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October 2005
Let Freedom Ring
The Satya Interview with Nancy Talanian

 

It all began in Northampton, Massachusetts, when a group of residents, concerned about the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, put their brains together and dedicated themselves to passing the first resolution to protect civil liberties. Before they could blink an eye, they heard from residents interested in nearby towns. Soon they were moving towards the passage of three resolutions and, in November 2001, two weeks after the Patriot Act was passed, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) was born.

Co-founder and founding Director, Nancy Talanian, a seasoned activist, has spent the past three and a half years assisting other community-based organizations to pass resolutions and ordinances by sharing BORDC’s experiences and resources. She never dreamed that almost four years later, 400 resolutions would be passed in 43 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Nancy Talanian about Patriot Act oppressions, the injustice of racial profiling, and her work to protect civil liberties.

To begin with, in easy terms, what is the Patriot Act?
What concerns most of us about the Patriot Act is how it expands the powers of the executive branch—especially the FBI—in ways that were unimaginable before September 11, 2001. It gives the federal government greater authority to track and intercept communications, to go to a secret court to secure orders for surveillance and access to private information, and to use gag orders to hide its actions from Congress, the courts, the media, and the public. The government has been using the Patriot Act, together with a range of other new and old laws and policies, to undermine the Constitution and to violate the rights of both immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. These policies infringe upon liberties we take for granted within the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments: freedoms of speech, assembly and religion; privacy (the right to be left alone unless there is probable cause of wrongdoing); due process of law; a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury; and protection from cruel and unusual punishments.

A lot of our readers are activists and tend to make admirable use of our First Amendment rights. Can you talk a bit about the threats to these rights, and to activism in general?

There are policies and laws besides the Patriot Act that are major threats, too. But in the Patriot Act, section 802, domestic terrorism is so broadly defined that it could apply to anyone exercising freedom of speech, expression, and assembly by using civil disobedience. Moreover, sections 215 and 505 permit the FBI to seek records from bookstores and libraries to see what a person has purchased or read, as well as activities on a library’s computer. And “Material Support for Terrorism,” which predates the Patriot Act but was enhanced by its section 805, has been used to link many innocent people to terrorism. For example, noncitizens including legal residents may be fined or deported simply by sending a donation to support a group’s legal activities—unaware that the group has been or someday may be designated a “terrorist organization.”

Although the government always says ‘We are not going after people who oppose government policies,’ they are. The FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and others have clearly been targeting people who oppose government policies. Recently the California National Guard, already under scrutiny for spying on the Gold Star Families for Peace Mother’s Day Rally, engaged in other surveillance activities involving U.S. citizens. It’s essentially using the term terrorism to conduct surveillance, to intimidate, or to harass people who openly question the current administration’s policies.

It’s ridiculous. It seems everyone’s name is on the “no-fly list” these days—babies have been stopped from boarding planes because their names are the same as or similar to those of possible ‘terrorists.’
Of course, and we don’t even know how names get added to the list, and there is no mechanism for names to be removed from the list if it turns out you are not a terrorist. So, this is one of the more disturbing issues.

Do you think the average American really understands what is at stake?
Not unless they look into it themselves. President Bush and the Justice Department have turned the phrase “the Patriot Act is working” into a mantra and tied the Patriot Act to the so-called “war on terror.” The good news is that when people look at parts of the Act and other post-9/11 policies for themselves, they become alarmed, and many of them decide to get involved.

Switching gears just a bit, can you talk about current threats to immigrants, refugees, and foreign students?
The people, of course, who have been most at risk are immigrants, refugees and people of color—from the very beginning, even before the Patriot Act was passed. You may remember starting in September 2001, Arab, Muslim, South Asian, and even Latino men were rounded up and detained—often for months, sometimes longer than a year because of an inefficient Justice Department policy that would not let them be released until they were cleared by the FBI. In many cases, their families were unable to find out where they were until they were deported to another country and were finally able to phone home.

