Prince George’s County defenders of civil liberties seek allies to rally resistance to the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act and seek its repeal

Prince George’s County, with a population very diverse in race, ethnicity and national origin, has a special responsibility to respond to the divisive and intrusive provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act.

That’s the 300-plus page enlargement of federal power to invade the privacy and violate the liberties of U.S. citizens and immigrants, legal and otherwise, under the guise of "Homeland Security." It was passed by a rattled and easily-stampeded Congress – probably unread by most members – in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Local grassroots activists have come together in the Prince George’s County Bill of Rights Defense Coalition to promote a County Council stand against the excesses of this law and its proposed expansions. We urge all Prince Georgians to act in the belief that, as the ACLU slogan goes, "we can be safe and free." We invite other organizations to join our coalition.

New threats limit everyone’s freedom

Under the USA PATRIOT Act and associated rules and executive orders, Attorney General John Ashcroft can:

These constitutional protections are not designed to shield persons who probably committed criminal acts. In those cases, probable cause for suspicion should – and can – be shown by traditional judicial procedures that keep law enforcement agents accountable. It is from casual and abusive exercises of government power that the Bill of Rights was designed to shield us.

And it may get worse. New legislative proposals from the Justice Department would allow administrative subpoenas that bypass the courts altogether and cut off certain federal funding from local governments that decline to participate in enforcing immigration laws. These need to be cut off at the pass.

Our rights now at risk include those based on:

First Amendment - free inquiry, expression, religion and assembly

Fourth Amendment - privacy against unwarranted searches and intrusions

Fifth Amendment - due process of law

Sixth Amendment - fair trials with aid of counsel and no unconcealed evidence

Eighth Amendment - no excessive bail nor cruel or unusual punishment

Fourteenth Amendment - equal protection of the law for all citizens and immigrants

The extraordinary reach of the USA PATRIOT Act extends well beyond the immediate victims – immigrants, especially those of Middle Eastern descent or appearance, plus all those who may share appearance or religious affiliation with them.

It affects all persons who use libraries, have health and bank records, or exercise their rights of free speech and association to criticize the policy of the current administration. Far-fetched, evidence-free accusations of remote connections with "terrorism" are being slapped on U.S. citizens, and that makes them liable to being labeled "enemy combatants."

Safety need not be compromised

Local governments, particularly in the national capital area, rightly must make sure their residents are protected against acts of terrorism – but not at the cost of freedom.

Legal scholars outside the government assert that all the legal tools – and more -- necessary to protect U.S. soil from terrorist attacks were on the books before the USA PATRIOT Act was passed. Evidence continues to accumulate from congressional and other investigations of the 9/11 attacks that bureaucratic bottlenecks and turf tangles within the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies were the real problem, not a lack of statutory powers.

By all means, let us have additional federal financial support for public safety efforts at all levels—but at the same time preserve the openness and checks and balances that keep law enforcement officials accountable for the use of their authority and resources.

You can see much more information and analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union— visit www.aclu.org and click on "Keep America safe and free."

This concerns our local community

These new threats are very much the business of the County Council, because the USA PATRIOT Act can intrude not only on individual liberties but on local governments’ public safety responsibilities, putting the work of local government officials and the resources they manage on behalf of taxpayers at risk. Federal agents can ask – and may sometimes require– local law enforcement officials to participate in rights-abridging activities. Local involvement with the new federal powers could increase reckless strategies of ethnic, racial and religious profiling in our community.

As Prince George’s County struggles to emerge from its long history of profiling and discriminatory misconduct by its police department, it should reject external attempts to reverse its progress toward equal justice.

Nor can the county afford to take on the burden of enforcing immigration laws, especially when its crime-fighting resources are already underfunded by a sputtering national economy. Harassing immigrants would in fact be counter-productive, for it would discourage their cooperation in solving ordinary crimes and thwarting any actual terrorist plots in our midst.

Local governments lead resistance

The unprecedented impact of the USA PATRIOT Act upon the lives of all of us has inspired a groundswell of resistance. Varied bipartisan measures have been introduced in Congress to roll back many of its provisions. They would limit surveillance authority and data-mining, restore freedom of expression and FOIA, regulate military tribunals and reorganize federal intelligence and law enforcement activity.

Ashcroft’s recent speaking tour to promote the act had to be limited to friendly audiences of law-enforcement officials while protesters thronged outside in many cities. Students, librarians and faith-based groups have mounted organized protests to counteract the climate of fear, suspicion and repression.

Former Vice President Al Gore, in a widely noted mid-November speech, declared that the rights violations this act engenders "have seriously damaged U.S. moral authority and goodwill around the world." He called for the re-enactment of its few good parts and the repeal of the rest.

Most significant for where this county’s Bill of Rights Defense Coalition fits in, more than 200 local governments and three states have registered official concern about the USA PATRIOT Act. They have passed resolutions, ordinances or letters lobbying for repeal of its unconstitutional provisions; in many cases, these documents direct local public safety officials not to voluntarily participate with federal law enforcement officials in actions that violate anyone’s civil liberties. To see the list and their texts compiled by the national Bill of Rights Defense Committee, visit www.bordc.org.

The Greenbelt City Council expressed the depth of resistance in October 2003 when it became the 205th jurisdiction to pass such an official document of concern. In their statement the council members point out that the act puts them "in a difficult position. We all have taken oaths to support the U.S. and State Constitutions. Provisions of the Patriot Act could force us to choose between enforcing a Federal law and defending constitutionally protected rights."

Greenbelt joined other Maryland jurisdictions Montgomery County, Baltimore city and Takoma Park in resisting the USA PATRIOT Act. Prince George’s County should follow suit. This highly diverse county need not step back from its goal of making diversity a rich asset by giving in to this climate of fear and division.

Local governments are the anchors of that best part of U.S. democracy that rises from the consent of the community. Please join fellow Prince Georgians in defending the constitutional rights of all our residents.

To learn more and join us, contact the Prince George’s County Bill of Rights Defense Coalition, www.justpeace-pgmd.org or the

ACLU of Maryland, www.aclu-md.org.

To voice your support of a strong county civil liberties resolution, write or call your district member of the Prince George’s County Council . See addresses and phone numbers at www.goprincegeorgescounty.com, link to "Government -- Legislative Branch."