Keeping Big Brother out of Durango
Group works to make city, county Patriot Act Free Zones

Nancy Backhouse of Durango surfs the Internet at the Durango Public Library. Under the recently passed
Patriot Act, the government can obtain personal habits including Web history without consent. A local
group, the Southwest Colorado Peace and Justice Coalition, opposes the act and is working up a resolution
to present to officials to make the city and county Patriot Act Free Zones. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A local push is underway to protect locals from unwelcome government eyes. The Southwest Colorado Peace and Justice Coalition (SWCPJC) is currently fine-tuning a resolution to make Durango and La Plata County a Patriot Act Free Zone. In coming months, the group, which has made its mark recently with local anti-war demonstrations, will appeal to local officials to adopt the resolution and safeguard local civil liberties.

The Patriot Act was adopted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a sweeping attempt to combat terrorism. The 342-page document opens with a statement of purpose that reads, “To deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools and for other purposes.”

Because of the immediacy of the attacks, the Bush Administration was able to introduce the Patriot Act and have it adopted in a few weeks. However, critics say many of the provisions of the legislation violate civil liberties in the name of the war on terror. For instance, the Patriot Act allows police to arrest and detain indefinitely any American suspected of terrorism. Immigrants can be detained without disclosure of their names. Suspects’ homes can be searched without prior notification, and personal information like Internet habits can be obtained without consent. Librarians, booksellers and video shop owners also are required to turn over patron records to federal investigators when asked.

Throughout the country, citizens and municipalities have taken exception to the too-sweeping powers of the Patriot Act. To date, 47 cities have adopted resolutions challenging or calling for the repeal of the act. In Colorado, Boulder, Denver and Ridgway have taken the step. The SWCPJC is hoping Durango will join the list in the spring.

“The whole act is a significant undermining and assault on civil liberties and the basic rights that are fundamental to democracy,” said the SWCPJC’s Kalin Grigg. “The act is problematic in many ways, and what a resolution would do is try to reveal the problems and encourage local officials to protect their citizenry from the act’s provisions.”

Dawn Farrington of the SWCPJC concurred.

“Basically, it undermines some of the civil rights that are provided for in the Bill of Rights and Constitution,” she said. “It provides for police powers that are anti-democratic.”

Farrington added that the Patriot Act was adopted too quickly and without adequate governmental or public review. “It was pushed through three weeks after Sept. 11 when it would have been treason to question something like this,” she said.

When both Grigg and Farrington discuss the Patriot Act, words like McCarthyism and Japanese internment rise to the surface. Farrington mentioned a meeting of law enforcement officials in Albuquerque last month and the circulation of a list of potential terrorist cells. “On that list were animal rights and environmental groups,” she said. “The Patriot Act simply makes it easier to declare anybody a suspect. The way it is written, the government can do these things to people involved in any organization that it labels a terrorist organization.”

Grigg said that the SWCPJC does not know of any local Patriot Act investigations, but that does not mean they aren’t happening. “We aren’t aware of anything specific locally,” he said. “So much of it is so secretive, it’s hard to tell. But you have to assume its happening.”

Many of the 47 cities that have adopted resolutions contesting the Patriot Act did so to make a political statement. However, the SWCPJC would like more than a statement and is drafting a resolution that would make Durango and La Plata County Patriot Act free zones. Such a resolution would make locals relatively immune to the act by requiring that local law enforcement not enforce certain provisions of the act.

“This is designed to not simply be symbolic but also effective,” said Grigg. “Basically, it calls on local governments to work for the repeal of the act and local law enforcement to not enforce those parts of the act that violate civil liberties.”

And while the SWCPJC has become well known in recent months for demonstrations opposing war in Iraq, Grigg and Farrington said the group’s focus will be shifting.

“We’re going to continue to try to do as much peace campaigning and war resistance as we can, but we’re going to put a whole lot of energy into this resolution,” said Grigg. “It’s just really a critical issue.”

The SWCPJC is beginning by putting its energy into finalizing a resolution that is based on a similar one adopted in Fairbanks, Alaska. “We hope to have the resolution together by the end of this week or early next week,” Farrington said.

Once the resolution has been drafted, the SWCPJC plans to meet informally with local officials and have it on city and county agendas in April.

“Once we have a resolution that we would like to propose, we would like to meet with them and go over it, mainly to address legal issues,” she continued. “Our intention is to submit it regardless of support.”

Farrington said the timing is particularly urgent. Now that the act has been in place for more than a year, additional draft legislation, nicknamed Patriot II, is being considered and would expand greatly upon the already sweeping powers.

Meanwhile, the group will be presenting an unrelated resolution opposing war in Iraq to the Durango City Council on Tuesday, March 4.

On March 18, the group will take the Patriot Act to the silver screen to raise public awareness. The SWCPJC will screen the film “Of Rights and Wrongs: Civil Liberties in a New America,” a documentary on the excesses of the legislation, at the Abbey Theater.

“People are on both sides of this war,” Grigg said in closing. “But the Patriot Act is a difficult thing not to be concerned about. It is a very, very invasive piece of legislation.”







News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index