SALEM NEWS: Regular folk are gearing up to battle Patriot Act
The Salem News
Online Edition Monday, September 29, 2003
Regular folk are gearing up to battle Patriot Act
By SEAN CORCORAN
BEVERLY - Patrick Carrette has never been active politically. While opinionated and well-read, the 73-year-old Army veteran and retired schoolteacher never knew what it was like to speak out against a perceived injustice, only to have his patriotism questioned.
He does now.
"I've been called un-American more than once," he said. "I'm not a traitor. I'm trying to do what is right."
For the past several months, Carrette and a group of people with very little in common have been holding weekly meetings at the Beverly Public Library. In a way, their gatherings are prompted by fear - fear that Americans' civil liberties are being stripped away by the USA Patriot Act..
Passed with little debate in October 2001 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the act allows federal agents to conduct secret searches and wiretaps with little judicial oversight, as well as access personal business, banking and medical information without telling the people being targeted.
Another section of the lengthy and complicated law allows federal agents to seize library records, including the titles of books people have checked out and the information they viewed on library computers. And any librarians or local officials who reveal that the government came calling could face jail time.
In Beverly, the small opposition group, which has taken to calling itself the Beverly Bill of Rights Defense Committee, started this spring with about a dozen members from a variety of North Shore communities. Since then, membership has grown to about 20 Beverly residents, while about 20 other participants have splintered off to form similar groups in Swampscott, Peabody, Salem and Ipswich.
While some have been active in area peace movements, many are like Carrette - older but inexperienced when it comes to political activism.
"This is absolutely the first time I have ever taken a visible stance," said Don Stacey, a 68-year-old Beverly resident. "This is kind of like a bolt of lightning to get me so riled up that I would do something."
Looking for support
So far, group members have held teaching sessions about the 342-page law, marched with signs during July 4 parades, and stood outside the Beverly Depot collecting petition signatures. But the present goal is to have area selectmen and the city councils in Beverly, Salem and Peabody pass resolutions in opposition to the act.
With the exception of the Beverly City Council, which has scheduled a public hearing in November, the councils have not acted on the petitions. Both the Salem and Peabody city councils accepted the referendum requests, but placed them in subcommittees, where they now sit.
"It is nothing that is pressing, let's put it that way," said Dave Gamache, chairman of the Peabody City Council's Legal Affairs Committee, when asked when some action might be taken.
But for the Beverly Bill of Rights Defense Committee, this is serious business. During their meetings, members have spent hours coaching each other on their speeches, hoping that one day they will be able to give them to the councils.
"We feel that it is our duty as citizens to do everything possible to defeat these politicians who want to turn America into a fascist state," said Paul Brailsford, an 88-year-old Ipswich resident and World War II veteran.
The Beverly group is one of hundreds popping up across the country, prompting a nationwide, 30-city tour by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to rally support for the act.
Ashcroft has said the act is a reasonable response to a nation under threat from terrorism and has branded as "hysteria" criticism of its impact on civil liberties.
"The Patriot Act uses powers and authorities previously effective against groups like organized crime and drug kingpins," Ashcroft said after a speech last week in St. Louis. "It is respectful of the liberties of people in the United States and it is something that ought to be used against terrorists."
Although confident they are fighting the good fight, some members of the Beverly group worry they could become targets of the government simply for organizing opposition to the act.
"Though many in Congress voted for the act to protect us against terrorism, the reality is it can be used by the federal government to squelch people that oppose it on any issue," said Swampscott resident Margaret Somer. "You could use it against liberals; you could use it against conservatives."
"It is a real concern," said Lynn LeSueur of Beverly. "I am just waiting for the day I fly down to visit my daughter and I am pulled aside."
Members point out that the act itself was drafted well before the events of Sept. 11, and in the furor that followed, the law was resurrected and given a new name: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, a.k.a. the USA Patriot Act.
"It's an acronym, and people lose sight of that," LeSueur said. "Somebody went through a lot of trouble, spent many hours figuring out how to make that an emotionally charged title."
LeSueur, 54, who holds a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, is another participant with little experience battling the government, but she said she has now found a cause worth fighting for.
"When they start messing with the Constitution," she said, "I figure you have to speak up."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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