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The Rights Violations Stop Here

Capital Region activists call for local efforts to protect citizens from the excesses of the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act

Since 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. Act.

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, 2001.

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.

“The 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 infringement.

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 terrorism-related investigations.

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.

“Instead 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 informed?”

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 resolutions.

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 communities.

“I 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 cause.

“One 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 far.”

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.

—Travis Durfee


Straight shooter: Leonard Morgenbesser. Photo by John Whipple

Firing Blanks

Concerned community members are baffled at the Albany Police Department’s apparent lack of interest in a citywide gun-violence taskforce

About 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.

“We 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 this.”

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.

“People 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 days.

“I 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.

“We’re 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.

“I 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.”

—T.D.


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