Under this sweeping interpretation, a domestic terrorist could be anyone affiliated with Al-Qaeda - or the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (some of whom wound up on a Denver, Colorado police "spy list"), the right-wing Operation Rescue, the left-wing Amnesty International, or a politically neutral, green-card carrying resident. Did you attend the local anti-war march last month? Protest an abortion clinic? Have lunch with a friend from the Middle East? Smile. Your face could be on the government's candid camera.
"I'm concerned for local activists," said Denton. "They've been called terrorists. I feel paranoid. The word 'patriotism' has a new meaning. People have used that word in the sense that you must support our administration or our viewpoints or you're not American."
This paranoia has turned into a backlash against the Act that is whipping across the U.S. More than 50 cities have passed resolutions - some symbolic, others bearing more teeth - directing local governments to resist enforcing the Patriot Act. Dozens more, including San Antonio, are working on drafts to take to their City Councils.
"I think if people knew more about what was in this act and how it could affect them, they would be very worried," said Susan Ives, an organizer at the peaceCENTER and for Independent Allies, a coalition of groups of many political colors. "It opens the definition of what a terrorist is. Legitimate protest or computer hacking could be defined as a terrorist act. And the access it gives the federal government to our personal information is absolutely mind boggling."
Few paid attention when Congress passed the Patriot Act. It appears that Ashcroft was counting on Americans - shell-shocked just six weeks after the World Trade Center was attacked - to either acquiesce in the name of "patriotism" and "national security," or to ignore his dismantling of the Bill of Rights altogether.
The Patriot Act - and its yet-to-be-passed sequel, Patriot Act II - shreds the Constitution while resurrecting memories of the Red Scare hysteria of the '50s or the fervent nationalism that allowed the U.S. government to corral Japanese- and German-Americans in internment camps. Conversations can be monitored. Librarians can be silenced. U.S. citizens and immigrants can disappear - forever. There are 15 new crimes punishable by death. The government can create a DNA base of "suspected" terrorists. And no Freedom of Information Act can induce the government to disclose what it's up to.
In Texas, the Patriot Act has already affected immigrants, whose skin in any shade of brown casts suspicion on them, as well as American Arabs.
American-Arab Nicole Betters, whose father is Lebanese and mother is Italian, is starting a local chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (www.adc.org). "There is no voice for American Arabs," the 31-year-old lawyer said. "We need someone to stand up for us.
"Everyone's afraid," added Betters, who was born in Pittsburgh. "When I was a kid, other kids called us terrorists and sand niggers. I feel like I'm a kid again. But this time I've come into my own sense of being and this time I'm not going to keep quiet."
| What's at stake with the Patriot Act
To read a draft of San Antonio's resolution, go to www.sacurrent.com.
For more information on Patriot Acts I and II, other cities' resolutions, and organizing local efforts against this legislation, see the following Web sites:
Seven Stories Press has published a new book about the Patriot Act, Silencing Political Dissent by Nancy Chang, with a foreword by Howard Zinn. To order the $10 book, go to www.sevenstories.com or visit your favorite bookseller - if you dare.
The group plans to protest a March 21 deadline that requires all Saudi and Pakistani, male non-citizens 16 and older to register with immigration officials, or be deported. "Somebody needs to go in with these people and advocate for them during registration," Betters explained. "A lot of times, these people bring their wives and children to registration, go inside, disappear, and leave their families behind."
One of those desaparecidos - to use a phrase from mid-'70s, Chile, when thousands of dissenters and citizens forever vanished - is a man whom Betters recently visited in Comal County Jail. The man, a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport, had been in jail without an attorney or any outside contact for almost three weeks.
The man, a legal resident of Canada for 10 years, had overstayed his U.S. visitor visa by six months, said attorney Henry Cruz of the Political Asylum Project in Austin. Cruz declined to name the man, based on attorney-client privilege, and the Comal County Jail couldn't find his name.
