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.