Sunday, February 25, 2007

Report on National ACLU Convention

National ACLU Convention

by Rick Spisak Jr.

Part I

Taking Off

Arriving in coach, I found my bulkhead seat, unfortunately not on the aisle, but in the center. Two women came into the cabin scanning seat numbers till we locked eyes. They'd located their seats, one on either side of the aisle. They conferred, one asked if I would object to swapping seats? This would place me across the aisle, in an aisle seat. She looked hopeful. I waited only a beat before I agreed with a flourish. My new seat mate, was a professionally dressed Hispanic woman. Introducing myself, she gave me her name and volunteered she was a Circuit Court judge, in Dade County.

Avoiding my typical legal cliché‘, "Have you seen any justice lately?" Instead I mentioned I was headed to the National ACLU Convention. She said, after pausing, "Many of us, are very disappointed in the direction our government has been headed." I asked her if she was aware of the Military Commission Bill, that the President was planning to sign on Monday. She shook her head yes, and said, "WHAT THEY ARE DOING IS DESTROYING HABEAS CORPUS!" She added, she has been mistakenly placed on the National NO-FLY-LIST, and has been prevented several times from boarding planes.

Last time, she had been traveling in South America with a friend, but had gotten very sick. She'd gotten so sick that she decided to break her trip and return home. So, desperately ill, in Peru, she learns while waiting at customs, she will not be allowed to board her plane, because she's on the NO FLY LIST, and she will not be permitted to return to America.

She tried explaining, "I was born in America, I have a valid passport, and I am a judge in Miami Dade County Florida, for pity's sake!" This made no impact whatsoever. They began discussing whether she would be detained by the local or national police. She had no desire to be jailed overseas, she was SICK! She showed them her documents again, she explained, she was sick.

Eventually they decided she was so sick, she would be better off out their hair, and out of their country. Suddenly, she was released to board her plane.

The additional irony was, that she hadn’t been cleared, they just let her go because, she was clearly very sick... The irony was not lost on her. She wanted to say, that's no reason, to let some enter the US... because they're sick?

We discussed many of the tragic and unconstitutional actions of the Bush Administration. She reminded me of something that I'd heard, but had forgotten, that among the many people misidentified on the Federal NO-FLY-LIST was the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, who was prevented from traveling to a conference by air, forcing him to drive cross country because he too, had become a victim of the inaccuracies of the National NO-FLY-LIST.

Part II

Arrival at the Convention

Arriving at the Convention we took our seats in time for a discussion between Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and ACLU President Nadine Strossen. The discussion illuminated the differences between the "Strict Constructionist" (a label he decries) Judge Scalia referred to as "Nino", and ACLU President Nadine Strossen referred to as “Nadine”. Judge Scalia, “Nino”, explained that “rights not explicitly enumerated by the drafters of the original documents, simply did not exist.”

His reasoning was not without some merit, because as he pointed out, one man's inference about “Natural Law” was another man's “judicial activism“. Despite that philosophical restraint, another fact equally obvious to many of the attendees, was that one must be intellectually nimble, to understand "Nino's" strict constructionism, which allowed him to decide a presidential election from the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court. This action largely unanticipated by the founders, circumvented the electoral process and in the decision Bush V Gore, the Supreme Court threw restraint to the wind, in a ruling that anointed George W. Bush the 43rd President.

“Natural Law” he spat, there is no such thing, and those who invoke it, to deduce rights left unremunerated by the wisest of 18th Century Statesmen have caused no end of trouble. If it such rights went unmentioned, then no rulings should be based on deduced “Natural Laws“.

Natural Law? He considered the road to all things wild and untamed, that Liberals would use to distort the Law, inferring anything, were they only given the opportunity.

What of slavery, lawful then, unlawful now, what of black suffrage, a 3/5th solution, once the law of the land, should these be rolled back now and forever? Since no franchise had been considered for Native Americans and Women was this more strange fruit of “Natural Law“? Should these be redressed? He never said.

