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Cities rally against erosion of civil rights



A proposed resolution on protecting civil liberties has the Missoula City Council reminiscing about the ’60s and debating the legacy of Japanese internment camps.

They are also considering whether adopting the controversial resolution—which is strongly critical of the Bush Administration’s record on civil liberties—would help the movement of concerned local governments to gain critical mass or whether it would needlessly antagonize local police.

A handful of municipalities around the nation—including Berkeley, Calif., Denver, Colo., Ann Arbor, Mich., and several cities in Massachusetts—have made official statements opposing the federal government’s post-Sept. 11 actions that they say have restricted basic civil rights. Missoula is one of about 30 cities now considering making a similar statement.

The resolution calls on local law enforcement to continue preserving Missoulians’ rights “even if requested or authorized to infringe upon these rights by federal law enforcement” emboldened by the USA Patriot Act and recent executive orders. Among other things it also calls upon federal and state law enforcement to avoid racial profiling and to report to local civilian police advisory boards. A resolution is only a statement of the opinion of a majority of a city council, and has no binding authority.

“Any single local agency cannot override the authority of the federal government,” says Ward Three Council Member John Torma. “But I think there’s a growing tide of communities across the country, and that’s what’s going to make the difference.”

Torma brought the resolution to the council’s Public Safety and Health Committee after one of his constituents, John Fletcher, brought it to him. At a committee meeting last week, Missoula Police Chief Bob Weaver said the department is against the resolution in its current form. Officers have approached him wanting to know if the city council does not trust them to respect the Constitution, he said.

Ward Six Council Member Clayton Floyd says the resolution as written insults the police and also Congress, which passed the USA Patriot Act. Ward Two Council Member Jim McGrath responded by citing Japanese internment during World War II as an example of Congress’ occasional fallibility on civil rights matters.

“Everybody’s civil liberties need to be protected and I’m all for that,” Floyd says. “But I don’t believe they’re in jeopardy here in Missoula, Montana, and if they are we can address it at the time.”

Scott Crichton, executive director of Montana’s American Civil Liberties Union, points to a recent incident in Portland in which local police refused to act on an FBI request to question young Middle Eastern men. Crichton says it shows how local governments and agencies can take the initiative in protecting civil rights.


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