CLEVELAND - "We now live in a surveillance society," civil liberties attorney Chip Pitts charged here May 7, "and the dangerous thing is that [it is being] taken for granted, like water is for fish."
Speaking to several hundred people at the ninth annual Civil Rights Banquet of the Cleveland Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Pitts said that the killing of Osama Bin Laden has not slowed the drastic curtailment of U.S. civil liberties.
"We now have deeply entrenched interests, including 1600 new agencies," that live off the $80 billion spent each year on intelligence, he said.
Many of the restrictions were enacted under the Patriot Act, pushed through Congress after the 2001 terror attacks. Parts of the act are now up for renewal. This includes the infamous Section 215, which allows the FBI to obtain records of what anyone is reading from bookstores, libraries and the Internet, as well as medical and financial records, even when there is no probable cause to believe the person is engaged in criminal activity. Some 50,000 such audits are conducted each year, according the American Civil Liberties Union.
Renewal of these provisions passed the Republican-controlled House but could face serious opposition in the Senate. Pitts said May 12 has been set as a day to urge senators to oppose blanket reauthorization of the Patriot Act and support instead the Justice Act, a measure to moderate the problem.
Pitts, a professor at Stanford Law School and a leader of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said the new technology for government spying on citizens is "frightening" and that so-called "fusion centers," pooling public and private sector data have been set up in many cities.
Muslims, he said, are only the latest in a long series of groups targeted for repression in the course of our history.
"It's ironic that at the very time democratic rights are being asserted in the Arab world they are being restricted in the United States."
"We're seeing a regression of the rule of law."
Fighters against Islamophobia were honored at the event. They included Marcia Webb, president of the Mansfield NAACP. Recently Webb got the school superintendent to rescind permission for the tea party to use Mansfield High School for a talk by Usama Dakdouk, a Christian fanatic who incites hatred of Muslims, claiming they are demons, that President Obama is a Muslim and his health care reform is a conspiracy to put Muslim doctors in charge of the health care system.
Also honored was the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, which has sponsored well-attended events promoting understanding of Islam, and Isam Zaiem, the Syrian-American founder of the Cleveland CAIR chapter and a highly respected civil rights activist. Zaiem called for unity to defend democratic rights and wore a button supporting repeal of Senate Bill 5, the measure stripping public employees of their right to bargain collectively.