"Nino" then preceded to decry the logic of those that might find some useful precedent in laws drafted overseas. Laws framed by foreigners un-illumed by Liberty’s Stars and Bars? PAUGH! Laws drafted by barbarians from foreign shores? Laws from France? Precedents from Ugandan Jurisprudence? He denounced it. He denied it. (He actually used these specific nations)

I thought it odd, and ill-considered, since international law and international treaties have been a part of American Judicial Law, since our country was recognized by the benefactor of our infancy, la Belle France.

Part III

The Florida Michigan Caucus

We Floridians and Michiganians were welcomed to a small celebration Sunday evening, where we might mix and mingle and renew acquaintances. We were given some tokens, our own personal “hanging chad”, some snacks, a T-Shirt and ample opportunity to compare notes on issues and resources, business cards and email addresses, all by the light of the cash bar.

I had a wonderful surprise, when after being introduced to Sue, a colleague from Central Florida, while mumbling the smallest of small talk, a passerby stopped to say, “Sue Lyons, how are you?” I stopped and stared, the Sue, to whom I had just been introduced, was also a teleconference colleague from B.O.R.D.C.. (The Bill of Rights Coalition). We'd spoken before on B.O.R.D. C. teleconference calls, but we knew each other only as Sue from Ocala and Rick from Stuart.

One of the other organizations that I am involved in, is the BORDC, the Bill of Rights Defense Coalition. This organization does work similar to the ACLU. It sole focus is the “Bill of Rights”. B.O.R.D.C. hosts regular teleconferences, allowing activists from across the U.S. to discuss current issues and share ideas. Often I had heard comments from a woman from Central Florida named Sue Lyons. I turned and said “Sue Lyons, from B.O.R.D.C. ? I'm Rick, from Stuart, also from B.O.R.D.C.. Now, voices from activist phone calls suddenly became faces. We smiled and relished a brief “NON-VIRTUAL” moment.

Part IV

The Folks from Dover

We returned in the morning to the convention center for a presentation from a diverse group of citizens who had turned back a move in their school system, to throw out modern science and turn to Creationism for an “alternative" to science and evolution.

First they faced Creationism, turned that aside, only to find it had morphed into its slicker UPTOWN “HIGH GLOSS” COUSIN, the mis-named “Intelligent Design”. These people, initially strangers, came together despite political, religious and economic differences, and found common cause in a determination to use the law, to fight the modern theocrats. These diverse people with the help of the Pennsylvania ACLU, worked together to drive one peculiar brand of theology from the science classroom in the Dover Pennsylvania School System.

Vic Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director, one of three lawyers who brought the case let each of the plaintiffs give their perspective. We heard from the Teachers, the Moms, the small business men, and the Dads from the Kitzmiller v. Dover case none of whom enthusiastically set about changing their local school board. Little did they initially expect the time consuming and neighbor straining process that not only pitted neighbor against neighbor but also cost the whole community extensive legal fees.

This case reconnected these individuals to the larger dialogue of both the law and scientific progress. They were fortunate to locate documents, that linked the plainly religious Creationism with it's more "marketable" and subtler replacement, “Intelligent Design“. This made the problem easier to correct. The document said... "We'll slip it in... as an alternate theory"...

Dr. James Lawson dubbed “the greatest living theorist of non-violence by Dr. King” gave a remarkable inspirational speech. His first point was, "We must withdraw our consent from this government." "We must deny our consent, for those who would abuse their power and torture human beings. Even tyrants cannot govern if we say no." We must say "No to an illegal government".

“We must resist and say No, to structural poverty. Structural poverty, is a situation where families with modest resources send their children to underfunded schools with old books, and crumbling infrastructure, that often fail to provide an adequate education, which then finds the school financially penalized for it’s failures. Ultimately releasing students to face a world with few skills and limited job prospects. "We must say NO! to Structural Poverty! And we must continue to say YES! to life, YES! to truth and beauty. We must say YES to economic justice! We must oppose the injustice of corporations that use labor, without letting those who do the labor, benefit from the fruit of their own labors."

