Putting "Us" in the USA Patriot Act 

A New Group Steps Up to Stop Civil Liberty Violations

When the USA Patriot Act stormed through the U.S. Congress 18 months ago, very few people objected. The Act swings the door open for federal agents to tap phone lines, check library records, and take unprecedented inroads to individuals' privacy--all in the name of fighting terrorism.

But now, as the reality and scope of allowances for federal agents have settled in, residents and city councils around the country are beginning to stand up for their rights, and against the Patriot Act. Yet, in the rush to protect local civil liberties noticeably absent from the fray is Portland's city council.

Already, 89 city councils--including Eugene and Corvallis--have endorsed a resolution that curbs federal powers. The strongest such city code was passed in March in Arcata, California. It imposes a $57 fine against city council members who voluntarily comply with the Patriot Act or any request for information by federal agents.

In addition to city councils, the entire state of Hawaii is trying to coordinate similar counter-measures; last week the state senate introduced a bill opposing the Patriot Act. Proponents say that the large Japanese-American population there--many with memories of World War II internment camps--prompted sincere concern about forced detentions. The proposed law would prohibit any state funding for policing activities under the Patriot Act, such as using local jails to hold immigrants or suspected terrorists.

But so far, the Portland City Council, once a harbinger for liberal ideals, has reacted with benign indifference. Although city council has yet to vote or even comment on the measure, it is this silence that is causing a grassroots effort to force the issue into public debate.

Since last winter, the Portland Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) has been trying to mount a campaign for city council to introduce an anti-Patriot Act resolution. But so far, they've made little headway.

"I'm unsure that we've ever heard a direct explanatory objection," says organizer Christopher Frankonis. "We've just been told by those we've spoken with [at city council], that introduction doesn't seem likely at this point."

But it's hard to know exactly where to pin blame for Portland's failure to join the ranks of city councils that are standing up for civil rights. Although BORDC has begun to host meetings at Red & Black Café every Thursday, it was not until last week that members from the group officially met with a representative from city hall. Last Friday, BORDC representatives met with Bob Durston, a staff member for council member Erik Sten.

Unfortunately, the only promise given at that meeting was for more waiting.

In January, Sten introduced an anti-war resolution to city council. Ultimately, that resolution failed and became a sore point with many anti-war protesters. Durston said that Sten was wary to quickly introduce a resolution that could meet a similar fate.

"The fact that [the anti-war resolution] failed," said Durston, "sent the opposite message from what [Sten] was hoping for." Moreover, Durston recognizes that an anti-USA Patriot Act resolution has real legal implications, unlike the anti-war resolution, which was entirely symbolic. "The legal implications aren't completely clear," he said. "We'd really have to roll up our sleeves and do some research." (On the contrary, city council members from Arcata claimed they know the resolution may violate current federal law and place them in a constitutional battle with Attorney General John Ashcroft. But, in a front page Washington Post article last week, they said it is a fight they want.)

Other city council members said they were only vaguely aware that the idea for such a resolution was being floated. Council member Jim Francesconi's office said they had received several postcards supporting the resolution last week, but have heard very little vigorous lobbying.

The BORDC meets every Thursday at the Red & Black Café, 2138 SE Division, 7 pm. For more information, check out portland-or.bordc.org.

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