By Nat Hentoff, July 2002 Issue
In Northampton, Massachusetts -- a nineteenth century center of abolition and the longtime home of Sojourner Truth -- some 400 citizens attended a town meeting on February 4 to organize a way to protect the residents of the town from the provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Thus was born the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
After petitions were distributed, along with persistent organizing, the Northampton City Council unanimously voted on May 2 in favor of a "Resolution to Defend the Bill of Rights" -- not only against the USA Patriot Act but also against subsequent Presidential executive orders, and actions by John Ashcroft, that "threaten key rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens and noncitizens by the Bill of Rights and the Massachusetts Constitution." Such as: "freedom of speech, assembly, and privacy; the right to counsel and due process in judicial proceedings; and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures."
To begin, the city of Northampton now asks that "federal and state law enforcement report to the local Human Rights Commission all local investigations undertaken under the Act and executive orders; and that the community's Congressional representatives actively monitor the implementation of the acts and orders and work to repeal those sections found to be unconstitutional."
Since many Massachusetts towns and cities have a robust percentage of active voters, it is not inconceivable that their passive representatives in Washington may well be moved to pay attention. In April, similar resolutions were passed in the nearby towns of Amherst and Leverett.
These Massachusetts patriots are, in effect, descendants of the Sons of Liberty who organized Committees of Correspondence against the British before the Revolutionary War. The industrious Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee informs me that "the city councils of Ann Arbor and Berkeley passed civil liberties resolutions in January," as did the Denver City Council in March. (For an account of this resistance to Bush and Ashcroft, go to the committee's web site at www.gjf.org/BORDC.)
On May 4, at the town of Leverett's 228th annual town meeting, a resolution defending the Bill of Rights was passed by a unanimous voice vote. Said resident Ann Ferguson: "I think we have a long legacy in New England of defending our civil liberties. This resolution extends that history into the present." At the meeting in Leverett, Don Ogden, who had initiated the resolution, noted that "it is truly Orwellian double-speak to call such unpatriotic efforts a 'patriot act.'"
And at the Amherst town meeting, where another such resolution passed unanimously, Anne Awad made a point that Ashcroft has shown himself incapable of understanding: "As members of the Select Board, we want to know that all residents and visitors to our town feel safe. We do not want to support profiling of particular types of people. If one group is viewed suspiciously today, another group will be added to the list tomorrow."
A week before I first heard from the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee, I was speaking at a meeting of journalists in Boston on some assaults on the Bill of Rights I've been chronicling in this column. One of the editors handed me an April 24 Associated Press report that surprised me: "Despite the fear of future terrorist attacks, a majority of Americans are unwilling to give up civil liberties in exchange for national security, according to a Michigan State University study. Nearly 55 percent of 1,488 people surveyed nationwide said they don't want to give up constitutional rights in the government's fight against terrorism." The poll showed that 66 percent "opposed government monitoring of telephone and e-mail conversations."
I am no longer surprised that the citizenry is awakening to that extent. But I am also not surprised that "60 percent of those surveyed said schoolteachers shouldn't be allowed to criticize U.S. anti-terrorism policies in class." There's a lot of work still to be done, and the Northampton patriots tell me they're hearing from sons and daughters of liberty in other towns and cities who are organizing defense committees for the Bill of Rights. That's what it's going to take.
Nat Hentoff is a columnist for the Village Voice.