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A Crass Act

Maybe it was the only crowd that could be counted on to sit still and not ask questions. Around two hundred law-enforcement officials served as audience for Attorney General John Ashcroft’s visit to Detroit last week. Ashcroft’s visit to the city was part of his cross-country charm offensive for the Patriot Act.

It was an ozone action day, haze blanketed the city, and people who just last week had no gas at all were asked to wait till night to fuel their cars. Inside Cobo Hall, the drinking fountains were still shut off from the blackout-induced boil-water advisory.

The mayor had just declared a state of emergency in Detroit (in hopes of qualifying for disaster relief funds), but no one was talking about that.

Police of every stripe, some in white dress uniforms, others all in black with knee-high boots, milled around until Ashcroft arrived and they were told to sit.

Two rows of chairs were set up on the stage and officers were called by name to come and take their seats as multicultural (and multijurisdictional) wallpaper for the Ashcroft address. High-tech, see-through glass teleprompters were set up on each side of the podium, and the press corps stood at attention.

Jeffrey Collins, U.S. attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District, introduced Ashcroft with glowing and mystical language. “For his strength of character as the nation’s top law enforcement official I applaud him, generations yet unborn applaud him. . . . And now let’s give him a warm Detroit welcome . . .” It sounded like a revival meeting.

Ashcroft heaped praise on the cops, calling them heroes. Ashcroft said their cooperation in transmitting evidence is helping to win the War on Terror. He called them soldiers in the front lines of the War on Terror. He didn’t mention recent reports by the Detroit Free Press that the Detroit Police Department has more fatal shootings and has paid out more in settlements per capita than any other major police department. This pattern actually forced a Justice Department investigation of the Detroit police and the creation of a court-supervised consent decree intended to remedy the pattern of abuse.

Detroit is among the 154 municipalities that have passed civil-liberties defense resolutions and instructed local police not to comply with unconstitutional orders stemming from the Patriot Act. Ashcroft didn’t mention this either.

In soothing tones he read from the prompters . . . intoning “terrorist” as if he were saying “bogey man,” with hate, vigor and fear.

As Ashcroft preached, “Hallowed by the blood of innocents” . . . “vow” . . . “consecrated land,” one man shouted out, “Tell them how you are using people’s fear to create a police state. Which one of your terrorists will you use for the next 9/11?”

Hundreds of police turned and looked at the disrupter. A fat man in a suit with walkie-talkie began moving quickly to the protester, but Ashcroft called him off.

“That’s the great thing about America,” Ashcroft said. “Freedom of speech, everyone has a right to an opinion, but, we don’t necessarily value every opinion, especially those which are infirm in substantial ways.”

The disrupter slowly walked out, wishing Ashcroft a nice tour, and the speech concluded.

“We will finish the work we began on September 11th,” said Ashcroft. That work includes detentions, privacy invasions, and the consolidation of police forces. The police were led in a round of applause, and then they were dismissed.

There were no questions.

Reporters scrambled to get some responses from the police, but no one seemed to want to comment. A city police spokesman in gray suit and 9/11 pin was mobbed by camera people. His eyes looked glazed over. “Aren’t you concerned that people’s rights are being violated?” asked a TV news reporter. “What about people being held without charges by military tribunals?” No reason for concern, the man said calmly, staring off into the distance.

Outside, Ashcroft’s disrupter had joined a wider demonstration. Members of the Blue Triangle Network, the Raging Grannies, union members and peace groups called for an end to the Patriot Act, war, racial profiling, and corporate dominance.

From the bright light of the world outside the tightly scripted press event, the Ashcroft appearance seemed surreal. He seemed like the Wizard of Oz, surrounded by flags and prompters. Even in the company of the region’s top police, there seemed to be no security. Police didn’t even check the bags of those attending this conference. It seemed anyone could have thrown a pie in his face.

Detroit is a city that leads the nation in police abuse. With the largest population of Arabic speakers outside the Middle East and a major international border crossing, the city has experienced profiling, detentions, and other crushing effects of Ashcroft’s policies. This is on top of Detroit’s failing infrastructure; the city has shut off water to thousands of people who can’t pay their bills. On Aug. 14, when the power went out, millions of people around Detroit were without electricity or water for days, and emergency services were totally underprepared.

The nation’s top cop didn’t mention any of this on the Detroit stop of his tour, only his love for President Bush and the law-enforcement community.

The emperor wears no clothes and he doesn’t dare speak in public.

—Eartha Melzer


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