EUGENE, Ore. -- Hope Marston keeps the seeds of revolution in four plastic crates stacked on the planked floor of her overcrowded bungalow here at the southern edge of this left-leaning college town.
There are pamphlets and petitions, news stories and political analyses, all part of Marston's battle against what she sees as the excesses of the USA Patriot Act, a sweeping federal law enacted after last year's terrorist attacks that broadens the government's ability to use secret searches, wiretaps and other covert surveillance techniques in the pursuit of terrorists.
While the law's defenders say average citizens have nothing to fear, civil libertarians like Marston believe the law opens the door for government agents to resume the kind of domestic spying that flourished under J. Edgar Hoover, when affiliation with radical ideas was enough to get someone a place in the FBI's secret files.
"We don't know how many people have had their homes searched, or their library or bookstore records checked," said Marston, a part-time secretary who launched the Eugene campaign after reading about similar efforts elsewhere. "People were amazed that there was something they could do locally."
Under pressure from a campaign that drew together liberals and Libertarians, Democrats and even a few Republicans, the Eugene City Council recently joined a growing list of local governments calling for a full or partial repeal of the Patriot Act, part of a nascent nationwide effort organizers hope will persuade Congress to undo the law.
Last week, city councils in Sebastopol, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, and Burlington, Vt., joined with their own resolutions, and activists are busy in Pasadena, Santa Barbara and at least eight other California communities.
The campaign began in November 2001 in Northampton, Mass., although the first cities to pass resolutions were Ann Arbor, Mich., and Denver, said Nancy Talanian, one of the Massachusetts organizers. So far, 17 cities have passed resolutions, and campaigns are underway in at least 50 cities in 25 states.
Organizers hope that by marshaling the voices of locally elected officials, they can better pressure Congress.
"Resolutions passed by elected local leaders carry a lot more weight than letters from individual citizens," Talanian said.
Still, the resolutions are largely symbolic, as local governments have no authority over federal laws or issues. The campaign echoes the grass-roots efforts of a generation ago in which local groups lobbied cities to declare themselves nuclear-free zones, a largely symbolic show of hands of those opposing the development, use, transport and storage of nuclear weapons.
"The most important aspect is to build a national consortium, a groundswell, and by making these somewhat symbolic resolutions cities are taking a stand," said Brian Michaels, a Eugene attorney who helped draft the local resolution. "You do what you can to slow these things down."
The resolutions differ from place to place, each tailored to local political concerns. But most call for the federal government to reveal what local acts they've taken under the USA Patriot Act, and demand that Congress either repeal the law or revoke some of its elements allowing domestic spying.
In Eugene, home to the University of Oregon and a cross-section of liberal political groups, the City Council added its own spin by ordering no city resources -- people or money -- be used to assist in "unconstitutional activities."
It's unclear whether that means Eugene police will reject requests for help by federal agents, though the department was one of several last year that refused to cooperate with a federal sweep of 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent.
Since the unanimous vote, City Council members have fielded e-mails and phone calls from people -- mostly from outside Eugene -- deriding the decision as unpatriotic.
"Some of them said, 'Now we know where Al Qaeda is hiding: in the City Hall,' " said Councilwoman Betty Taylor, who introduced the measure. "But then we got some that said we made them proud to be American."
Marston said she was pleased by the breadth of the campaign's support locally.
"They are people who want to defend freedom, and it crossed the political spectrum," Marston said. "We have people who are way on the right saying we want to catch bad guys, too, but we don't want to be spied on in the process."
The pivotal vote on the eight-member council came from Gary Pape, a self-described pro-business, conservative Republican whose support set the stage for the City Council's unanimous vote. Pape said he took little notice when Congress passed the Patriot Act but became troubled by some of its elements after Marston's group began lobbying for the resolution.
"It's overly broad, overbearing and overly intrusive," said Pape, adding that he had not read the entire 342-page act -- and doubts that many federal legislators did either. "I've reviewed parts of it that deserve some real scrutiny.... Parts of it need to get into court, where they are more skilled and adept at constitutional issues than city councils."
At the heart of the challenge are elements of the USA Patriot Act that grant federal investigators wide latitude in "foreign intelligence surveillance."
That authority was backed last month by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, which overturned a ruling that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was using the Patriot Act to improperly broaden the FBI's spying abilities.
Under the act, federal investigators can secretly enter homes, plant wiretaps, search computers and take other investigative steps if they believe someone is connected with foreign terrorists. The act also makes it illegal for anyone who has been served a warrant under the act -- such as bookstore owners or librarians -- from talking about it.
"I'm glad I live in a city where we have spoken up against it," said Jeremy Nissel, co-owner with his wife of J. Michaels Books in downtown Eugene. "It's a bad law."
His wife, Linda Ellis, described the local vote as "an act of courage," and disputed that it could be viewed as unpatriotic.
"There are as many flags on cars in Eugene as there are in New York City or Downey," Ellis said, adding that post-attack emotions might have clouded Congress' judgment. "We feel like we have to rubber-stamp everything because of the things that happened in New York City and internationally. And I think that's a very dangerous thing."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times