MILWAUKEE – Hundreds of people here took part in five days of events last month to critically examine the USA Patriot Act and other threats to civil liberties. The Milwaukee Artist Resource Network organized the Dossier Project, which combined visual art, performance, music, and panels of experts and ordinary citizens.

At the Jan. 16 panel discussion, held in conjunction with Milwaukee’s Turner Hall and taped for broadcast on local public television, former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), known for his ultra-conservative views, joined Nadine Strossen, a law professor and national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, in opposing the Patriot Act.

Barr’s participation is emblematic of a wariness of government power crossing political boundaries. Defending the Patriot Act were U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic and FBI Special Agent David Mitchell.

Opponents noted that although the Patriot Act was supposed to prevent future terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, a joint inquiry of Congress has since admitted that 9/11 could have been prevented with already existing police powers. Biskupic said that parts of the Patriot Act were nevertheless useful for other purposes and credited it with helping to rescue a kidnap victim last year.

He said Congress should add “checks and balances,” but not repeal the entire Act. In his State of the Union Address last month, George W. Bush asked Congress to pass legislation to make the entire Patriot Act permanent.

Several times Mitchell or Biskupic warned audience members that stories they had heard about the Patriot Act were false, only to be rebutted by Strossen or Barr, who forced them to admit that yes, local law enforcement is on the lookout for people carrying almanacs. Yes, part of Patriot Act II was signed on the day Saddam Hussein was captured. No, the FBI no longer needs individualized suspicion to get a warrant to secretly search your house.

As participants debated whether law enforcement might use the Act to suppress political dissent, Strossen noted that Section 802 of the Act defined terrorism so broadly that it could cover civil disobedience. Mitchell responded, “We’re not interested today in everybody who goes and protests against a war.” But Strossen noted that Attorney General John Ashcroft had also weakened guidelines that prevented FBI spying on people not suspected of any crime.

An audience member later talked about how the “red squad” in Milwaukee had targeted Communists and their families, conspiring to get people fired from their jobs and conducting other dirty tricks. Mitchell answered that such operations could not go on today because of guidelines approved by Attorney General Edward Levi in 1976. An exasperated Strossen pointed out that “those are the guidelines that Ashcroft just repealed!”

Throughout the week’s various presentations, the event site exhibited relevant artworks by local artists. One, “The Carceral City,” provided a map of surveillance cameras directed at public spaces downtown and included dozens of images of city folk caught by these cameras. A disturbing presentation by the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre showed the cityscape overseen by grotesque rulers where all the foreign-looking people collapsed to the ground with the pull of a lever.

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