First they came for the immigrants…: Protests mount against detentions and attacks on civil liberties

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Hawa, a long-robed Somali immigrant living in Seattle, regularly uses Barakat Wire Transfer to send money back to her destitute, 90-year-old father.

When she showed up there on November 7, however, her way was blocked by yellow police tape and U.S. Customs agents. The FBI and Treasury Department were in the middle of a nationwide raid of immigrant businesses alleged to be financially supporting Osama bin Laden.

But, Hawa told this reporter, her support of her family’s survival “has nothing to do with terrorism.”

And she’s right. Hawa is among the thousands of people who have already been hurt by Bush’s campaign to crush civil liberties and impose unprecedented police powers on U.S. residents.

This repellent witchhunt is no more designed to stop terrorism than is the military devastation in Afghanistan. Instead, by manufacturing an enemy at home, its purposes are to divide the working class, boost pro-war sentiment, and provide a rationale for clamping down on political dissent. The crackdown also gives the government new tools to snuff out the labor protests that are bound to occur as politicians and corporations scramble to make poor and working people pay the high costs of a worsening recession.

Government “disappears” Arab and Muslim immigrants. First to fall prey to the dragnet were the scores of people from the Middle East and Central Asia who were rounded up in the days immediately following September 11.

As of this writing, more than 1,100 people have been detained, and most of them are still being held. Not one has been charged with plotting the September attacks, or any other terrorist act.

The government has refused to name most of the “disappeared,” say where they are, or identify the charges, if any, against them. Many have no access to attorneys or family members. At least one man fell ill while in custody, received no medical care, and died.

The climate of hostility created by abuses such as these detentions affects not only immigrants, but all people of color. What basher driven by chauvinist rage will stop to ask whether his dark-skinned target was born in Morocco, Mexico, or Michigan?

The making of a police state. The government’s crusade against immigrants is, among other things, a way to test the waters before moving more broadly against leftists and activists in the labor, antiwar, anti-WTO, and other movements. The 350-page Patriot Act, passed overwhelmingly by congressional Democrats and Republicans and signed by Bush on October 26, gives various authorities and police agencies the latitude to act against virtually anyone they choose.

The law creates a new crime of “domestic terrorism,” defined so loosely that it criminalizes political activity and speech once protected by the Bill of Rights – like sending medical supplies to a recipient the Justice Department labels as terrorist.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has expanded the number of groups considered terrorist from 46 to 74. Most are Middle Eastern, but nothing in the legislation prevents his Justice Department from widening the blacklist to include political, nonprofit, environmental, legal aid and church groups in the U.S.

The act further allows the government to levy heavy penalties for civil disobedience and militant mass protests. Union strikes and demonstrations against “free trade” are obvious targets.

The bill legalizes wide-ranging wiretapping, home and office searches, and spying on e-mails, computer files and websites – all without court warrants or even notice to the victims. It allows police to get personal information about people from schools, banks and consumer-credit reports. The CIA, previously limited to gathering foreign intelligence, can now legally spy on domestic subjects.

Attorney General Ashcroft also has ordered the interrogation of 5,000 Middle Eastern men in the U.S.; understaffed for the task, he is asking local police departments to help do the dirty work. And he has announced a plan to relax laws restricting FBI surveillance on religious and political organizations.

In effect, the constitutional right to privacy is being abolished.

Power by executive decree. George W. Bush took office at the expense of one of the most fundamental democratic rights, the right to vote. Now, through executive orders, he is bypassing Congress to grant himself powers no previous president has ever had.

One infamous order permits certain noncitizens – including anyone who, according to Bush, intends to injure “the United States, its citizens, national security, foreign policy, or economy” – to be tried by military tribunal. In these trials, the arrested person can be held without bail, denied the choice of defense attorney, convicted and sentenced on hearsay evidence with no right to appeal to any civilian court, and executed – all in secret.

Resistance rising – and much more is needed! All of the measures described above make up only a part of the bipartisan anti-democratic package. Is it going too far to call this attack fascist? Probably, but only because real fascism requires a mass, popular base of support.

Thankfully, we’re still a long way from that. On the contrary, protest is growing every day.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against Ashcroft for withholding basic information about detainees. Internationally, Spain has refused to extradite terror suspects unless they are tried in civilian courts, and lawyers across Western Europe are protesting the European Commission’s adoption of “anti-terror” laws similar to those in the U.S.

Parts of the crackdown are meeting opposition even within the FBI and cops. Police departments in Portland, Oregon, and other cities in Oregon and California, for example, have refused to participate in Ashcroft’s interrogations of foreign visitors.

And the targets of this fast-track assault on the Constitution are also standing up for themselves. Fourteen of the immigrants detained after the plane bombings have gone on hunger strikes.

In Seattle, courageous immigrants were quick to join the picket lines set up by Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party on the morning of the raid of the wire-transfer service and three other businesses in the same building. “I will protest every day,” declared a cab driver named Mohamud. “My family in Africa will die otherwise.”

In response to the raid, the Seattle Somali community organized a lively march to INS headquarters. And in a stirring display of solidarity, Seattle Central Community College students marching the same day against the WTO joined them there. Many of the students are also active in campus antiwar organizing.

From the very beginning of this nightmare, peace coalitions have made defending civil liberties and fighting racism a priority right up there with ending the war abroad. This is crucial, as is support from the labor movement, in which immigrants today play such a large role.

The stakes could hardly be higher – not only for those of us in the U.S., but for besieged people everywhere. If our rights here are stripped away to nothing, if we in the U.S. are not able to protest the policies of “our” government, then what chance does anyone else have?

But, if we speak out, stick together, and refuse to be picked off one by one, we can push Bush and his storm troopers back. Act now!

Your rights revoked

Bush’s USA Patriot Act:

• Permits the government to label groups as “terrorist” without proof or procedural safeguards.

• Expands agents’ authority to secretly enter homes and offices during criminal investigations and search, take photos, and download computer files.

• Allows the FBI wide latitude to wiretap and spy on activists’ phones, faxes, and e-mails.

• Provides for indefinite detention of noncitizens.

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