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Bush Didn’t Start the War on the Bill of Rights

by JOSHUA FRANK And MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN

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 MoveOn.org 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 district 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 Guantanomo 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 the author of the forthcoming book,
Left
Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush
, to be released
in early 2005 by Common Courage Press. He can be reached at:
frank_joshua@hotmail.com

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a student at Columbia University.
He hosts a radio show on WBAR 87.9 FM (www.wbar.org).
He can be reached at mc2028@columbia.edu

CounterPunch Magazine

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