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What Are The Real Dangers Of Repression?
What Are Priority Actions We Should Take?

by Emile Schepers, Program Director,
Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, 28 Dec 2001

Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights
1325 S. Wabash Ave. Suite 105
Chicago IL 60605-2506
(312) 939-0675 (312) 939-7867

December 28, 2001


In the current crisis of civil and constitutional rights, we face a dilemma: If we point out every possible danger, we risk becoming alarmists, and thus inadvertently contributing to the chilling of dissent.

If, however, we pooh-pooh the dangers, we fail in our duty to warn the public of some really bad potential scenarios.

In either case, we do not lay the foundation for constructive action. We need a sober assessment of the real, immediate dangers that arise from the government's repressive tack, and from that assessment, we need to develop pro-active plans and activities that will put us in a position to respond proportionally.

In the following points, I suggest what are the things that are likely to happen, rather than the things that possibly might happen.,

Even so, the picture is bleak enough. Others no doubt have other perspectives, so I hope this can begin a discussion while we also work toward practical action.

The Real Dangers Are:

  1. Harassment up to and including prosecution of various people involved with social justice and international solidarity activities.

    Most in danger are non citizens, even those who are long term permanent legal residents in the United States, and persons engaged in activities that bring them into direct or indirect contact with groups in the Middle East and elsewhere (e.g. Colombia) of which the United States government disapproves. Non-citizens are in direct danger of detention and summary deportation. US citizens and non-citizens are in danger of being brought before grand juries, having their property and records seized and being placed under various kinds of surveillance.

    The normal (?) requirement of "probable cause" for the government to take such actions has been seriously weakened. Non-citizens who are ordered to testify to a grand jury face possible deportation if they refuse to do so. Naturalized citizens may find themselves threatened with loss of citizenship followed by deportation, if the government claims that they lied about their political associations on their naturalization application, or their application for legal admission to the United States. This is a direct echo of what used to go on in the bad old days of Senator McCarthy, HUAC and the McCarran-Walter Act.

  2. Vigilantism and opportunistic use of the political climate of fear by parties other than the United States Government.

    The firing of Dr. Sami Al-Arian by the University of South Florida (because he is a high-profile opponent of US policy in the Middle East and because of a media campaign against him) is an example of this. The campaign now being mounted in Chicago to get Bernadine Dohrn fired as head of the Children's Justice Center of Northwestern University is another example. Universities are normally (though not always) more courageous than some other kinds of employers in defending their employees' rights against political witch-hunts, but in this case the fear of loss of funding or academic autonomy led the administration of USF to act in a spirit of panic.

    In other kinds of institutions, public and private, there is a danger that people who become controversial because of their ethnicity (Arab or Middle Eastern background), their religion (Muslim) or their political stance (e.g. opposing the bombing of Afghanistan) will be fired. In certain companies that employ a lot of immigrant and non-citizen workers we already hear of cases of supervisors threatening workers with deportation as "politically disloyal" for union activities. Opportunistic media campaigns aimed at "enemies of the people" are more of a danger now than ever.

  3. Permanent damage to the institutional structure of constitutional rights.

    The Bush administration has used the September 11 attacks as a pretext to do two things:

    1. Weaken due process and the First Amendment and
    2. Strengthen the Executive branch at the expense, especially of the judicial branch.

    A terrified Congress is going along with this. If Bush and Ashcroft are able to get away with this, it will create very great problems for the American people at a later time. Separation of powers and "checks and balances" were put into the Constitution for a reason.

  4. The old "chilling effect".

    The Bush administration has carried out these actions with much fanfare. Testifying to the Senate, Ashcroft went out of his way to do a "Nixon act", to behave in a threatening way to all who might question US policy. This is intended, I suspect, to intimidate the government's opponents into silence and inaction, or at least to isolate the most vocal dissidents from broader public support.

What Needs to Happen

  1. There needs to be a massive effort to educate the wider public about what is going on.

    It is all too well known that many US citizens are not familiar with the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. If we don't know what our rights are supposed to be, how can we know that those rights are being violated? Particularly high levels of confusion exist about the following: The issue of due process and the reason there are constitutional guarantees for people accused of crimes; and the applicability of the Bill of Rights to non-citizens as well as to citizens.

    No wonder the people are confused about these things: both Ashcroft and sectors of the establishment media have been doing everything in their power to sow confusion. In their statements about military tribunals, for example Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft have created the impression that constitutional guarantees of due process are applicable to US citizens only, and that at any rate such guarantees should be seen as some sort of weird favor to the guilty and not as a mechanism to protect the innocent.

  2. There needs to be an educational effort among activists (labor community, social justice, international solidarity, etc.) many of whom seem not to realize that the danger of repression has been greatly increased since 9-11, even if one is not a Muslim or Arab.

    Especially newer activists need to be taught some basics: for example, how to protect themselves against being set up by an agent-provocateur, what to do if the FBI comes calling or if you are hauled before a grand jury and so forth. Simply telling people what the Constitution says our rights are is not enough at this point; the government is signaling that it is going to violate those rights and I do not think we can trust the federal courts to step in and prevent some very harsh actions.

  3. We need to boost the amount of resources available for legal defense of people and organizations who get jumped on by the government.

    Many activists and activist organizations operate on a shoestring and do not anticipate the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars they might have to come up with if they are falsely accused of criminal acts, or if the government seizes their property and records and they have to sue to get them back. There need to be more pro-bono and low-cost attorney resources lined up (with a premium on attorneys knowledgeable about immigration law), and there need to be fund-raising efforts underway before suddenly the social justice movement finds itself facing numerous expensive legal challenges, which will drain resources away from the primary purposes of social justice activism.

  4. We need to find new organizational instrumentalities to carry out these actions.

    Or do we? At least we need to assess the capabilities of existing structures and anticipate the coming need.

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