In one of the most significant movements in the United States today, people from cities and towns across the country are resisting the current administrationâ€™s attack on the Bill of Rights. Several weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress rushed to pass the USA Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act–better known as the USA PATRIOT Act–with virtually no public hearing or debate.
According to Nancy Chang, Senior Litigation Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, â€œTo an unprecedented degree, the Act sacrifices our political freedoms in the name of national security and upsets the democratic values that define our nation by consolidating vast new powers in the executive branch of government. The Act enhances the executiveâ€™s ability to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence, places an array of new tools at the disposal of the prosecution, including new crimes, enhanced penalties, and longer statutes of limitations, and grants the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) the authority to detain immigrants suspected of terrorism for lengthy, and in some cases indefinite, periods of time. And at the same time that the Act inflates the powers of the executive, it insulates the exercise of these powers from meaningful judicial and Congressional oversight.â€
As 2002 drew to an end, twenty-one cities, towns and counties had passed resolutions aimed at protecting their residents from drastic civil rights incursions, and some sixty others were contemplating similar pro-civil rights measures. This growing movement was at last deemed fit to print (or impossible to ignore) by the New York Times, which ran a front-page article on Dec. 23, 2002 announcing that â€œCities Urge Restraint in Fight Against Terror.â€ The headline is an understatement: this citizen resistance to illegitimate authority is actually something of a rebellion. Significant blocs of citizens in Flagstaff, AZ; Carrboro, NC; Tacoma Park, MD; Berkeley, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Sebastopol, CA; Amherst, Cambridge, Leverett, and Northampton, MA; Boulder and Denver, CO; Eugene, OR; New Haven, CT; Ann Arbor and Detroit, MI; Burlington, VT; Santa Fe, NM; Madison, WI; and Alachua County, FL have strongly reaffirmed a patriotic commitment to the bedrock principles of democracy and civil liberty on which our nation was founded. Oakland, in affirming its strong opposition to terrorism, â€œalso affirms that any efforts to end terrorism not be waged at the expense of the fundamental civil rights and liberties of the people of Oakland, the United States and the World.â€ Northampton, the first to pass such a resolution, has told its local law enforcement to â€œcontinue to preserve residentsâ€™ freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and privacy; rights to counsel and due process in judicial proceedings; and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures even if requested or authorized to infringe upon these rights by federal law enforcement acting under new powers granted by the USA PATRIOT Act or orders of the Executive Branch.â€ (emphasis mine. See the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee–NBORDC–link at www.gjf.org .) Nat Hentoff (The Progressive, July 2002) refers to the people of Northampton as patriots and calls them â€œdescendants of the Sons of Liberty who organized Committees of Correspondence against the British before the Revolutionary War.â€
The current assault on our civil liberties was designed in preparation for war making and not to bring terrorists to justice or to prevent future acts of terrorism. Nations begin wars of aggression abroad by declaring war on their own people. Trampling on the right to dissent is part of sustaining a jingoism that allows military action to proceed uninhibited by moral or legal constraints. Law enforcement already had plenty of crime-busting tools for tracking and arresting terrorists, for gathering real evidence of real crimes, before the USA Patriot Act. Riding on the coattail of the anguish and sense of vulnerability occasioned by September 11, 2001, the architects of American Empire moved to implement a long-prepared U.S. plan for global dominance and control over world oil resources. A September 2002 National Security Strategy document (appropriating imperial concepts previously set forth in the 2000 â€œProject for the New American Centuryâ€ and other think tank products by key Bush administration officials) embraces â€œpre-emptiveâ€ attacks against perceived enemies as part of an aggressive policy of permanent U.S. military and economic domination in every region of the globe. International opinion–U.N.-endorsed or otherwise–is not to be a snag to global conquest, nor is the restiveness of the natives at home. The USA Patriot Act will deal with restive natives.
One of the movers and shakers of the movement to resist the current onslaught against civil rights is Dr. Marty Nathan, Executive Director of the Greensboro Justice Fund, who mobilized her fellow townspeople in Northampton. Dr. Nathan was sensitized to the issue of civil rights violations when she was widowed in the Greensboro Massacre of November 3, 1979. Widowhood was a fate that I and two other women shared with Dr. Nathan when five people were killed and ten wounded as a result of a Klan and Nazi death squad that drove into a racially integrated, legally authorized anti-Klan rally and opened fire on those assembled.
Nathan draws parallels between what we experienced in North Carolina two decades ago and threats to civil liberties today. She sees the USA Patriot Act as a green light for a wide range of civil rights atrocities that potentially affect many more people. In the 1970s and 1980s, the target of government repression in the United States included, in addition to people of color, indigenous, and immigrant people–historically targets of discrimination and repression–political activists. In local skirmishes in North Carolina, men and women who were challenging a status quo of racial, social and economic inequality through speech, assembly and union organizing activities became a target of scrutiny and civil rights abuse. In the Greensboro Massacre, the most extreme and violent repression of all–assassination–was used against anti-racist community and labor organizers who were building an empowering and liberating peopleâ€™s movement.
