The Two Front War

On October 26th George W. Bush signed the allegedly anti-terrorist “USA Patriot Act.” Although there was clearly a need for some considered action to be taken after September 11th to better protect against possible future attacks, this bill goes way beyond that necessary objective. It allows the reading of email and secret searches of homes and offices without a warrant. Non-citizens can be held for six months without charges being filed. “Domestic terrorism” is defined so broadly that who knows who will be targeted. This is clearly a major step towards a police state.

Of course, for many people of African, Latina/o and Native American descent, “police state” is a pretty accurate description of the day-to-day reality experienced in their communities. Racial profiling, police disrespect and abuse, double standards of justice, excessive and discriminatory penalties for breaking the law–it’s as if the police were more an army of occupation than an effective force in the fight against crime.

Those of us who are white would do well to remember and think seriously about this fact as we go about our necessary work of building a movement for racial, economic, social and global justice, the only way we can ever have any hope of ending individual, organizational or state terrorism.

How do we fight this “war on civil liberties” that seems to be emerging as a twin of the “war on terrorism,” with Cheney and Rumsfeld in charge overseas and Ridge and Ashcroft in charge at home?

We should remember and study our own history, for one thing.

I was recently at a meeting where a white, younger man was stating his opinion that what we are facing here in the homeland is unprecedented.
He was gently corrected by a black woman who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. She reminded him, and us, of the conditions of life, what can only be called conditions of terror, formerly faced by millions of Black people throughout the South because of the brutal system of segregation. Black people who stood up for their rights, even the relatively innocuous right to cast a vote, suffered threats, firings, beatings and killings. Yet as we all know, despite these conditions, they organized themselves, found the courage to stand up and speak out for what is right, reached out to enlist white and other allies, and, over time, broke the back of the U.S. apartheid-like system in the South.

We don’t know at this time how, at what speed and with what intensity this war on civil liberties will unfold. Perhaps legal and political challenges will slow it down. Maybe the upcoming 2002 national elections will have some moderating effect if growing numbers of people speak up and make this one of the issues candidates need to address during their campaigns, and if a more progressive Congress emerges. Perhaps Ridge and Ashcroft will be constrained somewhat if they overplay their hand, or if they find it difficult to stop inter-agency rivalries that hamper effective, anti-terrorist police work.

Whatever they do, we can’t let it stop us from doing what we have to do. We need to use the legal and political arenas to fight this and other threats to the possibilities of rescuing, expanding and deepening our post-“Florida” democracy here in the U.S.

In our multi-faceted campaign against this two-front war, we will need to use many tactics, including the use of non-violent civil disobedience when legal tactics aren’t enough. As was true of Black people in the South in the 50s and 60s, and as has been true of many movements since, up to and including the movement for global justice, there will be times when the only way to make our point is through the disobeying of unjust laws or unjust police commands. We will need to risk state violence and/or time in prison. No movement for fundamental social change in history has achieved its goals without sacrifice. The same will be true here, now, in this first decade of the 21st century.

We can’t shrink back, afraid of what we know has to be done. Indeed, unjust laws and governmental repression have as one of their main objectives to intimidate legitimate dissent and opposition by making people fearful and suspicious of one another, the classic divide and conquer approach.

We need one another. We need to support one another as we continue building our grassroots movement for a truly new world. We need to outgrow sectarianism and narrowness, reach out with compassion and intelligence to our neighbors, co-workers and the general public who are fearful too about what the future holds. We may have our fears, but they cannot be what motivates our behavior. We must be models of courage and hope.