In October 2001, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act setting aside many
of our individual freedoms for the sake of fighting terrorism. Since
then, I've worried about what's happening to democracy.
Do we understand the threat USA PATRIOT poses to our civil liberties? Or
are we willing to give up our rights and freedoms in return for a
promise of safety, and shrug off the danger to democracy from an
I'm not worried anymore.
By last week, 132 cities and counties and three states had passed
resolutions stating their intention not to cooperate with some
provisions of USA PATRIOT. Elected office-holders in these communities
have publicly declared that they will not abide by federal laws and
orders that would compel them to accord the people in their jurisdiction
less than full rights and protections guaranteed to all persons in the
These resolutions have happened because of people who care about civil
liberties. Groups of citizens in each of these communities have
conducted public forums, met with elected office-holders, sought
endorsements, drafted resolution language, canvassed neighborhoods
getting signatures on petitions, given countless talks about threats to
the Bill of Rights, and brought out standing-room-only crowds for public
hearings and votes.
Who are these people who have convinced so many local lawmaking bodies
to openly oppose federal law?
If they're anything like the Bill of Rights Defense Committees in
Minneapolis and St. Paul, they are folks from all walks of life, all
income levels and all points on the political spectrum.
Teachers. Consultants. Environmentalists. People who voted for George
Bush. People who voted for Ralph Nader. Engineers. Unemployed people.
Civil rights attorneys. Minimum-wage workers. Retired persons. Students.
Supporters of the war on Iraq. People of faith. And a large minority
from the arts community, people to whom freedom of expression is as dear
as life itself.
And many, if not most, are involved for the first time in civil society
What they have in common is a conviction that the rights, freedoms and
protections guaranteed in the Constitution are at the very core of what
it means to be an American. They view the Bill of Rights as a precious
heritage from our ancestors who struggled for generations to ensure that
these freedoms would be for all people, not just a certain class. And
they are unwilling to part with these cherished rights and freedoms in
return for an empty promise of safety from terrorism.
As a participant in the Minneapolis Bill of Rights Defense Committee,
which successfully urged the Minneapolis City Council to pass a
resolution in April, I was interviewed for two recent mass-media stories
on this effort, one in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and one on National
Public Radio. In these and all other media coverage I've seen,
journalists have missed the real story by framing it as a contest between
proponents and opponents of USA PATRIOT.
The significance of resistance to USA PATRIOT and similar acts is not
who's 'right' and 'wrong' about how much they erode civil liberties, or
whether that erosion is justifiable.
The real story is that people in communities that now total more 16
million in population have persuaded their city councils to pass, often
unanimously or near-unanimously, resolutions in direct defiance of
federal legislation. And if the other cities and states with active
citizen groups urging similar resolutions also pass them, the total
number of people living in civil rights-protective communities could
rise to more than 45 million.
This is the real story -- that the Bush administration's efforts to
launch the most direct assault on individual rights and protections
since the Alien and Sedition Acts in the early days of our nation, have
sparked in response the most open and defiant assertion of local
democracy ever seen.
There's no doubt that as a society we take our freedom for granted. Most
of us likely could not recite all the rights guaranteed in the
Constitution. And there are many who never learned about those rights
and don't value them.
But this grassroots uprising in defense of the Bill of Rights involving
people in hundreds of communities and of all ages, careers and political
persuasions -- and the willingness of local and state elected
office-holders to stand up in opposition to federal efforts to curb
civil liberties -- convinces me that the Bill of Rights is still for
many, many Americans a living heritage worthy of immense effort to protect.
I know of nothing more hopeful than this for the future of democracy and
Betsy Barnum is a member of the Minneapolis Bill of Rights Defense
Committee and is also founder and executive director of the Great River
Earth Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She can be contacted at