USA Patriot Act: An Attack to All Our Rights

Since the horrific September 11th terrorist attacks, the US government has carried out the most significant encroachment on our democratic rights in decades. The passage of the USA Patriot Act, along with other new repressive legislation, represents a large extension of the power of the state, particularly the executive branch.

The Patriot Act is a major assault on the legal rights of immigrants, subjecting them to the threat of surveillance and arrest. It minimizes judicial supervision of law enforcement authorities’ surveillance of telephone and internet use in anti-terrorism investigations, as well as in criminal investigations unrelated to terrorism. It creates a broad new definition of “domestic terrorism,” which could be used against anti-globalization and labor activists. These are just some aspects of the bill (See the previous issue of Justice and websites listed at the end of the article for a more detailed breakdown of provisions in the bill).

Over 1,200 people, mostly Middle Eastern immigrants, have been detained by the government since September 11th. Attorney-General John Ashcroft initially refused to disclose basic information about the detainees, such as their names, the reasons for their arrests, and where they are being held. The Justice Department even announced that they would stop keeping count of how many people they were detaining. All they would say is that a “majority” of those interviewed (over 600) were being detained. Only one detainee has been charged with any crime related to September 11th. Most have been detained for “crimes” of immigration paperwork violations.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has sent out requests for 5,000 legal Arab immigrants aged 18-33 who entered the US on temporary visas to “voluntarily” come in for questioning by police agents. They received letters from the government running along the lines of: “Your name was brought to our attention because, among other things, you came to Michigan on a visa from a country where there are groups that support, advocate or finance international terrorism.”

In a recent survey of 220 universities, a majority had turned over private information about Arab-American students to the Justice Department. The Patriot Act allows students’ private records to be searched for “suspicious” information.

Erosion of our civil liberties has clearly taken the form of institutionalized racial profiling of Arab-Americans. These laws are strengthening the confidence of the most reactionary, bigoted elements in our society. The non-stop campaign by the politicians and media to whip up public support for the war has given a green light to right-wing thugs, resulting in a terrible wave of over 3,000 hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans. The media has also reported numerous racist police beatings of Arab detainees.

The most dramatic breach of democratic rights has been the announcement of the Bush Administration to set up military tribunals to try some suspects. These would be military courts, where basic democratic rights are ignored. Even Time magazine questioned some of the procedures that would be used in these courts: “How could the US hold trials in which the judges are military officers, just a two-thirds vote is sufficient to convict, and there is no need for proof beyond a reasonable doubt? How could the Administration support legal proceedings that are held in secret – meaning a defendant can go from being charged to being put to death without the public ever finding out?” (Time, 12/10/01)

Why are Civil Liberties Being Attacked?

The government is cynically taking advantage of the sorrow people feel for the victims of September 11th and people’s legitimate security fears post-9/11 to grant itself new powers. Yet while strengthening security monitoring of everyone judged “suspicious” may give a false sense of security to the public, These measures will, in reality, do very little to stop terrorism. Israel, for example, has some of the tightest and most undemocratic security in the world, but terrorist attacks on Israelis continue to be commonplace. The repressive laws passed by Bush were incapable of preventing the recent anthrax attacks. The only realistic solution to terrorism is to eradicate the conditions that breed terrorism in the world – the mass poverty and oppression caused by the global capitalist system.

The real reason behind this clampdown on our democratic rights is because the ruling class knows that they will have to face serious social and political upheavals in the near future. Big Business is nervous about the global economy slipping into a severe slump, a widening gulf between rich and poor, and the inevitability of working class protests and revolutions.

They have good reason to be afraid. Already we have seen the political consequences of the world recession unfolding in the revolutionary upheavals in Argentina, and in Ecuador last year. The anti-globalization movement in the US and Europe has also struck fear into the hearts of the ruling class. Even before September 11, we saw massive state repression of globalization protesters in Seattle, DC, Philadelphia, LA and even further with the police shootings and murder in Gothenburg and Genoa. This shows that September 11th simply gave the ruling class a good excuse for expanding the legality of the political repression they were already seeking.

Corporate bosses look favorably on the climate of fear and intimidation towards immigrants since immigrants have been the fastest growing and most radical section of the labor movement. The increased powers given to the state will be wielded to serve the interests of corporations against workers. After September 11th, for example, over 200 New Jersey teachers were jailed for going on strike and labeled as being “unpatriotic.”

How to Defend Civil Liberties

Although the government has carried out a major assault on our democratic rights, many liberal activists have made hysterical and unbalanced claims that the US government is becoming some sort of dictatorship. These wild claims forget that politicians are constrained by the balance of class forces between big business and the working class. It’s one thing to pass a law – it’s another thing to implement it. Any attempt to use these new, repressive laws against wider social movements and activists at home will inevitably provoke a recoil and growing opposition to these laws. In fact, politicians have already been forced to make excuses and partial retreats out of fear of a potential public backlash against the taking away of so many freedoms Americans assume to be basic rights.

Civil libertarians and liberals also have a failed strategy about how to fight this assault on our civil liberties. They focus their efforts on congratulating the few Democrats who voted against these bills and challenging the constitutionality of these new laws in the courts. However the courts have consistently defended all the repressive laws that are already on books, such as those which restrict the right of workers to effectively picket, and he clampdown on the right to march during the Seattle WTO protests. Although legal tactics can be one tactic among many, the central way to reverse this onslaught of repressive new laws is to build mass protests on the streets and to educate people about what is being done to all of our rights so as to build a stronger protest movement.

Activists also have to work towards launching a new independent political party that fights big business and the government and bases itself on the majority of the population – the working class. How can we rely on the Democrats when they enthusiastically supported these attacks on civil liberties and voted for the Patriot Act?

Civil libertarians and liberals make moral appeals about “democracy” being undermined, but these appeals are incapable of linking up with broader working class. Only by linking these attacks on civil liberties to fundamental social and class interests, can a broad mass movement be built.

Unions have a key role to play in this struggle. The labor movement should launch an energetic campaign to repeal the Patriot Act and all other new repressive laws, along with the existing battery of anti-union laws used to prevent effective picketing, and that give employers the legal right to create an atmosphere of terror towards anyone who wants to organize their workplace.

The new repressive laws that have been passed are currently being used against Arab-Americans, but later they will be used against all immigrants, people of color, union activists, LGBT activists, and anyone critical of the government. To build a powerful mass movement, activists have to point out the racist nature of the attacks and the threat they represent to all people of color. A special appeal must be made to Arabs, Muslims, immigrants, people of color in general, and young people (who overwhelmingly reject racism) to join together in a united struggle to stop these racist attacks.

The first victims of the US preparation for entry to World War II were workers shot on picket lines in California. Today, big business has pressured the government to pass this new legislation specifically because they are expecting increased social upheaval in the future. That’s why union members and all ordinary people, regardless of skin color, have to stand up and defend our rights and Arab-Americans.

  • Repeal the USA Patriot Act, provisions for military tribunals, anti-union laws, and other repressive anti-immigrant laws of last decade
  • Organize local protests to expose the USA Patriot Act, and defend those being swept up in FBI dragnet
  • Get your union, school, community organization etc., to get a speaker to explain these attacks on civil liberties and democratic rights, and pass a resolution in opposition to them.
  • Demand that the Bush Administration immediately announce charges against all those detained under this legislation, or for them to be immediately released
  • All institutions, whether universities or local or state governments to refuse to collaborate with the FBI’s indiscriminate investigation of Arab Americans

Justice #28, January 2002