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Quiet, Please

Mechanicville public library cancels a citizens’ forum on war

All Cynthia Pooler wanted to do was hold a public discussion in her community on the possibilities of a war with Iraq. She didn’t think she’d have to seat them in her living room to do so.

Worried that their efforts were becoming too insular, peace activists in the town of Mechanicville wanted to hold a public dialogue on the Bush administration’s push for a war with Iraq. But the group, and the forum, were turned away first from the town library, then from a local restaurant, and then from a local church.

Pooler had cleared the event, titled A Citizens’ Forum on Iraq, with the Mechanicville Public Library about a month in advance. She and Maureen Aumand, a local peace activist with Women Against War who helped organize the event, had placed notices in a number of bars, restaurants and pizzerias throughout town, trying to pique residents’ interest.

But on the day of the event, Pooler said she received a call from a clerk at the library asking if the event was an antiwar meeting. She informed the clerk that it was an open discussion on issues related to war, and then was informed that the room that was scheduled to hold the meeting was named after a local veteran.

“They were kind of concerned that [the event] would be anti-veteran,” said Pooler, “but it was just a forum for people to articulate their interpretation of how this impending war is being presented to them.”

Pooler hung up the phone only to have it ring a few minutes later, when Sam Carabis, president of the library’s board of directors, informed her that the event would have to be canceled. Carabis said the library had received an anonymous phone call saying that 75 people from Albany were planning on attending the meeting. He explained to Pooler that the library couldn’t accommodate such a crowd, but Pooler said she found the president’s excuse for canceling the forum odd, since she hadn’t advertised it in Albany.

“I found that very curious,” Pooler said. “We had passed flyers around in Mechanicville and we sent an e-mail or two, but I have my doubts [about the 75 people]. I’m not saying that’s not the case, but I tend to be a little skeptical about it.”

Pooler arranged for a new meeting place, the End Zone restaurant, and notified the 13 people who’d expressed interest in attending the forum of the venue change. Pooler said the library agreed to direct anyone who showed up for the meeting to the End Zone.

Shortly after the discussion began at the restaurant, the group was again asked to find a new place for the forum. And as co-organizer Maureen Aumand explained, this time their ejection had nothing to do with the group of 75 from Albany, since they never showed up.

“We started to talk,” said Aumand, “and suddenly a man burst in and said, ‘What are you talking about? You can’t talk about this here. I have customers that are for this war.’”

As they left the restaurant, Carabis happened to be walking in, and he apologized to the group for the inconvenience. To the group of 13, he reiterated that the library would not have been able to accommodate the crowd of 75 expected from the phone call, and said the event’s cancellation was in no way due to the topic of the discussion.

Baffled, the group eventually met at Pooler’s apartment in Mechanicville and carried out the discussion in the exact setting they were trying to avoid.

“Our original concept for these forums was to avoid so much preaching to the choir,” said Aumand. “We wanted to have a way to reach out to the public and get more people involved.”

Evelyn Butrico, the library’s director, who was on vacation when the incident occurred, said Pooler’s interpretation of the veteran comment is representative of the entire evening’s events—misunderstood.

“It had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of the forum,” said Butrico. “The room is small and the maximum amount of people it could hold is 20. We got a call from someone saying they were going to bring 75 people from Albany. Could they have been lying? Yeah, absolutely. I think that hindsight is 20-20, and the person’s name and number was not taken. They could have called to get the reaction that they got and that is sad.”

Both parties said they have since discussed the incident and cleared the air. Butrico invited the group to hold another event at the library, but Aumand said enough people have expressed interest in the forum since the incident that they wouldn’t be able to fit in the Mechanicville Library.

“This certainly has served to raise the issue that we have to have public discourse on this issue,” Aumand said. “My only regret is that we didn’t start to do these things earlier.”

After hearing of the events in Mechanicville, Charles Woodman, a minister at the Stillwater United Church, offered his temple as a venue for the next forum, but when he brought the idea before his church’s governing body, they had other ideas.

“I checked with the [church’s] governing board, and they voted against it because they felt it would not be supportive of families sending troops to war,” said Woodman. “What a controversy that in a nation that says freedom of speech is so important, yet nobody wants to talk about going to war. . . . I grew up during the Vietnam War era, and I didn’t think we’d ever get back to a time when it was love your country or leave it—but I guess here we are.”

—Travis Durfee

Teri Currie

Malling Free Speech

More than 100 peace and free-speech advocates decended on the Crossgates Mall food court for lunch yesterday (March 5) in response to the trespassing arrest Tuesday of Stephen Downs, 61, of Selkirk. Downs and his son, 31-year-old Roger, each purchased and wore silk-screened T-shirts bearing peace slogans at the mall on Monday (March 3). When mall security asked them to remove their shirts, Downs refused and was then arrested for trespassing. Downs’ shirt bore the slogans “Peace on Earth” and “Give Peace a Chance.” As previously reported in Metroland [Newsfront, Jan. 9], Monday’s incident marks the second time in the last three months that Crossgates has asked shoppers wearing peace-related articles of clothing to leave its premises. Downs’ arrest has brought the mall’s policy to international notoriety, as the Associated Press, Rueters and a newspaper in the United Kingdom all called the Downs residence for comment on the story. Crossgates representatives have not released a statement regarding their policy.

