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On Civil Liberties Myopia:
It’s a God Awful Affair

by Joshua Frank and Merlin Chowkwanyun
January 24, 2005

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So when did the assault on Americans’ civil liberties get jumpstarted? The current liberal establishment seems to deem 9/11 the chief catalyst. Many of the most loathsome specimens within the haughty club imply that drastic incursions on Americans’ civil liberties only began after 9/11, while the Clinton Administration represented a civil liberties paradise.

Take John Kerry, partisan drone, and stand-up comedian Margaret Cho, who at a benefit railed: “I mean, I'm afraid of terrorism, but I'm more afraid of the Patriot Act,” even though her candidate of choice not only voted for the legislation but authored many of its components.

Or how about Albert Gore, who in 2003 exclaimed: “They have taken us much farther down the road toward an intrusive, Big Brother-style government -- toward the dangers prophesied by George Orwell in his book 1984 -- than anyone ever thought would be possible in the United States of America.”

With such a sour musk in the air, it is unsurprising that hysteria reigned supreme over how much George W. Bush’s administration was to blame for the police conduct at the Republican National Convention last summer, where more than a thousand protestors were detained for up to 50 hours prior to being released. This infringement was indeed awful -- but hardly unique to the Bush years alone.

In early 2002, more than 20 FBI agents raided the home of Southern California African-American anarchist Sherman Austin’s mother and seized her son’s computers, which he used to run a political website.  Austin was later charged and sentenced to a year in prison for “distribution” of information about making or using explosives with the “intent” that the information “be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence.” 

Austin did not author the information, which was housed on a section of the site he allocated to a teenager who then proceeded to upload the instructions.  The obscure federal statute used against Austin, and which carried many implications for free speech, hit the books long before Bush in the late 1990s with the legislative shepherding of Dianne Feinstein, Democrat.  Liberal sleeping pills like the American Prospect and The Nation said absolutely nothing about Austin’s case.

During the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, police arrested Ruckus Society founder John Sellers for walking down the street. At the 2000 Democratic National Convention in LA, police brutality easily exceeded anything seen at the New York City Republican National Convention, where an outdoor Rage Against the Machine concert came to an abrupt end when riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protestors and many non-participating bystanders.

Going back a bit further to 1999, during the WTO protests in Seattle, riot police beat up marchers and sprayed tear gas and shot rubber bullets indiscriminately. Several downtown areas were locked out to protesters, as well as public parks, where individuals could not even wear anti-WTO paraphernalia.

As Jeffrey St. Clair wrote in Five Days That Shook the World: “Tear gas canisters were unloaded and then five or six of them were fired into the crowd. One of the protesters nearest the cops was a young, petite woman. She rose up, obviously disoriented from the gas, and a Seattle policeman, crouched less than 10 feet away, shot her in the knee with a rubber bullet. She fell to the pavement, grabbing her leg and screaming in pain. Then, moments later, one of her comrades, maddened by the unprovoked attack, charged the police line, Kamikaze-style. Two cops beat him to the ground with their batons, hitting him at least 20 times.”

At the regional level, a May Day 2001 march in Long Beach, California ended similarly, with many activists having to enter the emergency room because of wounds inflicted by police officers, some of which left rubber bullets lodged under skins. May Day protesters amassing in Portland, Oregon in 2000 experienced similar acts when police violently corralled activists, forcing them to retreat for fear of being stampeded by mounted police horses.

Then there’s the racist and institutionalized police state that existed throughout the 1980s but really took new hold during the 1990s with the Clinton-era spike in so-called War on Drugs activity, which has led to record incarceration of African-Americans, Latinos, and women. Fraternities have long existed in major metropolitan police departments, wherein members ascend the ranks for beatings, flouting guidelines, and planting evidence. When one individual instance of this was exposed, as happened when police officers in LA’s Ramparts division were found to have planted drug evidence, commentators preferred to describe it as a slight blight on an otherwise functioning system, whereas it actually represented an extremity of the norm. 

Racist profiling, harassment of black and Latino youth under the guise of “anti-gang” activity, and no-knock SWAT raids on the homes of non-whites supposedly in possession of drugs or illegal weapons, increased dramatically under Bill Clinton.

In fact, what we are seeing today is a logical continuation of a foundation laid during the Clinton era. The anti-Bushites forget that the Patriot Act amended a series of existing laws, most notably the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which increased the number of capital crimes and severely curtailed right of appeal such that death penalty defendants only have six months to a year for preparing an appeal. Because of lax enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act and comparable state statutes, many defendants do not even receive necessary documents in time and are consequentially in danger of execution without a fair and thorough appeal.

Michael Moore, hero of the liberal establishment and uninformed “activists” who view Bush bashing as social glue, claims to have read the Patriot Act in his film Fahrenheit 9/11. However, the two cases he cites in the film’s segment on the Patriot Act have absolutely nothing to do with the legislation. Local law enforcement’s infiltration of activist groups (Moore’s first case) and law enforcement’s questioning of the politically outspoken (case two) occurred during the 1990s, particularly after the WTO protests.

For foreigners and immigrants on American soil as well as the Guantánamo prisoners, both egregiously skipped over in Moore’s movie, post-9/11 legal changes have resulted in sweeping rights to detain, torture and harass. But this is not something that entirely rests with Bush Jr.

In actuality the Democrats ushered in the legislation that made this possible, with Russ Feingold the only Senator to oppose the Patriot Act (but just happened to cross over and confirm John Ashcroft as Attorney General).

The Democrats hardly have made it an issue since, and instead have gone ahead and condoned the appointment of Bush's “torture memos” guru Alberto Gonzales to replace John Ashcroft as Attorney General.  Democrat Patrick Leahy opined: “I like him.”  Were the Democrats actually to wage a fight beyond the current rhetorical ruses holding up Gonzales's “expected” confirmation for an extra week, they might actually force the Republicans to propose someone other than this monster.

In short, ascribing all the civil liberties problems of this country to one date, September 11, 2001, and one administration, George W. Bush’s, the liberal establishment has avoided any unpleasant analysis of our systemic civil liberties problems that might point back in its members’ direction. 

Sorry, Al Gore, you faux defender of civil liberties, but your former Administration in fact left us balancing on a tightrope -- a tightrope the Bushites have now cut to send certain civil liberties plummeting to their deaths.

Joshua Frank is author of the forthcoming book, Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, to be released in March by Common Courage Press. He can be reached at:

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a student at Columbia University.  He hosts a radio show on WBAR 87.9 FM ( He can be reached at:

Other Articles by Merlin Chowkwanyun

* An Interview with Ralph Nader
* Kerry and Genocide: Know What You Are Voting For
* Five Questions with Noam Chomsky
* A Strange and Tragic Legal Journey: The Case of Sherman Martin Austin

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