A Long Winter Ahead For American Dissent

Jonathan Leaning

Attorney General
John Ash- croft’s recent statement that anybody who criticizes the
administration’s crackdown on civil liberties is “aiding terrorists” does not
bode well for the future of healthy dissent.

The abolition,
suffragist, and civil rights movements all started small, but grew to transform
America for the better, steering society towards more democratic and humane
ways. But reduced civil liberties, suspicion, and sweeping anti-terrorist
legislation could muzzle this vital and unique tradition of American political

Many grassroots
groups that we work with in Boston and across New England are already feeling
the pinch. Outspoken proponents of peaceful alternatives to the war are being
branded as unpatriotic and, in some cases, receiving violent threats. Locally,
the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization with branches in
Boston and throughout New England, has received “anthrax” letters and death
threats in response to their peace activities. In Hartford, anti-war activists
were stunned by the virulence of the police reaction to their October 25 rally
and the out-of-proportion penalties that 18 of the protesters received.

Even community
groups not directly related with the peace movement have been targeted. On
November 8, Boston’s Abortion Access Project and hundreds of pro-choice groups
and clinics nationwide received letters filled with white powder. Though they
were hoaxes, the effects have been destructive, the message ominous.

Nowhere has the
impact been more devastating than among immigrant groups and communities. The
ongoing harassment of residents of Arabic descent has been widely reported, and
as one Massachusetts immigrant activist noted, “many Americans associate
immigrants with terrorists, regardless of where they come from.” News of over
1,100 people detained with no legal recourse, new secret military tribunals, and
plans for new INS police to hunt down immigrants is sending shock waves through
most immigrant communities. The recent requirement that non-citizens carry
identification documentation at all times strangely parallels the similar
requirement made of Jews, gays, lesbians and Gypsies in 1933 in Nazi Germany.

Human rights
advocates and community groups across New England are finding that immigrants,
whether Arab, Latin American, South Asian or African, must grapple with much
higher levels of intimidation and uncertainty. In the current atmosphere, the
simple act of going outside, let alone confronting abuse, entails the
possibility of being physically or verbally assaulted. Somali girls were
recently attacked in a Boston high school because they were wearing Muslim
headdresses. Latino youth are afraid of being mistakenly rounded up in a police
dragnet operation because they look “Arabic.” With immigrants already struggling
with labor exploitation, racial harassment, and civil rights violations, this
new situation sets the stage for increased abuse and tragedy. As one
Hartford-based Cambodian war refugee grimly noted, “This doesn’t look like
America any more.”

The ripple
effects of this new situation are spreading beyond immigrant communities. The
USA Patriot Act, which allows wiretaps, surveillance, “sneak and peak” house
searches, and preventative arrests, raises up the specter of past abuses of
ordinary American citizens. Four decades ago, under the guise of “protecting
national security,” the FBI resorted to wiretapping, surveillance, threats and
media manipulation to destabilize the civil rights, gay- lesbian, and peace
movements. Many community organizers worry that the Patriot Act could similarly
pave the way for the harassment of any group, which incurs the wrath of the
political establishment.

At a time of job
layoffs and budget slashing, poor communities, contingent workers and women who
no longer have welfare benefits will be the first to feel the brunt of the
economic and political crisis. More than ever, they need to organize to defend
their rights, and they need strong community groups to organize with them.


Leaning is with Boston’s Haymarket Peoples Fund.