President George W. Bush signed into law the PATRIOT Act ten years ago this past Wednesday. To mark this anniversary, the ACLU of Southern California held a discussion in its Los Angeles headquarters about the grave dangers that the legislation presents and the ways to overcome them.
Acting as moderator, Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, described the PATRIOT Act as no less than the greatest threat to civil liberties facing our nation. Ostensibly enacted to protect us, the PATRIOT Act, he said, is a landmark attack on the Bill of Rights and, in effect, destroys our Constitution.
The personal stories of those affected provide the most concrete examples of how the PATRIOT Act has affected ordinary people. Ameena Qazi, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Los Angeles, recounted some of the experiences of her clients who were subjected to surveillance, racial profiling, and arrest because of their religious or political beliefs. Remarkably, throughout their ordeals, her clients asserted that they too were Americans, that they had come to this country to be free. Sadly, she pointed out, the PATRIOT Act has torn apart the sacred trust between the Muslim community and the government by contributing to fear mongering and islamophobia.
The PATRIOT Act was part of a broader shift toward secrecy that was made possible by capitalizing on and perpetuating fear. Ahilan Arulanantham, Deputy Director of the ACLU of Southern California, explained how the PATRIOT Act worked in tandem with other oppressive policies such as “National Security Letters” to obtain vast numbers of records about the private lives of individuals. Simultaneously, an extensive bureaucracy that is kept secret from the public was created to process these records. Even leaving aside the civil liberties issues, he pointed out, the efficacy of these measures is questionable. For instance, while more than 190,000 National Security Letters were issued between 2003 and 2006, only one has led to a terrorism-related conviction.
George Friday, BORDC's national field organizer, explained that the best way to push back against the surveillance state is to build links across communities. For far too long cultural norms have existed that have kept us separate, effectively limiting the power of We the People. Organizing at the grass-roots level is needed to demystify the myths and lies that maintain distrust amongst communities. Communities can then work together to effect change locally. To do so, she pointed out, activists can utilize the BORDC's organizing toolkit to pass local legislation to restore the rule of law and raise rights above the federal floor.