Threats to Civil Liberties

Betsy Wiggins, WTB co-chair, reminded the group that a year ago federal agents raided about 150 Muslim homes locally as she introduced the program on civil liberties. The first speaker was Magda Bayoumi, WTB Council member and one of the subjects of the February 2003 raids.

Magda said during the interrogations the FBI agents asked Muslims about  their faith and how they practiced it—questions she thought inappropriate. While she reported that the agents said they weren’t targeting Muslims, “As a Muslim I know I was targeted. The only reason I was targeted is because I was a Muslim.” 

Magda also noted wryly that when the federal agents came to her home they asked for her husband, when in fact she was the one active with the charity under investigation. “I signed every check, I drove my car to the banquet. My husband didn’t know anything about what I’m doing. But they came to ask for him. They think the Muslim men are the terrorists and women are backwards!”

Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for this region, described recent threats to civil liberties.

 The theme of Barrie’s presentation can be summed up in her statement: “the Bill of Rights is slowly being shredded through actions of our own government.” The ACLU is a national organization fighting since the 1920s to protect the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

Barrie confirmed that targeting of local Muslims is not unusual. The ACLU has found that nationwide federal authorities “are enforcing the law with more zealousness against Muslims.” She said federal authorities are using a “dragnet” approach of raids and interrogations around the country. Barrie said generally authorities should have some suspicion before they interrogate someone, but in these recent cases, “the authorities don’t have a suspicion that any of the families had anything to do with terrorism and crime.” She said the approach is much broader than it needs to be. As a comparison, she noted that the greatest previous terrorist incident in the U.S. occurred with the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. While it was done by a white man from upstate New York, ex-military, and raised Catholic, the authorities then didn’t target all white Roman Catholic men in upstate New York! She said the national ACLU will soon be publishing a report on racial profiling.

Barrie then explained the highlights of the Patriot Act that passed in September 2001, with unusual speed – only 45 days after September 11.  She believes the Act is too broad in what it allows and that it unfairly harms civil liberties. Key points she outlined:

+It amends 25 different laws in 10 sections totaling 342 pages. It gives government enhanced surveillance powers and abilities to detain non-citizens. It’s very complicated and complex.

+The Patriot Ac made what Barrie called “radical” changes to the rights of free speech, privacy, the accused, and guarantees of Equal Protection.

+It passed at a scary and difficult time amidst the anthrax scare when many Congress members didn’t have access to their offices. Few had read it. The Senate didn’t debate it and passed it with one dissent. The House came up with a compromise bill but the leadership substituted the Bush-administration written Senate bill the night before and the House passed that with only 66 dissents.  “Most didn’t know what they were passing because of the pressure,” Barrie explained. 

+The Act created a new definition for terrorism to include domestic terrorism. She handed out one of the legal definitions and explained that people who protest or dissent could now be investigated, arrested and interrogated as domestic terrorists. She noted that the recent peace rally in Syracuse that spilled over into the streets might have met the criteria for “domestic terrorism.” She finds the definition is so broad that it could cover groups across the spectrum from Greenpeace to Operation Rescue.

+The guidelines for domestic spying are changed from “evidence that criminal activity is ongoing” to ability for the FBI to surveil social, political or religious groups “if an investigatory opportunity would be lost.”

+The roles of the secret “FISA court” are expanded from oversight of spies to criminal investigations of terrorist activities. The standard of “probable cause” to get a warrant has been made easier with a lesser standard of merely “relevant” to an investigation. She added that the court has never rejected a warrant request since 1978 and has only modified a warrant five times. Since the Patriot Act the number of requests for such warrants has doubled. The person served with the warrant can’t talk about it, so for example if a librarian is given a search warrant for a person’s library records the librarian can’t tell anyone about it, and if s/he does, s/he is subject to a felony. “You have secrecy on top of secrecy,” Barrie said.

What can we do? Barrie suggested that WTB members who are concerned join the ACLU Bill of Rights campaign.

Kathleen Rumpf then spoke about the horrific conditions that prisoners face in our nation’s jails and prisons. A local jail ministry worker, Kathleen has been working for years as a human rights activist and an anti-nuke activist. Authorities have arrested her more than 100 times, and she has spent many months in prison for her “act of conscience” activities.

“I have so many stories…real pain and suffering,” she said. “We don’t see these stories.”

“People being brutalized in prison,” she said. “The environment fosters so much negativity and abuse. Jailers are placed in a horrible circumstances.” 

Her last prison stint came after a protest at the School of the Americas in Georgia, a U.S. facility that trains military from other countries. Authorities charged her with destruction of government property. She received a sentence of a year in prison and asked to go as the poor go, so she was transported for four months through many prisons. These months included more than 60 strip searches (which are sometimes assaults), middle-of-the night departures and exhausting travel. She finally arrived at a in a maximum-security prison in Texas served the rest of her sentence. “I am classified as a domestic terrorist,” she said.

What she saw in this journey was, she said, “unbelievable.” She saw 14 women die in the 10 months she was in the Texas prison. “A lot of women were sick. If you got a lump in your breast you were told it was a pulled muscle…many women weren’t diagnosed until later stages.” She told the story of a Jamaican woman, Shirley, who came in to the prison health and then “deteriorated right before my eyes.” Shirley contracted  some type of upper respiratory condition. One night Kathleen heard her begging the guard for help. Shirley died the next day. She said another prisoner, upon release, immediately got admitted to a hospital where physicians had to amputate her leg because it had not been treated properly in prison.

Several years ago, Kathleen was the first to document the practice of shackling of prisoner in Syracuse’s Public Safety Building. She explained how long it took her to get people to believe it was really happening. Her research, along with the advocacy of Physicians for Human Rights and a 60 Minutes expose, ended the practice and a new jail has been built.

“They don’t care…prison is a business. it’s all about money.”

She said she believes many of the women she met in prison don’t belong there.

Kathleen said she was going to be held in prison for two more years (at a cost, she said, of $200,000 to taxpayers) for not paying her fines when actor Martin Sheen paid her way out.

Kathleen concluded by saying that work with prisoners is “the most neglected work of mercy.” She says in doing work with jail ministry she believes people learn about their “own ignorance, prejudices and hardness of hearts…. It is we who are saved. “

After the presentations, one woman asked “what can we do?” Barrie urged her to get involved and speak out. “When I speak about the poor – [elected officials say] it’s just ‘those radicals,’” she said. “Go up and speak in front of the legislators. They don’t expect regular people to speak out against injustice.

Women were also encouraged to support the local jail ministry that trains people to go visit in the jail.

Another woman suggested that women copy these notes and send them to five other women, with personal comments about concerns.