"Forces that are organized against democratic values, cannot win. Their cause is chaos and war, but they cannot win. Do not be concerned about George Bush, his power is weak. The true struggle is not to the swift, but to those who persevere." "History will vindicate us, the universe of beauty, the preciousness of life, if we hang on to JUSTICE ... the best is yet to be."

There was another very powerful presentation by Cecilia Fire-Thunder, a Native American leader of the Oglala Sioux who has worked to provide her fellow Native American women health care options. Her state of South Dakota has outlawed any abortion option. Her activism first got her suspended and then removed from the presidency of her tribe. These setbacks have neither stopped nor slowed down her efforts to preserve health care options for the women and children of South Dakota.

Part V

Break Out Break-down

After the morning's presentation we all split up to attend a wonderful range of breakout meetings. Each of us, had a panoply of available meetings and I selected "REAL ID - Your Papers Please!"

Across the wide lobby with it’s cupola stood a hotel staffer with a beautiful chime which signaled with it’s resonant tones, it was time to go to your meeting. I found a room, designated “REAL ID”. A term I had come to understand, represented the worst in ID excesses, lots of promise, lots of high-tech hype. I took a seat in the back and began listening to a discussion of the tools being brought to bear in the Administration’s War on privacy. The discussion was focused on the coming national ID which is being driven by three constituencies. Internal security, a universal national ID, immigration and employment, and finally for external security, a digitally loaded passport with RFID technology.

The first front is a new “National” or “universal” drivers license, with a rigorous biometric component so that the state to state variations no longer exist. This one, picture and biometric ID will be useable within several contexts. A new worker ID, for proof positive that one has the right as an American, to employment, this card could also be loaded with employment data, insurance information, medical, financial and other critical data. Finally the third constituency, is for new passport technology, for International Security with REAL ID capability including an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology. This could be active RFID (broadcasting the owner’s information) or passive RFID, (less expensive scan-able code) merely allowing nearby RFID readers, overt or surreptitious to sweep crowds or attendees, thus verifying the true or REAL ID of every person entering into a controlled area or passing through a public space.

The discussion began with a detailing the REAL ID bills coming at us. Pressure from the Anti-Terror Industries, pressure from the Voter Limiting crowd, and finally the xenophobes on the Limit Immigration side, have all combined to push the discussion in favor of those who want a National ID. This new ID could bring the implementation of a technology far more invasive, far richer in content, than any other identity tracking technology ever contemplated by the government.

The lecture followed the evolution of “THE COMPLETE DATABASE on ALL AMERICANS” from Echelon, and "TIA", Total Information Awareness

through TALON and its as yet un-Named predecessors. The new "improved" passports about to be implemented, will contain an RFID Chip, a radio frequency identification chip. Picture a tiny IC Chip, a memory - data chip about 1/4th the size of a grain of rice, holding your social security number, your driving record, your medical records, your employment history, and more. It could also hold all your bio-metric data, [retinal scan, finger prints, facial recognition numbers, and eventually…DNA or whatever!]

They went on to discuss the fact that new passports and the anticipated "national” drivers licenses as currently conceived, will include a copy of your “digital face” a scanning technology used to facilitate digital facial recognition. The notorious lack of security with RFID chips was also discussed. Since passive or surreptitious scanning is an issue, this might allow decreased security. The example raised by one of the panelists, was this; imagine you are a US diplomat, touring through some dangerous city, trying to keep a low profile, to blend into the population. Now, picture someone with an RFID scanner looking for Americans. Suddenly the signal representing a person carrying an American passport shows up on the scope, on his signal, figures move through the crowd and a diplomat is betrayed by his “smart” passport. Anonymity can be security overseas too.