Police arrested the man and an Iranian friend in a shopping center parking lot near Blanco, Cruz said, after following their car, which had a burned-out taillight. After questioning the men, Immigration and Naturalization Service showed up and sent the men to jail - Jordanian to Comal County and the Iranian to Guadalupe County. The Iranian has reportedly been deported, but the Jordanian remains in jail on $20,000 bond. "The fact that he's still detained is a result of the Patriot Act," said Cruz, who is trying to convince immigration officials to send his client to Canada. It was only by chance that Cruz learned of the Jordanian man's predicament - via a letter from another inmate about the large number of immigrants that had been detained there.
Some Texas libraries and booksellers are taking drastic steps to avoid unnecessary government meddling. Although the American Booksellers Association opposes the Patriot Act's requirements, several local bookstores contacted by the Current weren't aware of the Patriot Act. However, one manager, Susanna Narwrocki of Twig, knew that the feds could seize her sales records anytime, only because they suspect one of her customers was a "terrorist."
"As a bookseller I find it distressing that there would be such broad power of the government to look into people's reading habits," Narwrocki said. "I understand where they're coming from, but they need to find another way to deal with the problem."
The San Antonio Public Library, also subject to the Patriot Act, "obeys the law," said public relations manager Beth Graham. "The question hasn't come up" within the library board, but Graham mistakenly believed that Texas law superseded the Patriot Act in protecting the library from the feds.
That's not true, according to Gloria Meraz, communications director of the Texas Library Association (TLA). With a warrant or a court order based on suspicion, not cause, the Patriot Act trumps all. "We are very concerned about the great potential to limit privacy and affect library patrons," Meraz explained. "We encourage our members to obey the law, but to protect privacy of patrons we ask libraries to look at recordkeeping schedules."
In other words, some Texas libraries destroy their logs everyday; the San Antonio Library does not.
Librarians are also forbidden from disclosing if a patron's record has been seized or is being monitored. "That is distressing," Meraz added. "The TLA is monitoring the execution of the Patriot Act. One of the things so difficult for the library community is that so much of the law is undefined. We hope the provisions are interpreted narrowly rather than broadly."
These unconstitutional breaches prompted Patrick Filyk, local attorney and member of the San Antonio Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, to draft a resolution against the Patriot Act. He plans to garner support from local, grassroots social justice organizations and present it to City Council within the next few months.
"The resolution is very innocuous," Filyk said. "It asks that when the federal government asks us to help them not to trample on citizens' rights. It's an affirmation of Constitutional rights and basic American principles." The resolution asks City officials to refrain from several activities without probable cause, including the following:
• Collecting information about political, religious or social views of any person or group;
• Using video surveillance on people if they are participating in constitutionally protected activities, such as political rallies, protests, or religious services;
• Stopping drivers or pedestrians and asking for identification or documents. The resolution also asks:
• That police notify the subject of a search before searching his or her property;
• That public schools and universities inform people whose education records have been seized by law enforcement;
• That libraries post a notice that patrons' records can be obtained by the feds;
• That the City Manager periodically report to the Council about federal government surveillance activities, arrests, and search warrants.
Although Filyk said that he "couldn't see how anybody couldn't agree with it," he noted that the conservative political climate in San Antonio might force activists to present it to Council after the May 3 election.
District 7 Councilman Julián Castro, who is running for re-election, is one of the representatives Filyk might ask to sponsor the resolution. Castro told the Current that he finds the Patriot Act "worrisome." "From what I understand, it lowers the threshold for government monitoring and prosecution for folks. We need to remind officers what people's constitutional rights are and the boundaries we have to respect. My question would be what the gap is going to be between the local agency and federal government. It merits public discussion."
If elected, Patti Radle, who is running in District 5, could vote on a resolution later this year. "The Patriot Act is frightening and of concern," she said. "As a City Council representative, I take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. So, if there is something that interferes with our Constitutional rights, it would be my responsibility to speak and act against it."
Undoing the Patriot Act will require more than the cooperation of local government. Most likely, change will come from the courts and legislatures, said the ACLU's Mike White. "It will take a long time to undo this," he said. "It's a question of how much will the people take before they start to fight back, until the sentiment changes in the courts -and the courts are slower than the people."
And for those citizens who fight back, there could be dire consequences: searches, interrogations, jail time, expatriation. Much like the Red Scares, Palmer Raids, and other past Constitutional abridgements, Americans will look back on this time with shame. •