Rights Violations Stop Here
Region activists call for local efforts to protect citizens
from the excesses of the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act
it was passed in October 2001, the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act’s
numerous amendments to our country’s Bill of Rights has angered
and frustrated many. Now, rumor of a sequel has motivated
local civil libertarians to take action.
On Feb. 24, a dozen citizens from a handful of Capital Region
cities met at the Albany Public Library to discuss plans for
educating their communities about the importance of civil
liberties and passing legislative protection from the P.A.T.R.I.O.T.
The USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, which stands for Uniting and Strengthening
America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept
and Obstruct Terrorism, was created by U.S. Attorney General
John Ashcroft and the Department of Justice, and was hastily
passed by Congress shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11,
The law gave federal investigators new, far-reaching powers
of surveillance—making it easier to employ wiretaps and conduct
home searches without a warrant, and monitor the library and
Internet activities of persons suspected of terrorist inclinations.
But many civil libertarians say the legislation goes too far,
leaving the definitions for who can be spied on all but open-ended,
and undermining the principals on which our nation was founded.
name makes it sound like it has some connection to increased
security,” said Heidi Siegfried, interim director of the New
York Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Region chapter, “but
there is no big connection between the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act,
these civil-liberty infringements and increased security.”
Siegfried was one of a number of speakers at a forum on civil
liberties and the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act held by Women Against
War on Feb. 12. The event focused on threats to basic American
rights on the domestic front of the president’s war on terror,
and how other communities were dealing with such issues. From
that forum spawned new groups of concerned citizens attempting
to put their local governments on record regarding civil-liberty
As previously reported in Metroland [Newsfront, Jan.
9], citizens groups and common councils from a number of cities
nationwide have passed resolutions directing their local law
enforcement to protect the rights of local citizens when conducting
These resolutions typically ask law enforcement to protect
the local citizenry from unreasonable search and seizure,
and to grant the rights to counsel and due process. Some of
the resolutions go as far as directing local law enforcement
not to participate in federal terrorism-related investigations,
but mostly the communities have simply asked to be kept informed.
of having all this secrecy to combat terrorism,” said Dan
Van Riper, an Albany resident who attended the meeting, “why
not have some openness, have people informed. Isn’t it in
the security interests of the community to have the community
The idea of protecting these rights has been embraced outside
the nation’s typically liberal metropolises; governing bodies
in cities as varied as Chicago, Fairbanks, Ala., Flagstaff,
Ariz. and Missoula, Mont. have all passed civil-liberties
The group in Albany took its lead from the Bill of Rights
Defense Committee, a group based in Northampton, Mass., offering
suggestions and directing grassroots groups nationwide how
to create these resolutions through its Web site, www.bordc.org.
The group lays out strategic steps and planning stages for
others trying to stop civil-liberties encroachments in their
think working at the local level is the only place the P.A.T.R.I.O.T.
Act will be opposed,” said Barry Finley, a Scotia resident
who attended the meeting. “The federal government is getting
much too much power, and we may not get these rights back
if we don’t put up a fight.”
While the initial P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act gave investigators the
ability to intrude on a number of civil rights, critics fear
a second, follow-up piece of legislation—the Domestic Security
Enhancement Act—will take care of whatever was missed by the
first. Though the enhancement act has not been before Congress,
a draft copy of the legislation was leaked earlier this month,
and word of its contents quickly spread through the Internet.
According to a copy of draft posted on the Center for Public
Integrity’s Web site, www.publicintegrity.org, the proposed
new laws would include the authorization of a DNA database
for the broadly defined term “suspected terrorist” and would
allow the federal government to expatriate, or take away an
individual’s citizenship, should that person be involved with
a group designated as a “terrorist organization,” a term also
broadly defined by the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act.