It was outrageous. At first, John Ashcroft was calling all the detainees Al Qaeda members, and his excuse for not revealing their names was to not ‘do Al Qaeda’s work for them.’ But really, I think it was because none of those people had anything to do with Al Qaeda. It was embarrassing for the government—none of those people were terrorists at all. To date, we still don’t know who all of those people were or what happened to them.

And even before the Iraq war began, the FBI had a program where they would interview every Iraqi visitor, Iraqi student, and Iraqi American citizen in the country. They monitored thousands of people of Iraqi descent. They claimed it was to get information that would be helpful, or because they might pose a risk in the event of war against Iraq. But more likely it was done to intimidate these people from speaking out against the start of a war. And then before the last election, the FBI and the JTTF began using a program to target and interrogate people who were members of mosques. And since about March 2004, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE) has again radically increased the questioning, detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Can you talk about the detention camps?
Well for some time now—until the current administration—U.S. policy complied with international prohibitions against torture and inhumane treatment, such as the Geneva Conventions. But members of the Bush administration, including President Bush and Alberto Gonzales, have made statements and issued memos that counter that policy.

There is so much to be said about this. Descriptions of abuse, torture, and murder at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison match experiences of detainees in prisons from Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan, Brooklyn, etc. And torture and abuse account for most of the government reported 108 deaths of prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of people—over 35 different nationalities—remain held in a legal black hole at the detention camp at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, without access to legal counsel or family visits. More than 100 of the detainees are on a hunger strike, until they receive a fair hearing or die, whichever comes first.

That is so sad, scary and totally unfair. What can people do to help stop this?
I think most people have come to us because they were concerned about their own rights—that maybe their phones are tapped or their private records were being used or e-mails read…but then after they are made aware of all the horrible things that have been happening to immigrants and other noncitizens, they decide to put their energy towards asserting the rights of those who have been bearing the brunt of the new, misguided anti-terrorism laws and policies.

We actually put together a petition for people to sign outlawing torture and extraordinary rendition, which is basically outsourcing torture to countries that use it. The Guantánamo Bay detention camp has become a symbol of the U.S. administration’s refusal to honor human rights and the rule of law. So we developed a program with the Center for Constitutional Rights called the Guantánamo Reading Project to focus attention on all of the shameful and unlawful detentions. The project’s goal is for people and groups across the U.S. to put on local readings of the play Guantánamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.’ It is a real opportunity to expose new audiences to what their government is doing in their names and to engage them in discussions about what is going on. Anybody can get involved with these programs.

You can also organize around your specific community’s needs. For example, since Albany, New York, passed a resolution, local residents have been working with their large Muslim community—helping raise legal funds, helping the families whose loved ones are in detention and in danger of being deported. BORDC-Tacoma, Washington, is dedicated to fighting a private prison that has been established to detain immigrants and refugees who are probably going to be deported. The New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, through their work with immigrant detainees, has exposed and ended the Department of Homeland Security’s practice of using dogs to abuse detainees. They have also kept a database of abuse affidavits, which they have attempted to bring to the attention of DHS agents who are supposedly auditing the treatment and abuse of detainees.

Basically, we all must keep shining a light of truth on what the government is doing. The targeting of people without probable cause is terrifying people to keep them silent while giving the majority of people a false impression that the government’s actions, laws, and policies are preventing terrorism. Exposing the truth not only will preserve the rights of the most vulnerable; it will make all of us safer.

President Bush and the Justice Department have used inflated figures to support their claim that their laws and policies are protecting us from terrorism. Fortunately, the Washington Post looked at the records and published an exposé last June (6/11/05) revealing that the administration’s claims of more than 200 terrorism convictions was inaccurate: the correct figure was 39. The administration was continuing to count cases that had been ruled out as terrorist-related long ago.

What are “Civil Liberties Safe Zones”?
They are cities, towns, counties, and states that have passed a resolution or ordinance upholding the civil liberties of their residents. When we started in 2001, we realized that most people had never heard of the Patriot Act, and even the media was not writing about it. We couldn’t ask people to write letters or call their members of Congress about a law that they knew nothing about. So, our strategy involved local education, local debate, and local petitioning, leading up to the passage of a resolution to defend the Bill of Rights.

