BOSTON – Over a thousand people took a detour from going to work or class on Sept. 9 to protest a visit from Attorney General John Ashcroft to historic Faneuil Hall where he held an invitation-only meeting to sell the USA Patriot Act.

Ashcroft’s 16-city tour, which he started last month, is in response to widespread criticism the Act has received. Over 150 communities and three states – Alaska, Vermont and Hawaii – have passed resolutions blasting the Patriot Act and its antidemocratic provisions. Seven communities have passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions since the start of his tour.

The day after the demonstration, Boston City Council members Chuck Turner, Felix Arroyo and Charles Yancy introduced a resolution calling for repeal of sections of the Act. Turner called the protesters “the real patriots.” Some of the protesters said they hadn’t known about the hastily called demonstration but saw it from the windows of their offices and decided to join it.

The attorney general’s tour comes at a crucial time, especially in light of his proposed amendments to expand the repressive law’s scope. Popularly known as “Patriot Act II,” Ashcroft’s amendments would free police officers from prosecution for illegal searches if they are “following orders.” It would permit the suspension of the right of habeas corpus. U.S. citizens, native or foreign-born, could be deprived of citizenship by the Justice Department. It would permit wiretaps and reading of e-mail without judicial oversight. It would create a gigantic “Terrorist Identification Database” that would be shielded from judicial review.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) told the protesters that “because of activities like this [protest], the tide is turning.” He said more members of Congress, including Republicans, are “against [the law’s] expansion” and lean “even towards repealing it.”

The owner of the Harvard Bookstore, Frank Kramer, said the Patriot Act gives the government the power “to search bookstore or library records … including [of] people who are not suspected of committing a crime or of having any knowledge of a crime.” He added that the decision to get records is made “by a secret court in a closed proceeding” and that the “order contains a gag provision forbidding a bookseller or librarian from alerting anyone including a lawyer to the fact a search has occurred.”

Margaret L. Judd, director of the Middlebourough Public Library and past president of the Massachusetts Library Association, said, “Sections of the Patriot Act are a present danger.” She said the law “threatens[s] civil rights and liberties” because “suppression of ideas undermines a democratic society.” She said librarians are looking at keeping minimal records so as to have almost nothing to give to the authorities except what books are out at the moment.

Ashcroft’s Justice Department has targeted immigrants in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, detaining over 1,000 without charges. Elena Letona, executive director of Centro Presente in Cambridge, said that immigrants “come to the United States escaping the very conditions that the USA Patriot Act now legitimizes. … It is racist and unjust to equate immigrants with terrorists.” She said today’s immigrants “come to the United States escaping war, hunger and persecution” and come “to build, not destroy.”

Susan Akram of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee followed Letona’s lead in condemning attacks on immigrants, especially Arabs and Muslims.

Michael Avery, of the National Lawyers Guild, said that Faneuil Hall “is the cradle of liberty” (the hall was the site of protests against the British during colonial times), but that Ashcroft was here for a “funeral” for democratic rights. Loud applause greeted Avery’s denunciation of Bush’s request for $87 billion for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called it “the biggest welfare program for Halliburton.”

Felix Arroyo, the first Puerto Rican member of the Boston City Council, said we are living in “the Dark Ages” with the Patriot Act. He said the law “appears to sanction guilt by association for certain ethnic and religious groups and for recent immigrants.”

After speaking to about 200 law enforcement officials, prosecutors and politicians, for about 30 minutes, Ashcroft left for New York City, the next leg of his tour, where he was also met with protests. Ashcroft’s tour stops have been closed to the public.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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