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Not at liberty Big Brother turns PATRIOT


When Americans talk about "the usual suspects," the reference comes with a built-in nudge and wink. It's like what has happened to the once-threatening accusation "politically incorrect" --- a phrase now so transparently ironic, even Sgt. Joe Friday would crack a smile.

            When the going gets rough, though, America can be humorless, even merciless. In the post-9/11 world, some people become not just usual, but inevitable and perpetual suspects.

            The federal government continues to arm law enforcement and intelligence operatives with new, controversial legal tools. Best known are the USA PATRIOT Act and the as-yet-unlegislated package known as "PATRIOT Act II."

            People also express fear --- occasionally with an ironic smile --- about Acts III, IV, or more on the way. But across the political spectrum, they're speaking out and fighting back pre-emptively.

The USA PATRIOT Act --- in full, the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" law --- was passed in October 2001. Debate before passage was short and shallow. Some of the law's provisions will "sunset" at the end of 2005, but they could be made permanent for the endless "war on terrorism."

            According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Act includes "sweeping new powers" that threaten a good chunk of the Bill of Rights. True, in many respects the Act only codifies past practices. But it does give government agents new powers of surveillance (via internet as well as phone-taps, etc.), unprecedented access to financial and medical records, and wider discretion to investigate citizens' activities without "probable cause." Worst of all, the law can allow "non-citizens to be jailed... on mere suspicion" or "detained indefinitely... without meaningful judicial review," the ACLU notes.

            Thousands of immigrants have been "interrogated" without evidence of wrongdoing, says the ACLU. And "thousands of men, mostly of Arab and South Asian origin, have been held in secretive federal custody for weeks and months, sometimes without any charges."

            If you like the PATRIOT Act, you'd love "PATRIOT Act II," a proposal technically called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act. A draft of this Act, which had been circulating quietly in the Bush administration, surfaced early this year. Commentator Bill Moyers dealt with it at length on his PBS show in February. He got a response from the Justice Department assuring him that no final decisions had been made, and that "deliberations are always undertaken with the strongest commitment to our Constitution and civil liberties."

            Still, PATRIOT II is one to watch. The Washington-based Friends Committee on National Legislation fears it would widen government surveillance powers even further. It could establish "new crimes" related to nonviolent political activity imaginatively linked to terrorism, and it might even allow targeted individuals to be stripped of their US citizenship on doubtful grounds, says the group.

            Bush and his allies may not get everything on their wish-list. But under their influence, authorities already are using extraordinary means to harass and intimidate individuals and groups.

            For evidence of this, look at two sets of events that occurred in Rochester on or about December 10 --- ironically, International Human Rights Day.

The evening of December 9, scores of people stood outside Rochester City Hall, many of them holding lit candles as points of warmth in the 40-degree air.

            Some glitch had disabled the sound system, and for a moment it seemed people were hesitant to continue. But soon, one by one, they began reading sections of a long document. Police stood in the background; the uniformed and plainclothes officers acted with restraint, yet they sometimes spoke to each other loudly enough to make the readings hard to follow.

            Led by the local Alliance for Democracy and the Genesee Valley ACLU, the gathering was built around the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Like the US Constitution, the Declaration --- adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948 --- enumerates rights like freedom of speech, religion, peaceful assembly, due process, and equal protection under law. (It also speaks at length of economic rights, on which the US Constitution is silent.)

            The Declaration speaks directly to things like the PATRIOT Act, which was the focus of a program following the City Hall gathering. "In the exercise of his rights and freedoms," says the Declaration, "everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law [for] meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society" (emphasis added).

            Inspired by this language, many organizations are in effect enacting the Universal Declaration by agitating against the PATRIOT Act specifically.

            Here in Rochester, the ACLU chapter, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the local League of Women Voters, and other groups, are promoting a new resolution to be put before Rochester City Council. This, says ACLU director Barbara Williams de Leeuw, can add teeth to the "memorializing" items (essentially letters) and legislative proposals that city councilmembers and county legislators reviewed last spring.