Patriot Games: The Sequel

Leaked draft of the Justice Department’s latest plans to enhance homeland security has civil libertarians up in arms

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union took out full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Times to call attention to an apparently leaked draft of a Justice Department bill expanding the October 2001 USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act to allow even greater latitude in spying on, detaining and possibly deporting American citizens who are terrorist suspects.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has come under criticism since early last month when the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit corporation, posted the draft of a sequel to the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, on its Web site (it can now be read online at Marked “Confidential—Not for Distribution,” the Jan. 9 bill had been the object of rumors and subsequent denials of its existence by the Justice Department for weeks before being made public. The document alarmed civil libertarians, and last week the ACLU detailed its provisions in a high-profile advertising campaign. Among the key features of the draft:

• “Prohibition of Disclosure of Terrorism Investigation Detainee Information.” The Justice Department, which has already been assailed by critics for its tightlipped ways, would receive new powers to deny Freedom of Information requests on the status of those being held as suspected terrorists.

• “Distribution of ‘Worst Case Scenario’ Information.” This appears to be a blow aimed at the Clean Air Act, which mandates the EPA to require private companies that use potentially dangerous pollutants to prepare “worst-case scenario” reports describing the health risks of releasing these chemicals into the companies’ surrounding communities. A section of the act restricts FOIA requests for these documents to “read-only” methods for people who live in areas surrounding potentially hazardous industrial sites. In the draft, the DOJ attempts to justify the limitations on such FOIA requests by describing them as “a roadmap for terrorists.”

• “Terrorist Identification Database.” This would create a DNA database for suspected terrorists, citizens thought to have any association with terrorist groups, and noncitizens suspected of having aided terrorist groups.

• “Appropriate Remedies with Respect to Law Enforcement Surveillance Activities.” The DOJ proposes in this section to eliminate all state law-enforcement consent decrees before Sept. 11, 2001, unrelated to racial profiling or other civil-rights cases. This means, for example, that a wiretap could be placed on your phone for two weeks before a judge had to sign off on it, and would give state police agencies a free hand to spy on individuals and organizations. The DOJ contends that these consent orders, originally passed in response to police surveillance abuses, could hinder antiterrorism investigations.

• “Presumption for Pretrial Detention in Cases Involving Terrorism.” If the government thinks you’re a terrorist or affiliated with terrorists, this means jail without bail before trial. Of course, this happens routinely in serious criminal cases or where a suspect is considered a flight risk, but now even being suspected of a terrorism offense would be enough to land you behind bars.

• “Expatriation of Terrorists.” In what is probably the harshest provision of the bill, you, a U.S. citizen, could be banished from American soil with no rights of appeal if the government concludes that you were planning to relinquish your American citizenship by your suspected terrorist-related actions. No explicit declaration of any intent to do so would be needed: Uncle Sam could infer it from your actions and deport you. Even if your activities in a group labeled as a terrorist organization by the attorney general were entirely legal, you would still run this risk.

Responding to the furor created by the draft bill, the Justice Department released a statement on Feb. 7 saying in part, “We are continually asking our field prosecutors, investigators and experts what tools they need to prevent future acts of terrorism. During our internal deliberations, many ideas are considered, some are discarded and new ideas emerge in the process along with numerous discussion drafts. Department staff have not presented any final proposals to either the attorney general or the White House. It would be premature to speculate on any future decisions, particularly ideas or proposals that are still being discussed at staff levels.” Reached by telephone on Feb. 25, Justice Department spokeswoman Monica Goodling refused all comment on the matter, instead referring a caller to the Feb. 7 communiqué.

Asked for his views on the DOJ draft, U.S. Representative Michael McNulty (D-Green Island), who voted for the first P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, replied in an e-mail, “As we continue to deal with the new reality of terrorist threats, we must also be careful not to go too far and risk eroding the civil liberties which mean so much to all of us. I believe it is entirely premature to be suggesting alterations or additions to the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, and would examine any such proposals with great scrutiny.”

—Glenn Weiser

Ellel Descisciolo

Our Glass House

A handful of protestors took to the Knolls Atomic Power Plant in Niskayuna Saturday to conduct a citizens’ weapons inspection of the facility owned by Lockheed Martin, one of the largest weapons manufacturers in the United States. The group wanted to point out the hypocritical nature of American criticism of other nations holding weapons of mass destruction when we spend more on our “defense” budget than any other nation in the world. So does a local power plant have large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction? Go figure—the inspectors weren’t allowed to check.

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