NORTHAMPTON, MASS., AND WASHINGTON
Residents of Kenai, Alaska, usually worry more about the number of king salmon in the river than what the nearest FBI agents are up to 80 miles away in Anchorage.
Yet this summer, the Kenai City Council in this small fishing town voted to limit cooperation between their 15-member police force and federal agents who may be seeking information about individual citizens.
The source of their concern: the USA Patriot Act, which expanded government antiterrorism tools and has become a punching bag for anger about law- enforcement powers post-9/11.
A grass-roots movement has pushed through similar resolutions in 200 communities in 34 states in the two years since Congress passed the act. The cause has been embraced in some surprising corners of the country by an unlikely left-right alliance of peace and pro-gun activists alike.
"In a broad sense, the concerns of the right and left are similar," says Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. "They fear whoever is holding power will abuse their political opponents."
For 1960s-era activists, the Patriot Act's provisions expanding government surveillance and detention powers bring back memories of times when the FBI spied on civil rights leaders and infiltrated antiwar groups. Younger activists feel impelled to protest even as they have done against foreign causes such as apartheid in South Africa or Burma's military dictatorship.
So it's perhaps not surprising that the first resolutions were passed in the spring of 2002 by peace movement veterans in liberal college towns such as Ann Arbor, Mich., or Northampton, Mass.
"It's a threat to the democratic process," says Nancy Talanian, a Northampton activist who founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to help other activists get resolutions passed. "These changes are not necessarily protecting us from terrorism."
But this year, the Patriot Act has started attracting more attention from people on the right. Gun owners and antiabortion demonstrators, for example, have expressed fears they may be targeted by a future Democratic administration as domestic terrorists.
"We don't want a nameless, faceless bureaucracy exercising this kind of authority," Rep. Butch Otter (R) of Idaho told the Monitor.
In some parts of the country, left-leaning activists reached out to sympathetic local conservatives after failing to muster support on their own. That was the case in Boise, Idaho, where Green Party activist Gwen Sanchirico formed a coalition called the Boise Patriots along with National Rifle Association members, antiabortion activists, and environmentalists.
"We agreed that we would leave our political baggage at the door, and we would only come together to defend the Bill of Rights and our Constitution," Ms. Sanchirico says. Boise passed their resolution on Sept. 30.
Elsewhere, conservatives acted without any prodding, as in Oklahoma City, where a group of Christian home-schoolers and their parents testified on behalf of a resolution later rejected by the city council.
In Kenai, the resolution movement benefited from strong support from elected officials such as Rep. Don Young (R), who called the Patriot Act "one of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed." The Alaska Legislature also passed a statewide resolution, one of only three states, including Vermont and Hawaii, to do so.
Kenai Mayor John Williams says the independent spirit of Alaskans, as well as a significant number of hunters and gun-rights activists in town, helped catapult the movement. "Alaskan people by and large are very independent. They want their land, they want to be able to hunt," he says.
Not everyone was happy with the result. Kenai police chief Chuck Kopp says concerns from "people who were fearful of big government [plucking] you off the street tomorrow" were unfounded. But he adds that the resolution hasn't had much impact on the way his officers do their job. "It basically affirms that we will not violate our oaths of office, which we wouldn't have done anyway."
Indeed, the practical impact of such nonbinding resolutions is limited, legal experts say. In many cities, getting consensus on a city council means passing a resolution that "says nothing," says Sanchirico of Boise. And the Justice Department dismisses even the most strongly worded efforts, such as that of Arcata, Calif., which makes it a misdemeanor for local police officers to enforce the Patriot Act.
"[The resolutions] have absolutely no effect whatsoever on enforcement," says Mary Beth Buchanan, US attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania. "These resolutions do not stop law enforcement from doing what they need to do to protect the public."
Federal officials, however, blame the resolution sponsors for spreading what they call misinformation about the Patriot Act. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray told a congressional committee Oct. 21 that groups attacking the Patriot Act have "misled the public."
That concern spurred Attorney General John Ashcroft to launch a multicity speaking tour this summer and a new website, lifeandliberty.gov, which dispels what it characterizes as myths concerning the act. [Editor's note: The original version of this story included an incorrect URL.]
In particular, the Justice Department charges that opponents exaggerate the types of groups that may qualify as domestic terrorists, the likelihood that the government might snoop on citizens' reading habits, and the degree to which investigators can launch probes without a judge's approval.
"That is absolutely false," says Ms. Buchanan, who distributed a list of "10 myths about the Patriot Act" to federal prosecutors earlier this year. "For every new tool given to the government under the Patriot Act, there is a corresponding judicial oversight provided under the act."
Anti-Patriot Act groups portray the new powers more ominously. For example, the Chicago-land Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights has a scene from the movie of George Orwell's "1984" on its pamphlet cover, which charges that the Patriot Act violates four clauses in the Bill of Rights.
Part of the discrepancy, both sides acknowledge, is the act's complexity, coupled with secrecy surrounding how such powers are being used. Blake Ringsmuth, a civil rights lawyer in Traverse City, Mich., says the act is so confusing that most citizens don't have the skills to think critically about it. "To read it correctly, you have to have volumes and volumes of the US Code," he says.
In Washington, there are signs that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are having doubts about the Patriot Act, too. An amendment introduced by Representative Otter this past summer against "sneak and peak" searches overwhelmingly passed the House.
Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Sens. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, and Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska has introduced several pieces of legislation designed to scale back the Patriot Act.
The legislation is endorsed by an ideologically diverse coalition of Washington interest groups ranging from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform to the liberal People for the American Way. Those groups usually have so little in common that a panel discussion this month that included both their presidents was labeled "Hell Freezes Over."
Meanwhile, the number of cities passing resolutions is growing - including Chicago, Huntington, W.Va.; and Sarasota, Fla., in the past month.