With all databases merged you will soon leave data-dna wherever you go, and all communications and all transactions will be documented. That is not off in the future it is being implemented now. Ask anyone who works with databases, the hard part is not building the database, the hard part is keeping it up to date and harder still error-free. Who will do the “trueing” or verifying the databases?

Some practical counter measures were discussed, some people suggested micro-waving your “intelligent” passport, or wrapping it in aluminum foil that would shield attempts to scan it remotely. A website called “The Practical Traveler” was mentioned as a location for more suggestions for how best to handle these high-tech “tattle-tale” passports.

Are there options? Yes, for now, you can request a new passport, they don’t have the RFID just yet. It should be valid, (at least in theory) for ten years. This way you might delay, that particular personal tracking device. The fact remains, that today each cell phone already contains tracking technology, as well as your favorite ring tones. They can be used now, to triangulate your precise location within inches, from nearby cellular towers. In addition, it was pointed out later, by a national security whistle-blower sitting in the rear of the audience, your cell phone can be remotely accessed and turned into a live microphone without your intercession.

Ollie North, may have thought, when it came to E-Mail, erased is erased. But it didn't take the recent congressional email and instant messenger scandals to remind this audience, that there is no privacy in email. Jack Abramoff may have been surprised to see his E-Mail describing his Native American clients as monkeys, but no one in this conference is counting on Email privacy.

The same day the conference ended, the Director of the FBI was meeting with police chiefs from across America, telling them, that (ISPs) Internet Service Providers, will be compelled to store email and surfing information for longer periods, because, as he stated; "most people have experienced problems with the Internet". These files he further stated, “will facilitate law enforcements investigations“.

We learned about the practice of “policy laundering” where an issue too difficult or politically sensitive to raise in this country becomes easier to address when done commercially in a foreign capital. They wanted to track all funds transfers in America, OOPS, don’t want to ask here, it might raise a ruckus, ask for it in Switzerland, where all funds transferred are recorded.

Done, no one in America reads foreign news anyway!

Another speaker discussed the problems with the “NO-FLY-LIST”. He has been intermittently stopped by airport security personnel, who've informed him that his name was on the NO-FLY List. He was placed in custody, subjected to intense scrutiny, but, ultimately released. He’s subsequently discovered the list isn’t universally observed. Ironically he noted, he flies frequently but is stopped intermittently. He said he's been unable to discern any pattern; he’s stopped on some carriers and not others, stopped sometimes on one carrier and other times not, all on the same carrier?

He also discussed some of the international figures who've been stopped by the no fly list, including an Oxford Professor who was a consultant to Tony Blair, attempting to come to teach at Notre Dame, denied. Recently an Ambassador from Peru was refused due to the No-Fly-List. (Oh, also Ted Kennedy had appeared on the list), but someone quipped, that might have been "intentional".

When questions and comments were taken from the audience, I mentioned two points that hadn't been included in the discussion. The incorporation of ubiquitous video cameras with SMART "face-recognition" technology on street corners, and in gathering places like malls, airports, seaports bus and train stations and stadiums. Imagine a fully integrated surveillance net, your presence at the corner of K Street, is passed by the facial recognition software running behind the video camera scanning street corner, and matched then with the transaction you later make at the corner store, cross matched and then filed as part of your total transaction history.

The other point I made, was that over ten years ago, one of my children was Instant Messaging a school chum, (She was in Middle School) and they were both in a play about a teenage suicide. They were running lines over the internet. My wife and I were watching television, two county police officers appeared at our door, and demanded to see the child, who was still online.

She was terrified, she could barely answer their questions. She confirmed that she was unhurt. They were ready to detain her for her "safety". So it's not just Congressman and Quakers whose Internet communications are monitored.

Part VI

The Torturous Tale

I attended a presentation entitled Guantanamo and Torture, this was a presentation by British writer David Rose. He has been involved in interviewing several captives who have been exonerated and released, from Guantanamo captivity.