            The new resolution calls for limiting local police involvement in the surveillance of immigrants and public events; and it envisions the posting of "warning" signs about library-record surveillance, and so forth. The text also asks city council to obtain relevant information from federal authorities about search warrants issued here, and about government requests for school, library, and medical records.

            "We're trying to gather 10,000 signatures," says de Leeuw. "Our stand is that [government officials] had the information they needed on the World Trade Center terrorists. We don't need more of these things to catch terrorists."

            Are the PATRIOT Act and related measures actually affecting local people? The ACLU office, says de Leeuw, has fielded calls from outlying counties about police becoming too "zealous." But how about the city of Rochester? "We really have a fortunate situation here," she says, largely because of Chief Robert Duffy's personal feelings about people's right to protest.

The FBI spent International Human Rights Day doing its own thing in Rochester.

            In coordination with the US Postal Service and other entities, FBI agents sprang raids on a half-dozen grocery stores and other locations in the city December 10.

            All the raids targeted Yemeni-Americans. Agents walked off with computers, paperwork, and personal possessions. The investigation continues; agents reportedly are tracking money some local Yemeni-Americans have been remitting to Yemen via a third-party "handler." A federal customs official told News 10NBC: "What we're afraid of is that the money leaving is going to hurt citizens of the United States along with US military abroad."

            Arrests may or may not follow --- all eyes are on previous raids, arrests, and sentences in the case of Yemenis in Lackawanna, near Buffalo --- but FBI actions here have produced immediate and negative effects. And some local Yemeni-American store owners and managers are willing to detail these effects. (The Yemenis we interviewed are all US citizens; they are not connected to the stores that were raided. At least 75 stores in the city are Yemeni-owned.)

            "We know each other from back home," says city resident Abdalaziz Alshaibi. "Everyone is sending money back home." The amount "depends on how much we make," he says. A typical remittance, he and others say, is $500 or $600.

            Indeed, many Yemenis who came to Rochester emphasized that they came to the US precisely because it's possible to make money here. "It's hard to make money back home," says Walid Shaibi, a young store manager. But that's not the whole story, says Alex Saeed: "It's also freedom."

            "I have seven children back home and my wife," says Abdulla Ali, who heads the Yemeni-American Cultural Association. Ali adds that he's been trying for a year to bring his family to Rochester --- in vain, because of red tape. But he persists. "I'm looking for a better life in the United States," he says. "I'll never go back [to Yemen]."

            The Yemeni community here numbers 300 to 400, a tenth the size of the Yemeni population in the Buffalo area. Yemenis came to Lackawanna and Buffalo two generations ago to work in the then-busy steel industry; many of their descendants have remained there long after the mills were shut down. By contrast, most Yemenis in Rochester came in the 1990s and have gravitated toward convenience stores.

            Though they're aware of what's happening across the US, local Yemenis think it's odd they've been singled out here. "We have a good relationship with the [city] police, with the Chief and the officers," says Abdulla Ali. Store owners, he says, have had productive meetings with City Hall officials, too, including Mayor Bill Johnson.

But Yemenis aren't the only "others" here who've become targets of official opportunity.

            Some background in brief: In November 2001, a new law created the Transportation Security Administration within the federal DOT. Connected to the equally new Department of Homeland Security, the TSA was put in charge of airport passenger screening. Among other things, the TSA began developing "non-discriminatory government-approved criteria for identifying passengers who require additional security." So far, so good.

            But one Pittsford resident, 31-year old software consultant Asif Iqbal, is wondering about the "non-discriminatory" part.

            Iqbal, who grew up in Pakistan, studied at the University of Texas, and has lived in the US for a decade, says he's been pulled aside numerous times while trying to board aircraft. And since his livelihood depends on business travel, the delays are no small inconvenience. He believes he's singled out because he's got the same name as someone locked up at Guantanamo Bay.

            "I travel a little more frequently than other people," says Iqbal. "I've had a series of meetings with the TSA [but] am getting a lot of red tape." In one meeting, he says, a TSA official offhandedly suggested he could solve the problem by changing his name. "I don't know if he was kidding," Iqbal says.

