaffirms our nation’s long and proud tradition of upholding our freedoms guaranteed by our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

The measure passed resoundingly.

More recently, on May 12, the Republican-dominated Alaska House of Representatives passed a powerfully worded Bill of Rights protection resolution. On May 21, the state’s Republican-led Senate approved the same bill, with only opposing vote. The bill instructs state law enforcement officials not to cooperate with federal authorities in activities that transgress the Bill of Rights, even if allowed under the Patriot Act. It also calls for the state’s congressional delegation “to correct provisions in the USA Patriot Act and other measures that infringe on civil liberties, and opposes any pending and future federal legislation to the extent that it infringes on Americans’ civil rights and liberties.”

In a foreword to the ACLU report, Executive Director Anthony Romero writes, “Dissenters who take unpopular positions in their own times are often seen as heroes later on. We believe that when future generations look at what was done to our core freedoms and values after 9/11, the voices of dissent will stand out as the true defenders of democracy.”


Dave Lindorff, a regular contributor to In These Times, is the author of Killing Time, a new book on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

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