He spoke about the Military Commissions Act about to be signed. He pointed out that Sen. Mc Cain who had originally opposed the bill has now signed on and describes the bill as “adhering to the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions“. He quoted President Bush’s comment that “We can finally do what the American people want us to do, to capture, detain, question and try these terrorists.” His analysis is that “this bill guarantees that there are virtually no limits to presidential powers during war time. ”

He pointed out that the British who have far more contemporary experience with terrorism and bombing, used criminal law, to track and defeat the IRA.

The IRA, had used the full range of terror tactics against the British, but they were defeated in the courts. The IRA has been defeated, by rule of law. Defeated in criminal courts, without the loss of Habeas Corpus.

Mr. Rose tracked documents that detailed how the detainees would be treated, these orders descended from the highest offices in America to the deepest dungeons of Abu Gharib, Bahgram and Guantanamo. He gave credit to the ACLU‘s freedom of Information demands that have brought this information to the public‘s attention.

He also showed documents from the military and the FBI listing the brutal methods used. He told in a former prisoners own words, what treatment was like for those held there by the Bush regime. I will only mention only one detail in the many horrific examples given about the treatment received in Guantanamo. He shown graphic examples of the methods used. His illustrations came from woodcuts of the Spanish Inquisition, where similar “humane” methods were in use. Quite a vintage perspective on the progress of human rights.

Part VII

The Philip Glass performance

The Composer and performer Philip Glass entertained with a performance of one of his compositions which was well received by the audience. It was greeted with a powerful ovation at it’s conclusion.

Debbie Harry

Ms. Harry appeared with a single acoustic guitar for accompaniment.

The Comedian - Greg Proops

The comedian, performed topical political humor using “colloquial street language”. He included some Foley, Clinton and Lewinsky humor.

VIII

The Whitehouse and Capital Hill

We received training on how best to communicate with the staff of our Representatives and Senators. It was thorough and intended to assist those who were new to speaking with political figures. Our trip was carefully planned. Buses had been arranged to transport us to the hill and back. During the question and answer period, I took an opportunity to mention, that time permitting there was an opportunity to visit an event in Lafayette Park just north of the White House. It was an event in opposition to the Military Commission Bill, a people’s countersigning ceremony at the President’s door. It had been organized by a collection of religious groups in opposition to torture and the BORDC. Signatures would be collected and then presented to the President.

Fortuitously the scheduling of my meeting on the hill, allowed me to attend the rally at the White House, sign the Anti-Military Commission document and then proceed to my meeting on the Hill. I had made arrangements with my team leader, John Pauly Jr. from the West Palm Beach Chapter, that I would meet them at Representative Clay Shaw’s office by 10am. Our meeting was scheduled for 10:30am. George Crossley of the Central Florida Chapter and I, took the Metro to a stop just a few blocks from the park and walked in a cool drizzle to Lafayette Park. George’s attendance proved invaluable since some of the activists at the rally, had decided to perform an act of civil disobedience.

George was able to share experiences he had in the past, in previous non-violent civil disobedience actions. He spoke with the activists, the organizers and the park officers, with the goal of reducing tension.

Prayers, patriotic and peace songs as well as speeches were the prelude to the signing. It was a colorful crowd, a man in an orange jump suit, a woman from Kentucky who’d brought her 14 year old daughter and colleagues from the ACLU convention a crowd of well over two hundred came together to call for an end to American Torture. Business men and women as well as activist all coming together, to denounce Terror’s war on Terror.

After the initial ANTI-TORTURE ceremonies, the signed petition was taken to the White House gate. A delegation requested an opportunity to discuss the petition with the President. Quietly and calmly anti-torture protestors then briefly blocked the gate to the White House, until they were peacefully arrested. Peace was given a chance.

I met my colleagues at the offices of Representative E. Clay Shaw, House Republican of Florida. Our delegation arrived approximately ½ hour ahead, our appointment was confirmed. We met with his aide, whose areas of responsibility mirrored precisely our topics.