The resolution that the Northampton, Massachusetts, City Council passed basically requests that local police continue to uphold civil liberties of local residents even if authorized to do otherwise by the Patriot Act and executive orders; that state and federal law enforcement agencies working in the city refrain from racial profiling or detention without charges; that federal and state law enforcement report to the local Human Rights Commission all local investigations undertaken under the aegis of the act and orders; and that the community’s congressional representatives actively monitor the implementation of the act and orders and work to repeal those sections found unconstitutional.

The federal government has relied on local officials and police to support policies of the Justice Department that have turned out to be unlawful, according to the department’s own Inspector General. For example after September 11th, local police were often asked to find and question people with Arab-sounding names, and if they had any suspicions about them, detain them. Some of the local police have been quite outraged over infringements of the Bill of Rights and don’t want to be in a position where they are helping to spy on or otherwise take rights away from people without any evidence of wrongdoing. These resolutions can’t stop the FBI, but they can help ensure that local government officials and local police do not support the denial of rights and liberties stated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, even if authorized to do so by the Patriot Act or other post-9/11 laws and policies.

Do the resolutions actually stand up to the Patriot Act?
In some ways they do, but the most important thing about them is the education they facilitate. Most city councils have passed these resolutions unanimously, and some resolutions specify that no local resources will be used to carry out unjust laws and policies. There have also been a few ordinances passed in several cities starting with Arcata, CA—and those do have the force of law. In other words, they actually impose fines on local officials who deny someone their Constitutional rights. But really, the Constitution has power, and the federal government really can’t go after a city who is saying, ‘We will fine you if you disobey the Constitution.’ It is the law of the land.

This is such a foolish administration. I sometimes wonder if it will ever end. I mean, seven years ago we were ready to impeach Clinton for lying about oral sex…
Well, it is going to be a long struggle. Once an entity like the FBI gains power, it is very difficult to take it away. Neither the House nor the Senate bills to reauthorize the 16 Patriot Act sections scheduled to expire this year would actually remove any of those powers. The Senate version, known as the Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, is considered slightly better than the House bill in that it would increase public reporting of how some of the act’s powers are used, place greater restrictions on certain warrants, wiretaps and e-mail monitoring, and put four-year limits on three sections of the Patriot Act (206, 215, and “lone wolf”). But Attorney General Gonzales has publicly criticized the Senate bill’s modest changes, stating that the bill would hamper the government’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks by making it difficult for investigators to conduct secret searches or obtain “roving wiretaps” in terrorism investigations.

This is why we have engaged grassroots support to get entire cities and states to weigh in on these critical issues, rather than using the standard route of asking those already concerned to just write a letter or call their local congressman. The changes we need to make cannot happen without a lot of grassroots support and organizing. But it is going to be a long process, just to get back to where we were on September 10, 2001.

What is the one thing you want people to take away from this interview?
I would like to mention that we treat civil liberties as a nonpartisan issue, and people really seem to appreciate that. I have heard from city councilors and people who I never thought I would, because this is one issue we all agree on. And people in communities feel the same way. They represent all political parties, and they don’t normally find common ground. It is really important we all stand together on this.

We’ve been fortunate that, despite the huge challenges we’ve faced, people recognize the urgent need to restore our civil liberties. They want to make sure their city, town, county, or state stands for the principles that have separated the U.S. from more repressive governments. There is a camaraderie among the 387 local communities and seven states (Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Vermont) with resolutions, even though they range from the very largest cities, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas, to some of the very smallest. Together they have stood up for the rights and liberties of their 62 million residents.

I’ve seen that the more people learn about the Patriot Act and other changes to our laws and policies, the more they become concerned. That makes me feel confident that we will win in the end.

For more information on the Bill of Rights Defense Committee visit www.bordc.org.

 

 


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