WASHINGTON – About 1,500 members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) applauded June 11 as ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero vowed a fightback against the Bush administration’s “far-reaching assault on our Constitutional rights, using the war on terrorism as a convenient smokescreen.”

Romero spoke at the ACLU’s first membership conference in its 83-year history, a four-day gathering at the Omni-Shoreham Hotel and on Capitol Hill where, on June 12, delegates visited their senators and representatives to demand that they protect the Bill of Rights.

Romero recalled the ACLU’s role in fighting the infamous Palmer Raids at the end of World War I when thousands of innocent immigrants were deported, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s followed by the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list.

Now, Romero warned, “Our freedoms are under attack as never before and we have to fight back as never before … Today we are battling against an insatiable appetite for power on the part of [Attorney General John] Ashcroft and others in the administration. At the same time we are also battling against the timidity, the reticence, the complicity, of many Democrats who sit quietly as our fundamental freedoms are eroded.”

He assailed George W. Bush and Ashcroft for whipping up religious and national chauvinism against people of color and for seeking to roll back affirmative action in a case against the University of Michigan now before the Supreme Court.

Romero cited a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General which accuses Ashcroft of misuse of power in detaining 762 immigrants. “Many people with no connection to terrorism were made to languish in jail for months … The Justice Department, in other words, turned the war on terror into a war on immigrants.”

The crowd listened politely when FBI Director Robert Mueller III told them that protecting civil liberties is the “core mission” of the FBI and Justice Department. But they peppered Mueller with questions about the Bush administration’s witchhunt. Summing up the reaction, Romero said, “At the end of the day, none of our key concerns were assuaged.”

Dana Textoris, Ohio ACLU education director, led a delegation of 40 Ohio high school youth lobbying against Patriot Acts I and II. “These acts are a travesty,” she told the World during an interview in the House Longworth Building. “Arab Americans have been subjected to racial profiling and unjust detentions. Right now, we are in the same climate we were in when the ACLU was founded in the 1920s. It is time for the American people to reaffirm their commitment to the Bill of Rights. Every candidate in the 2004 election must be challenged to stand up for these principles that are the foundation of our country.”

Patrice Webb is an ACLU “9/11” organizer responsible for a dozen states including Florida. Last year, she worked for a woman who ran for a House seat against Republican Katherine Harris in the Sunshine State. “It was a conflict of interest for Katherine Harris to be Florida Secretary of State and a candidate for Congress at the same time,” Webb said. “But then it was a conflict of interest for her to be chairperson of George W. Bush’s Florida campaign while she was in that position. Her grandfather owned the Tropicana orange juice company. Maybe that explains it. She made the decision not to recount the votes in the 2000 presidential election. It shows just how far they will go to deny us our voting rights. That right is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment but we must still fight to preserve it.”

The conference high point was the awarding of the first ACLU Muhammad Ali Champion of Liberty Award to the heavyweight champion. “This award honors Muhammad Ali for what may have been the toughest fight of his career: being stripped of the World Heavyweight Title and prosecuted for draft evasion in 1967 after refusing on religious grounds to fight in the Vietnam War,” said Romero.

The Supreme Court in 1971 reversed Ali’s conviction for draft evasion. His title was restored.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com