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PATRIOT ACT discussed at Safe and Free Coalition forum

The Richmond Safe and Free Coalition presented a forum to explore the USA PATRIOT ACT

Richmond initiated its first action to oppose the USA PATRIOT Act Wednesday in a forum to discuss the ramifications of the draconian measure passed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

The PATRIOT Act includes provisions that expand the powers of law enforcement agencies to allow them uninhibited abilities to conduct searches, perform surveillance and wiretapping, and violate privacy and First Amendment rights while targeting people as terrorists due to connections with certain legal groups and for political activity. Since its inception, the act has received undying outrage from librarians, civic groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Richmond forum on Wednesday at the Virginia Holocaust Museum included a panel presentation from a librarian, a Virginia state delegate, a member of the Virginia Islamic community, a U.S. Representative for Virginia and a former Virginia Lieutenant Governor. The forum, put on by the Richmond Safe and Free Coalition with assistance form the VA ACLU, also included a heated question and answer session following panelist presentations.

Kent Willis, director of the VA ACLU, said the PATRIOT Act was the single most unprecedented power expansion of the U.S. government in its history.

“(The PATRIOT Act) is a law enforcement shopping spree,” he said, detailing the various measures included in the 131-page long act that allow law enforcement agencies access to personal medical and library records, entrance to homes without warrants when people are not present, and the expansion of international espionage rules to domestic applications.

“It allows the government to target groups or individuals based upon their First Amendment activities,” he said. Willis also pointed out how the PATRIOT Act reversed many laws established during the 1970s to prevent government belligerence that occurred during the Civil Rights and Anti-war movements.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott from Virginia, one of six legislators to vote against the PATRIOT Act, said he supported the U.S. war on terrorism but that it must be within the checks and balances of the constitution. “(The government) cuts the cards before they deal,” he said. “The war on terrorism replaces checks and balances with ‘trust me.’”

Scott led on that other congressional opponents of the PATRIOT Act receive unfair scrutiny from the federal government. “When we try to question this, our patriotism is questioned,” he said.

Local librarian Sarah Watstein declared the privacy of personal library records endangered as she listed the various ways the government can investigate people’s lives by looking at their records, which include what materials have been checked out, web sites people frequent and listserv membership.

But America’s librarians have put up fierce resistance to the PATIOR Act, said Watstein, including the American Librarian Association with 65,000 members. “The Attorney General has said that librarians are peskier than the ACLU,” she said. “Protecting confidentiality is a librarian’s responsibility.”

The lone defender of the PATRIOT Act on the panel, former Lieutenant Governor John Hager, said the act was essential to fighting terrorism in that it prevents potential crime before it happens. “Prevention is the key,” he said. “No right is absolute. Safety is as legitimate as protecting personal rights.”

Virginia Delegate Viola Baskerville observed the majority white crowd and said more should be done to educate people of other backgrounds, sicne the PATRIOT Act affects people of color most.

During a trip to the Virgin Islands after Sept. 11, Baskerville said she and her husband were singled out from other airline passengers for a search.

"I expected more people to searched and questioned, but we were the only ones," she said. "I noticed the rest of the passengers were all white and we were the only African Americans."

Imad Damaj, a leader of the Virginia Muslim Center for Public Affairs, lambasted the act as a means to infringe on the rights of the Islamic community, which has been increasingly discriminated upon and experienced more than 2,000 hate crimes since Sept. 11. “There’s a growing disregard toward the civil liberties of the American Muslims in the country,” he said. “The erosion of American Muslim citizenship and rights by systematic degradation of the religion of Islam has become very popular.”

Damaj said security level alerts usually increase during Islamic holidays. “If you really want to combat terrorism, you need to engage our community, not alienate us.”

During the question and answer period that followed many focused their anger on Hager; Scott Burger of the Richmond Green Party asked when the war on terror would be over, to which Hager could not provide an answer. Many also pointed out the terror of the Bush administration and asked what was being to done to monitor the government’s secrecy.

Hager replied “The media does a good enough job of that, just watch CNN.”

Someone else asked about the increase of racial profiling because of the PATRIOT Act to which Hager justified as acceptable since racial profiling was occurring before Sept. 11. A representative of Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also denounced the act as the group has experienced government repression in the form of opened mail, police intrusion in their offices and more police presence at PETA actions.

The Richmond Safe and Free Coalition has been collecting signatures on a petition calling for Richmond City Council to take an official stance against the PATRIOT Act and join the 192 cities and 2 state legislators that refuse to endorse the act.


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