Outbreaks of democracy

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(Host) Commentator Ellen David Friedman reflects on the freedom of speech in times of war.

(Friedman) Our president is wed to unilateralism. His willingness to defy the community of nations and the desires of many Americans looks like the early stages of true authoritarianism. But against this bleak reality, there have been spontaneous outbreaks of democracy going on, particularly the flowering of citizen resistance to the USA Patriot Act. Only six weeks after the September 11 attacks, and with only two hours of debate, Congress passed this most sweeping abridgement of our civil rights.

The Associated Press summarized the changes to our legal rights this way: In the context of any terrorist investigation, the government may “monitor religious and political institutions without suspecting criminal activity, may search and seize Americans’ papers and effects without probable cause, may prosecute librarians or other keepers of any other records if they tell anyone that the government subpoenaed information, may jail Americans indefinitely without a trial, and the government may jail Americans without being charged.”

Of course, given the trauma of September 11 and then the unceasing drumbeat of fear our government has whipped up over terrorism, enemies in our midst, and the necessity of war, it’s taken most Americans awhile to sort this out. But now the citizen heroes are finding their footing and asserting the primacy of our democratic freedoms. Owners of bookstores and video stores in Montpelier have announced they will destroy records of customers’ purchasing history rather than be faced with a potential government demand to turn them over. Voters in nine Windham County towns approved a Town Meeting resolution critical of the Patriot Act. In Montpelier, a similar resolution was also overwhelmingly approved at Town Meeting. And just in time, it seems.

Because, while adults are finding ways to fight back within the system, students are once again challenging the system from without. And it is when these confrontations occur, that the protections of civil liberties are most important. On March 5, many hundreds of our high school students from Mt. Anthony to Mt. Abe took their own steps to challenge the Bush administration’s war-making. Some left classes and had spontaneous assemblies. Some organized teach-ins or held rallies outside on their athletic fields. Some, including about 70 Montpelier High School students, left school and paraded through town. But while they were exercising this right of free speech, the Montpelier police were carefully photographing all of them. It’s not clear whether these photos will end up with the school principal, in the Montpelier PD files or even elsewhere, or for what purpose. During these times, it will be up to all of us to keep attentive, and not let a chilling mood of surveillance dampen the freedom of expression.

I’m Ellen David Friedman.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years.

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