As president of the Albany Common Council, Helen Desfosses
spoke at the Feb. 12 P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act forum. Having not
seen a specific piece of legislation, Desfosses could not
say whether the Albany Common Council would adopt such a measure,
but she was aware of the group of civil libertarians trying
to bring the issue forward and expressed sympathy for their
of the deepest ironies [of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act] is that
our classic American liberties are being abridged in the name
of protecting our liberty,” said Desfosses. “I think that
when we feel threatened as a nation it is always difficult
to find a proper balance of security and freedom. We know,
unfortunately, from American history that we tend to go too
The civil-liberties group’s next public meeting will be March
12 at 6:30 PM in the Albany Public Library’s conference room
on the second floor.
shooter: Leonard Morgenbesser.
Photo by John Whipple
community members are baffled at the Albany Police Department’s
apparent lack of interest in a citywide gun-violence taskforce
a dozen of the 30 people who attended the Albany Common Council’s
Public Safety Committee meeting on Feb. 20 expressed interest
in helping form a citywide or regionwide gun-violence taskforce.
Some of them left surprised when representatives from Albany’s
Office of Public Safety said local police were already doing
all they could.
Though the details of a proposed gun-violence taskforce are
still being hashed out in the committee, Ward 1 Alderman Dominick
Calsolaro, who introduced the proposal, would like to facilitate
a community-based approach to the problem of gun violence
in the city. Calsolaro wants to see local law enforcement,
citizens and civic groups meeting on a regular basis and employing
a variety of tactics for lessening gun violence throughout
Albany. But during the public discussion on the proposal,
the Albany Police Department had other ideas.
do not have a taskforce dealing specifically with gun violence,”
said Albany Police Chief Robert Wolfgang, “but we do have
regional partnerships with other organizations that work on
Wolfgang said the city police work with the FBI, the bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Drug Enforcement
Agency on the gun violence that he characterized as a regional
problem. Wolfgang said he is not opposed to a gun-violence
taskforce within the city, but does not want to duplicate
efforts the police department is already engaged in, further
stretching its resources.
Public Safety Commissioner John Nielsen, who spoke with Wolfgang,
said that his organization and the police already work with
a number of community organizations on issues related to gun
violence. But Alderwoman Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2), a member
of the Public Safety Committee, interrupted the commissioner’s
testimony, saying that she saw things a little differently.
don’t know that the police department is doing all of this,
otherwise the community wouldn’t be here,” McLaughlin said.
“We have an opportunity to take this [gun-violence taskforce]
and make it something positive, something tangible.”
One of the community members who spoke at last week’s meeting
was Leonard Morgenbesser, an Albany resident, who over the
past two years has turned the Common Council’s public-comment
period into his own forum for discussing gun violence.
Though he acknowledges that his methodology is far from scientific,
Morgenbesser has clipped articles from the Times Union
and Daily Gazette tracking reported incidences of gun
violence within the Albany city limits. From Sept. 19, 2002,
to Feb. 13 of this year, Morgenbesser has counted 43 cases
of gun-related violence in the city—roughly one every three
lived here 30 years and don’t ever remember reading about
this level of gun involvement,” Morgenbesser said. “Nobody’s
proven that this gun-violence taskforce will hurt things,
so I say to continue with this is long overdue.”
Isla Roona is a director at Albany’s Social Capital Development
Corporation, a nonprofit civic organization that takes alternative
approaches to dealing with crime. Roona said she was interested
in the formation of a taskforce that would try to stop gun
violence from a more social, preventative side.
not going to arrest ourselves out of this problem,” Roona
said. “Although I don’t agree with Nielsen’s approach, I think
law enforcement is doing a lot of things. But we need to think
more about prevention, and how different groups, churches,
nonprofits and neighborhood associations can be involved.”
Calsolaro said he was pleased that the taskforce seemed to
be embraced by local citizens, churches and civic groups,
as public participation at the committee meeting evidenced,
but was surprised that the public safety commissioner and
police chief didn’t accept it with open arms.
was hoping the police department would have been a bit more
supportive,” Calsolaro said. “If so many residents of Albany
are coming out, it speaks volumes about the concern in the
public. Something needs to be done, and I hope the police
department saw this and will take another look at the issue.”