            Washington-based TSA spokesperson Amy von Walter says the TSA doesn't have information about any Guantanamo detainees. But, she says, "if someone is on the 'no-fly' list, they're a known or potential threat to civil aviation." Anyone who succeeds in getting a boarding pass is not on the list, she maintains.

            If travelers experience any problem, says von Walter, they can contact the TSA ombudsman at 866-289-9673. She says a new "CAPPS II" protocol (Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening) is due out "sometime next year." The system, she says, should be able to sort out names that cause confusion at the gate. "It can separate Joe Smith 1 from Joe Smith 2," she says.

            In the meantime, Asif Iqbal has enlisted local advocates.

            "You have a constitutional right to travel" unless you've committed a crime or constitute an actual threat, says ACLU counsel Scott Forsyth, who's familiar with Iqbal's case.

            Forsyth says he's worried about "the storing and retention of information well past its usefulness."

Some on the political right have aimed their rhetorical guns at recent abuses of civil liberties.

            Old-line conservative icons like New York Timesman William Safire have decried government abuse of power in the aftermath of 9/11. (In November 2001, Safire said the Bush administration was bent on deploying "dictatorial power" against aliens charged with terrorism.)

            Local conservatives are worried, too.

            "I never felt a connection to the left till September 12," says Steve Healey, founder of the Libertarian Party of Monroe County, which took part in the November 9 demonstration at City Hall. "George Bush has been the ACLU's best recruiting tool," says Healey. Conservatism used to be about "small government and individual rights," he says. "If one is a law-abiding citizen, what can one expect?" Healey asks. He wonders if people who write letters-to-the editor critical of government policies will be "hassled at the borders."

            Libertarian Party members here aren't organizing actively against the PATRIOT Act, says Healey. But the Party will focus on civil liberties at a dinner planned for January 21, he says.

            Libertarians nationally are on the same page. The movement's flagship publication, Reason magazine, recently named US Attorney General John Ashcroft one of its 35 "Heroes of Freedom." The tongue was firmly in cheek: Ashcroft, says the magazine, was honored because he's helped create "an unprecedented coalition of conservatives, liberals, and libertarians around a single noble cause: the protection of civil liberties."

            Some observers have wondered how Ashcroft-style law enforcement will affect movements far removed from any "terrorist threat." And the level of wonderment is increasing after recent street battles in Miami, Florida, during events related to the "Free Trade Area of the Americas."

            In that case, the protesters were diverse --- young "anti-corporate globalization" activists, proponents of "fair trade," labor union rank-and-file members, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and so forth. Plans called for nonviolent marches and street theater. But according to numerous media reports, the Miami police behaved as if an insurrection were breaking out.

            On one day during the protests, said a CNN report, "parts of downtown Miami resembled a police state." Protesters charge the police used provocative control methods and resorted to outright brutality. In a response printed in the Miami Herald, police chief John Timoney charged the AFL-CIO had invited "avowed troublemakers" to town. Legal action against many arrestees is pending, and a nationally coordinated defense committee is up and running.

            Some Rochesterians were in the thick of the dramatic events in Miami.

            Dawn Zuppelli was there as a member of Rochester Indymedia, a democratically-run alternative news outlet. (See for image galleries of Miami street action; the images show the effects of the liberal use of police batons.) "At one point," says Zuppelli, "I was trying to leave and the [Miami] cops were surrounding people, corralling, getting closer and closer... I tried to get out." Someone asked for her press credentials, she says, and that led to her getting away. "There were so many [obvious] 'undercovers' among us," she says. The provocateurs, she says, were stealing cameras from New York City Indymedia and others.

            "Miami was by far the most police repression that I've ever seen," says local Indymedia member Ben Dean by e-mail. "I've gone to a few of these actions before, and Miami blew them all away in terms of police violence... I think that Miami represents a dramatic shift in the way the government is going to treat protests; many officials are talking about using the 'Miami model' for upcoming events."

            Nonetheless, Dean says the protests accomplished a great deal. His description of these accomplishments sounds much like what's been said about George Bush and John Ashcroft as unintentional "organizing tools."

            "Everyone I've talked to," says Dean, "tells me the police tactics made them more determined to fight against the neoliberal agenda. I've certainly been putting much more energy into activism since then."