Foes organizing in communities
More than two centuries ago, the patriots of Brewster shut down the Colonial courts on Cape Cod in one of the first acts of resistance against the tyrannical rule of King George III.
Now, deliberately evoking its Revolutionary history, Brewster Town Meeting has formally condemned the antiterrorist USA Patriot Act, united against the laws of a different leader named George.
While the act is largely symbolic — federal law enforcement agencies, not local governments, enforce the Patriot Act’s new search, seizure, and detention provisions — the grass-roots opposition has forged an unlikely alliance of people angry at Washington’s domestic handling of the war on terror. In Brewster, anger at the Patriot Act has drawn together libertarians, an antitax group, and a Unitarian congregation, as well as a more traditional coalition of civil libertarians and antiwar activists.
A similar story has already played out in 16 Massachusetts communities, and 16 more, including Salem, Waltham, Watertown, Gloucester, Beverly, and Bedford are preparing measures against the Patriot Act this spring.
Opponents of the antiterrorism measure say the nascent bipartisan groundswell in communities across the nation signals a growing dissatisfaction with the expansion of federal powers — and will reshape the national debate if it continues to accelerate with support from disparate groups, from gun owners to librarians to fiscal conservatives.
The burgeoning nationwide movement has prompted three state governments, and 236 communities in 37 states, to pass resolutions against the Patriot Act. If the backlash continues to grow, opponents of the Patriot Act believe, their momentum will force Congress and the White House to address some of the law’s unpopular elements.
“If anyone takes time to read the Patriot Act, there’s no question that our First Amendment rights are being eroded,” said James Geisler, treasurer of the Brewster Taxpayers Association, a 52-year-old group whose mission is to curtail government spending.
His family has been Republican “for a hundred years,” Geisler said. But it was loyalty to the Constitution, not party politics, that drove the Taxpayers Association’s board of directors to support the ultimately popular Brewster resolution.
Across the Commonwealth, Republicans, gun lobbyists, and libertarians have taken up the call against the Patriot Act. So have a cadre of previously apolitical people such as Jake Beal, 25, a self-described computer nerd who is now leading the drive for a resolution against the Patriot Act in Somerville.
“It’s the first political issue I’ve taken an active stand in,” said Beal, an MIT graduate student who characterizes himself as a conservative Democrat.
He was spurred to action after hearing the sheriff in his hometown of Portland, Maine, describe the federal government’s new powers at a forum one year ago. The sheriff said immigration officials took a detainee suspected of terrorist activity to an undisclosed location and never told the detainee’s family — or local law enforcement officials — where the suspect was taken or what charges he faced.
The Somerville group has collected 1,200 petition signatures and said the City Council is likely to consider the measure next month.
“These local efforts will build up the pressure nationally,” Beal said. “Wouldn’t you like to live in a community where you know that nobody is going to get `disappeared’ by the federal government?”
Local resolutions aren’t the only vehicle of grass-roots fervor.
Dozens of Commonwealth libraries have purged lending records — or stopped keeping them — to protect patrons from federal agents newly empowered to monitor their reading habits.
“What people read is their own business, and as professional librarians we don’t feel it’s appropriate to share that information,” said Ann Montgomery Smith, librarian at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and president of the Massachusetts Conference of Chief Librarians of Public Higher Educational Institutions.
At her university library, Smith changed the computer system so that lending records are erased as soon as a book is returned.
The US Department of Justice says that such alarm over the Patriot Act is unfounded. Attorney General John Ashcroft, in Boston in September on a nationwide speaking tour to rally support for the legislation, said critics misrepresent the law.
Federal law enforcement officials in Massachusetts have said that they rarely, if ever, use the most controversial provisions of the act — such as the measure allowing federal agents to secretly subpoena library records, or “sneak-and-peek” warrants that allow investigators to conduct a secret search.
Those assertions have done little to allay the increasing anxiety over the Patriot Act, which in New England has drawn in equal measures on strains of Yankee independence, social libertarianism, and liberal progressivism.
In New Hampshire last week, the Legislature began debating a bill to nullify the Patriot Act, sponsored by four Republican representatives who see the legislation as part of a larger trend of federal law overwhelming the independence of states.
The Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union is quietly paving the way for a statewide resolution, said Nancy Murray, who follows the issue for the union. Murray said that as more and more municipalities pass resolutions, state lawmakers will be compelled to follow suit. Alice Weiss, 62, began the petition drive that led to Brewster’s resolution. She found that people she considered politically conservative quickly made it a common cause once they read the Patriot Act. It was after a session in the library studying the text of the bill with Weiss that the conservative Taxpayers Union secretary decided to back the anti-Patriot Act campaign.
“This is not a liberal town,” Weiss said. “I was amazed at the support we got.”