The murders and injuries in 1979 were inflicted by Ku Klux Klansmen and Neo-Nazis whose ranks were infiltrated by government agents. The local Greensboro Police Department had a paid informant inside the Klan. This Klansman/police informant organized the death squad, reported on its preparations for violent assault to the police, and led a caravan of killers to the rally site on the fatal morning. With pre-knowledge of the attack, police were deployed away from the rally site and were not there as the violence unfolded. The Nazis had in their ranks an employee of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The federal agent, while urging the Nazis to armed participation with the Klan in the attack, reported to his superiors in government, who did nothing to stop the violence, and who later lied and tried to cover up their pre-knowledge. Neither the visible perpetrators–captured on TV videotape shooting people down in cold blood–nor their backroom handlers with badges and official titles were punished in the criminal justice system. Law enforcement, elected and appointed public officials, the courts, and the media covered for the criminals. They did this, first and foremost, by attacking and demonizing the victims and the survivors of the crimes.
Although murder was the most extreme contravention of their civil rights that was directed at the political activists, other interference with their constitutionally protected rights occurred both before and after the Greensboro Massacre. Before the murders, activists and organizers were made targets of police and FBI surveillance. Two chilling examples from my personal experience illustrate this. Police apparently went through a trash can in front of my house and retrieved a trade union flyer. I ran the mimeograph machine that produced flyers for the labor struggles in several area textile plants. Whenever I messed up–double-printing or otherwise marring the copy–I discarded my mistakes in the trash. I recognized one such reject flyer appended to a police report. Again, a week before the murders a couple of credentialed FBI agents visited a mill worker and asked her to identify people in photographs. Some of the pictures she was shown were of labor organizers who were assassinated several days later. The FBI agents, in fact, were investigating the Workers Viewpoint Organization which those organizers supported. Later, the FBI lied about having started such an investigation. â€œThe intended victims [of the Greensboro Massacre] were secretly targeted and surveilled for their political, not criminal penchants as labor organizers in companies with political and economic clout,â€ emphasizes Dr. Marty Nathan.
After the murderous attack on the anti-Klan rally, the widows, survivors, and those in the general population who tried to support them were the targets of ongoing political repression that included surveillance, wiretapping, break-ins, interference with the rights of free speech and free assembly, job firings, slander campaigns, and jailing for acts of civil disobedience done in protest of the injustices. Dr. Marty Nathan spent a month in jail for denouncing the Klan/Nazi trial as a sham. Once out of jail, when she tried to raise money for the Greensboro Justice Fund to do public education and to pay for a civil rights suit, she was followed around town. The people she talked to were contacted by the police, the SBI or the FBI and warned to stay away from her.
Similarly, my neighbor to one side of my house told me that he was visited by federal agents, while my neighbor across the street reported to me that police had set up a spying station at the window of an unused apartment in her rental house and were watching my house. I was not making bombs, robbing banks, or planning violence. The only â€œcrimeâ€ they could have been investigating me for was running my mouth, saying and writing what I believed, and exposing the crimes of officialdom. Most harassed in the period after the Greensboro Massacre was African American civil rights leader Nelson Johnson. One of the main organizers of the anti-Klan rally and one of those wounded in the Klan/Nazi attack, Johnson was repeatedly arrested and jailed. He was put under bond far larger than any of the Klan/ Nazi murderers. His â€œcrimeâ€ was being an articulate and inspiring leader who had fought for the rights of black and working people for many years. As Dr. Nathan says in protesting the USA PATRIOT Act, â€œIn light of the Greensboro Massacre, do we wish secret political police unleashed from the constraints of the Constitution?â€
In todayâ€™s climate, they are coming first for the Muslims and people who â€œlook Arab.â€ Recently, some 500-700 men were detained when they complied with an Immigration and Naturalization Service order to register in Southern California. Also, citing the USA Patriot Act as authorization, the FBI is trying to get colleges and universities to hand over personal information about all foreign students and faculty–and not even notify those involved. But resistance to these civil rights debacles is mounting. Thousands are demonstrating in protest, even more are questioning the legitimacy of authority that tells them to violate civil and human rights. Municipal resolutions in Syracuse and elsewhere oppose Bushâ€™s drive to war in Iraq. There really is something new on the horizon. Anti-war, civil rights, and human rights advocates and activists have difficult tasks before us. But we have already sprinted from the starting line. We must continue to expose the lies that are being used to rationalize the unjustifiable, and we must resist being shackled to a phony patriotism: surely, it is the truth seekers that are the real patriots and not the liars and manipulators.
In the uphill struggle for justice that followed the Greensboro Massacre citizens at the grassroots led by massacre survivors ultimately won a civil suit in 1985 when a jury found joint liability for wrongful death on the part of some Klan, Nazis and local police officers. It was a finding unprecedented in the history of American jurisprudence. And there is more sophistication on the part of progressive people and the general public today than there was back then.
Ultimately, we need to go beyond protest mode to the vision of democracy that we seek to fulfill. The squatter in the white house will not be squatting there forever. The Constitution with its Bill of Rights is not a bad beginning. What sort of society do we want? Because if we want it and we work for it now we may very well get it.
Signe Waller is an organic farmer, a Board member of the Greensboro Justice Fund, and the author of â€œLove and Revolution: A Political Memoir, Peopleâ€™s History of the Greensboro Massacre, its Setting and Aftermath,â€ Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.