Freedom First: Arcata, CA Rejects USA Patriot Act

Catriona Stuart Jul 4, 2003

Arcata, a tiny city in Northern California (population 16,000), has become a torchbearer for resistance in the United States. In early April, it became the first city in the nation to pass an ordinance against voluntary compliance with the USA Patriot Act.

The measure, which passed by a margin of 4 to 1 on April 2, instructs the management heads of city departments not to voluntarily comply with unconstitutional Patriot Act requests, including detentions, profiling, and any other activity that violates individuals’ civil rights or civil liberties. Under penalty of law, such requests must be reported to the city council and city manager for review.

The actual penalty – a $57 fine – is the lowest allowable fine for violation of any Arcata city ordinance.

David Meserve, Arcata City Council member and drafter of the ordinance, has called it “our citywide form of nonviolent civil disobedience.”

Arcata is by no means an ordinary city; in the past several years it has generated a proclamation calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, declared itself a “nuclear weapons free” zone, and passed a resolution against the war on Iraq. Meserve himself was elected to the city council on a platform of “The Federal Government has Gone Stark Raving Mad.”

But just as in most U.S. locales, the headline dominating the local papers in Arcata as George W. Bush begins his push for re-election is not a sweeping national issue, but a local concern – in Arcata’s case, an unsolved crime surrounding the missing thumb from the town’s bronze statue of President McKinley.

“With this ordinance, we have removed ourselves from the chain of command” says Meserve. “We are refusing to follow orders which violate the civil rights of Arcata citizens. We want to protect people’s rights.”

In this respect, Arcata is not unique.

Meserve estimates that Arcata’s city hall has already sent out 30 to 40 copies of the ordinance, many to other public officials who are interested in carrying out similar actions to protect the rights of people in their own municipalities.
Nancy Talanian, Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee of Florence, Massachusetts notes that the grassroots movement against the Patriot Act is growing very rapidly. “It took us about a year to reach 50 resolutions, it took another two months to reach 100, and now we have 130 cities, towns and counties, as well as three states that have resolutions.”

In the run-up to the war on Iraq, hundreds of municipalities passed resolutions condemning Bush’s decision to resort to military action. But Talanian points out that there is a difference.

“There is a limit to how much clout a city has on directing national policy on an issue like a war,” she argues. “A resolution against the Patriot Act differs because it is the federal government directing the use of our local police force and our local resources. In this kind of circumstance a resolution holds much more power.”

Drawing on the experience of others, autonomous Defense Committees including one in New York City (see have sprung up around the country, organizing locally to pass their own resolutions and build momentum against the Patriot Act, a movement that has not gone unnoticed by elected officials.

Speaking at an American Library Association conference in Toronto recently, Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont called the Act “an extremely dangerous piece of legislation that strikes at the heart of what freedom is about.” With bi-partisan support and 119 co-sponsors, Sanders has introduced H.R. 1157, the Freedom to Read Protection Act, legislation aimed at reclaiming the privacy of library users and book buyers from Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which grants the government access to library records and records of book purchases.

Even Ashcroft himself has reportedly taken note of the movement, twice accusing the Defense Committees of spreading “myths” during his June 5 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Shortly thereafter, at a conference entitled “Journalism and Homeland Security,” Ashcroft called on the media to dispel fears about the Patriot Act. The New York Times quoted Ashcroft as saying, “we need the help of the news industry, the fourth estate, to inform citizens about the constitutional tools and methods being used in the war against terror. We need the media’s help, for instance, in portraying accurately the USA Patriot Act.”

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