Ten years of standing for liberty when our government won’t

Today, November 10, 2011, is a monumental day for the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Ten years ago today, a small group of activists gathered in Northampton, Massachusetts, to begin organizing against the just-passed USA PATRIOT Act. Their work resonated in their community and across the country, and together they founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

BORDC’s founding director, Nancy Talanian, wrote about that time in her foreword to the third edition of Terrorism and the Constitution:

After September 11, 2001, it was impossible for those familiar with the U.S. government’s history of overreaching in times of crisis not to recognize the patterns, as Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants were rounded up indiscriminately, the Justice Department’s surveillance powers were expanded through executive fiat, and Congress steamrolled passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in late October 2001.

Two weeks later, a small group of Northampton, Massachusetts, residents convened to consider the significance of the patriot Act and other ominous government actions….

When change inside the Washington Beltway seemed impossible, the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee formed to organize locally. In Northampton the group tested a strategy that has since been repeated in several hundred locales, involving local education and debate about federal policies, followed by passage of a city council resolution enabling the municipal government to take a stand—objecting to the civil liberties abuses of the “war on terror,” and telling local law enforcement not to infringe on locals’ constitutional rights even if the Patriot Act and other federal laws and policies might encourage them to do so.

Between 2001 and 2007, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee spearheaded a nationwide effort to oppose the PATRIOT Act. In the end, Bill of Rights resolutions were passed by 406 cities and towns, 8 states, and 89 labor unions, organizations, religious bodies, and campuses. These resolutions changed the debate around the PATRIOT Act and its reauthorization, including in Congress, where former Senator Larry Craig read the Idaho state resolution on the Senate floor.

Seeking to build upon this wildly successful resolution effort, we at BORDC worked to develop new local organizing platforms that would go beyond merely expressing a city’s beliefs to provide real, enforceable limits on government programs and policies that violate civil liberties and constitutional rights.

In 2009, we began this new phase, launching our Local Civil Rights Restoration and torture accountability campaigns. Today, these campaigns are underway in dozens of cities across the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and West Coast, with new coalitions forming all the time.

Though we are deeply disappointed that this work continues to be necessary, we are proud of what we have accomplished these last ten years working to protect and restore our most fundamental rights. And we are even more proud that you have stood with us in these efforts. We the People are the only thing that stands in the way of the continued destruction of civil liberties and constitutional rights, and we are honored to stand with you—today, and for as long as it takes to restore our nation to its ideals.

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and the history of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.

Add comment

Log in to post comments


Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Patriot Act was adopted WITHOUT public approval or vote just weeks after the events of 9/11. Such an unconstitutional set of laws should be abolished seeing as they violate human rights and due process. A mere 3 criminal charges of terrorism a year attributed to this act, which is mainly used for no-knock raids leading to drug-related arrests without proper cause for search and seizure. The laws are simply a means to spy on our own citizens and to detain and torture dissidents without trial or a right to council. You can read much more about living in this Orwellian society of fear and see my visual response to these measures on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten...

Dear Rights Friends, I haven't heard from you lately and want to know what is happening with the national movement to reestablish the supreme value of the BoR.
I firmly believe that the American people would supportr a mass movement of support, if they knew about the issue. Our frirnds read the paper, talk about issues and don't know much about Indefinite Detention.
I want action here in Santa Barbara, but don't know where to start.
Do you have activist suggestions? Article follows
All best, Peter G Cohen

The Constitution Attacked, Again!
By Peter G Cohen

After 220 years of defending our freedoms, you would think that the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, would be inviolable. They were written with care and amended by the states to protect our people from the excesses of government experienced under British rule. They were added to the new Constitution to reassure those liberty-loving Founders that the rule of law would prevail.

Last year, in preparing the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the House of Representatives included a section that allows the indefinite detention by the military of anyone suspected of supporting al-Qaida, the Taliban or associated forces. The act became law when signed by the President on New Year’s Eve.

When the nature of this section of the NDAA became known, civil libertarians were outraged. How could Constitutional amendments be changed by the Congress and the President bypassing the requirement to change the Constitution by amendment? The indefinite detention of suspects without charges, due process, or trial by jury, violates the first, fourth, fifth and sixth amendments.
What could be done to stop this unconstitutional law?

Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg and others filed a lawsuit against indefinite detention. It is noteworthy that this lawsuit was filed by individuals and not by the organizations established to defend our Constitutional rights.

On May 16th, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest blocked the implementation of indefinite detention on the grounds that “There is a strong public interest in protecting rights guaranteed by the First Amendment” and ensuring due process rights guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. She wrote that “it is the responsibility of our judicial system to protect the public from acts of Congress which infringe upon constitutional rights.” --Courthouse News Service, 5/16/12

But while freedom-loving people were celebrating Judge Forrest’s decision, the House repeated its violation of the Constitution by inserting indefinite detention into the NDAA, FY-2013. “Never mind that hundreds of terrorists have been locked up by civilian courts. Supporters of detention said that they were horrified that a police officer might read a terrorist a Miranda warning”. --New York Times Editorial, 5/19/2012

Both parties have members who believe that their constituents want them to clobber suspected terrorists. Without due process, some of those arrested would never be able to prove their innocence. Some may be “suspected” by hostile neighbors, political opponents or criticism of our government. When the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution by the amendment process, the new nation had just completed a long and painful war against the mighty British Empire. Still, the people were not so fearful as to deny basic human rights to those who might want to damage their new government. Al-Qaida is dispersed, Bin Laden is dead; are we still so fearful as to risk punishing the innocent and relinquishing the basic rights that we have been defending for over 200 years?

Peter G Cohen, artist-writer, is a veteran of W.W.II, a grandfather and peace activist. He is the author of nukefreeworld.com and other internet writings. Peter lives in Santa Barbara, where he can be reached at