We thanked her for the Congressman’s support of a woman’s right to choose, and then made our cases. We had three issues on our agenda, opposition to Warrantless Wiretapping, in favor of a just and fair Immigration Policy, and opposition to Racial Profiling. She nodded politely throughout. We deposited a copy of our talking points, and we offered to make our legislative staff available meet with the congressman’s staff anytime they needed supplemental information.

IX

In the Cameraman's Lens

After returning to the conference hotel from the hill, I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for my colleagues to join me for lunch. I had just sat down and anticipated meeting my colleague George, we would compare notes over a box lunch.

A man dressed completely in black sat down, on an adjacent chair and asked, “Are you with the ACLU?” “Yes,” I nodded. “Have you been watching the video of the speeches?” “Yes“, I said. “So, what do you think of the video production?” “why do you ask?” I said, “I have to warn you, I’m probably not the ideal person to ask, I am a director and producer and my standards are impossibly high. I take staging and production very serious and you probably don’t want my complete candor.” “Yes, I do“ he said. “So, what do you think ?”

I said, “I noticed that the director seemed not to consistently follow the speakers, and frankly my honest reaction, was that maybe he was handling his Email or balancing his checkbook during several segments.” “Oh. My god!” he said, “it sucked. I almost walked out yesterday?” He said, “I’m one of the cameramen. I can’t take this director.“

He said, “can I ask you a second question?” “Sure,” I said, “feel free.”

He paused looked serious and said, “I’m a Right-Wing Christian, and I have to ask you, Why do you people hate Christians?” I didn’t want to say, he was wrong. I didn’t want to say, he was lied to. I did want him to understand, who we really are. I said, “I have been with the ACLU for decades, and I have never heard anyone speak against prayer. Prayer is a wonderful grace, and most of the people I know in the ACLU are very spiritual people.” I said, “I think you’ve been misinformed, by people who thought they understood us, but they might be wrong. “

“Maybe I can dispel a couple common misconceptions about the ACLU”.

I said, for example “The Nativity Scene Issue“. Right now, we live in a country where a majority of Americans consider themselves Christians. But imagine if you were a Christian and the majority of the country was Buddhist or Hindu. This could mean down at city hall, they would be getting ready to set up a statue of Shiva with it’s eight arms, or a statue of Ganesha the Elephant headed god, or some other image, and your child might be forced to pray to that image. “

“This would represent the state telling you or your children how to pray, and to whom to pray. We would support your claim, to oppose such state sponsorship of religion.” “What about school, prayer?, he asked, “you people are against school prayer!” at this point, George has joined us, and he offered, “no one opposes students choosing to pray.” “What we oppose, is a teacher or principal selecting, defining or choosing what prayer the students may use.”

George explained he had participated on a case in Orlando which had a school board rule that there would be a NON-SECTARIAN prayer read at the conclusion of games. ACLU joined a local church council to oppose it, because the state should not be providing an approved prayer. He told another story, of a young girl, an excellent student, who liked to read her Bible during study time at school, and a misguided zealous teacher who misunderstood, the separation of church and state, as well as freedom of speech, confiscated the girl’s Bible. The ACLU sued, and she got her Bible back and was promised that it would never be removed again.

Our new friend, looked thoughtful, and said, he had no idea that the ACLU took on cases like that. But then, he turned grim and said, “can I tell you something. Last night that comedian, he was so vulgar, he was everything that I expected from you people, vulgar, sexually promiscuous, lewd, and anti-American.”

I said, “Let me respond in a way, that I think you may understand. We support freedom of speech as spelled out in the Bill of Rights. I have to support freedom of speech, The challenge with freedom of speech, is that it cannot be limited to just the speech you like. Unless you support the right of people who write, think and speak things that you disapprove of, then you don’t really preserve freedom of speech. We are conservatives, who support the constitution and the Bill of Rights for every citizen. That is our guide.”

He said, “you know I feel a lot better about the ACLU now.” “I think, I understand.” We shook hands. George and I just smiled.

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