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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2002 / 5 Teves, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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Grassroots resistance to Ashcroft | The growing number of critics -- from liberals to conservatives -- of what they call John Ashcroft's war on the Bill of Rights -- now includes former Manhattan United States Attorney Mary Jo White. This tough prosecutor, during her term, indicted Osama bin Laden for the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and convicted more than 30 terrorists.

Speaking before the New York City Bar Association, she questioned -- as reported in the New York Daily News -- Ashcroft's policies such as detaining immigrants in secret proceedings. "Secrecy," she said, "is the enemy of democracy."

But most remarkable in the rising resistance around the nation to Ashcroft's far-reaching expansion of electronic surveillance -- and lowering of judicial supervision in some of his edicts -- is the ferment at the grassroots.

In February, some 300 teachers, lawyers, doctors, retirees, students and nurses in Northampton, Mass. formed the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Through the committee's Web site (, similar committees have formed nationwide. Now, 15 town or city councils -- from Takoma Park, Md. to Santa Fe, N.M. -- have passed resolutions by those local committees.

On Oct. 30, for example, Santa Fe's City Council enacted "a resolution supporting the Bill of Rights and civil liberties for Santa Feans." It instructs the city's Congressional delegation to "actively monitor the implementation of Ashcroft's USA Patriot Act, any new Executive Orders ... and actively work for the repeal of those portions that violate the guaranteed civil liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights."

Characteristic of most of these official disagreements with the attorney general is the Madison, Wis., City Council instruction that local police and prosecutors not be drawn into activities that threaten the constitutional rights of area residents -- such as random surveillance based on country of origin and fishing through library records to see what books people under vague suspicion of terrorist links are borrowing.

Simultaneously, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is engaged in a "Safe and Free Campaign," challenging many of Ashcroft's policies. The ACLU declares that, as part of this campaign, it will "work with dozens of communities around the country to go on the record against repressive legislation."

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, points out, "Local governments have the power to tell their law enforcement officers not to spy without evidence of crime. With the help of ACLU members and activists around the country, we will encourage them to say 'no' as strongly as possible to other violations of the Bill of Rights."

Already, because of the Northhampton, Mass., Bill of Rights Defense Committee's initiative, resolutions are being prepared for 40 other city, town and county councils in 24 states -- in addition to the 13 that have already passed official criticisms of the Justice Department's actions that diminish civil liberties.

The legacy of committees that defend the Bill of Rights now stems back to the pre-American Revolutionary Committees of Correspondence, initiated in Boston in 1767 by Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

In 1805, the impact of those committees was emphasized in Mercy Otis Warren's "History of the Rise and Progress and Termination of the American Revolution":

"Perhaps no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies, and the final acquisition of independence, as the establishment of Committees of Correspondence. This supported a chain of communication from New Hampshire to Georgia that produced unanimity and energy throughout the continent."

Through these committees, Sam Adams and other patriots reported on the assaults on Americans' liberties by the King, his ministers and his officers and governors in the colonies.

Now, largely through the Internet, contemporary Committees of Correspondence -- though not achieving "unanimity" among Americans -- are encouraging more citizens to question whether the Bush administration is indeed securing the liberties we are fighting to protect from the terrorists. As a high school student told the Madison, Wis., City Council: "We need to be more than passive observers of history, because the decisions made right now are our future."

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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