BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA June 2004
As America prepares for its November presidential election, civil rights are turning their attention to the raft of new laws brought in to fight terror after the September 11th acts. Central to these are the politically named USA Patriot Act which gives intelligence agencies new powers to keep watch on American citizens. It has been condemned as dragging America back into it dark modern history – when the FBI was used to itimidate suspected communists and anti-war protesters.
Jacky Griffin is not the sort of person you want to cross. Large, elegant, with close cropped hair, she speaks with the confidence of youth and enormous intellect.
She has a bulky bag slung around her shoulders, bumping against her as she strides across to meet me. It is full of books, and if anyone messes with books, they get Jacky’s wrath.
‘An FBI agent would not be welcome here,’ she says, standing in the lobby of the cavernous library in Berkeley, California. She’s its director.
The Berkeley City Council, in time-honored fashion for this counter-culture community, has decided not to obey George W Bush’s Patriot Act should the FBI try to impose it here.
The law was passed in a rush after the September 11th attacks in an attempt to give intelligence agencies more anti-terror powers. They can check most things about your life without you knowing – including, for example, your laundry bills or pizza orders.
They could for example sub-poena Jacky Griffin to release details of all the books I had checked out in recent months and from my reading habits deduce whether or not I am a threat to security.
For Jacky that would be breaking her librarian’s code of practice. ‘All of this is secret,’ says Jacky. ‘All the courts operate in secret. The subpoenas are done in secret and any librarian who is approached is not allowed to talk about it under penalty of going to jail.’
With her is Linda Maio, a soft-spoken city councilor who technically is Jacky’s boss. ‘But couldn’t the city stand behind you on this,’ she says ‘and defend you…’
Jacky cuts her off. ‘I’m not a lawyer, but my guess is that I would be rotting in jail while you and the FBI are arguing it out in court.’
Since 2001, the FBI has issued thousands of special warrants to carry out surveillance and get personal records from hospitals, libraries and other institutions. Under the Patriot Act, Jacky Griffin is even banned from telling anybody that the warrant has been issued.
Four states – Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont, and more than 300 towns — have passed resolutions against it, although now, the Justice Department is looking to introduce a Patriot Act Two which would be even tougher, and George Bush says he plans to make it an election issue.
But it’s also quite possible a Democrat government wouldn’t change it. Mary de La Rosa is a young lawyer who was working on similar legislation for Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. ‘The Patriot Act isn’t a sea change,’ she said. ‘It’s an incremental change. A lot of the powers existed before. They’re just easier to use. The old security laws were written before there was an internet and cell phone. So we’ve been playing catch up. It’s not the law that’s the problem, it’s that not enough is known about it.’
Which means that if it is to be repealed, most likely is won’t be the democrat opposition leading the charge.
Nor will it be that vast swathe of the heartland, where the streets of every small town are lined with fluttering American flags. In between Berkeley and Washington, I dropped by the town of Alliance, Nebraska, with a population of about ten thousand.
‘We all support the Patriot Act here,’ said Wally Baird, the city manager. ‘And we watch out for any strangers coming into town.’ As he was speaking a young woman in jeans and denim jacket, her haired tied decisively back, got out her four wheel drive and came across. ‘I think it’s right,’ she said. ‘Terrorism has gone too far overboard and I will give up some of my freedoms to know that I am safe.’
The City Hall in Berkeley is named after the Black rights activist Martin Luther King. The snack bar at the near-by University of California is called the Freedom of Speech Movement Café with its walls covered in huge black and white photographs of civil rights campaigns.
The university believes that activist movements are created when Congress and the Supreme Court fail to do their jobs of keeping the White House in check. The Patriot Act is an example.
‘This is much more dangerous than the other periods,’ says Robert Schechtman, a 35-year-old student of German studies, who was instrumental in passing the University’s resolution against the law. ‘One of the early things Hitler did was to create a separate court system that was responsible only to him. And with the Patriot Act and the military tribunals we have a separate legal system in the United States now which completely goes around the checks and balances that our system of government was founded on.’
A few days later I ended up in the Arab quarter of Brooklyn, where stories are plentiful about harassment of the Arab-Muslim community. The talk isn’t only about Guantanemo Bay, but also about young men disappearing for weeks on end, forced deportations, and people being hauled in for questioning for speaking out of line.
They talk in detail about Section 215 – the bit which deals with personal records, and of the Metropolitan Corrections Facility on the corner of 29th Street and Third Avenue, where you can be held without trial and access to lawyers.
‘I don’t know what’s happening to this country,’ said Ihab Tabir, a Brooklyn immigration lawyer who is originally from Jordan. ‘If you say anything against what is happening in Iraq, you can be arrested. You cannot speak openly on the street anymore. I tell you, everyone is afraid.’