While Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the Patriot Act before an invited audience of law enforcement officials inside the Sheraton Imperial Hotel, more than 400 uninvited persons rallied outside to protest their loss of civil liberties under the Bush administration.

It was a remarkable scene of protesters male and female, young and old, of all races and political perspectives that stretched for three blocks in Research Triangle Park. They came from as far away as Asheville and Carteret County, summoned by a remarkable network of e-mail lists of organizations including the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the National Lawyers Guild, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, MoveOn.org, People for the American Way , the N.C. Peace and Justice Coalition and others. When I arrived a little after 10 a.m., thinking I would be early, there already were several hundred people there, remarkable since it was not until Thursday that anyone received a message confirming the date, time and site of Ashcroft’s visit. Later that day and Friday I was flooded with e-mails about the visit, and I sent out a notice to N.C. Peace Action’s listserv, which has nearly 350 subscribers in North Carolina. The Internet is an amazing and effective organizing tool.

The protesters were carrying all kinds of signs, and chanting loudly. A woman dressed as a grim reaper in black carried a sign, “RIP Our Civil Liberties,” while people chanted, “We are watching you.”

The Raging Grannies from Chapel Hill sang protest songs, and throughout the rally, a blue panel truck with a PA system drove back and forth with Joe McTaggart’s classic bare-breasted lady painted on it. Roger Ehrlich again had a display of large umbrellas with painted peace symbols.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee is a grassroots effort opposing federal legislation and executive orders that violate constitutional rights and liberties. Its goal is to increase community awareness of all threats to the Bill of Rights and the spirit of our nation’s constitution and pass and put in place local resolutions to oppose the unconstitutional aspects of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act, and other orders and legislation. So far, The New York Times reports, 160 communities, including three states, have passed similar resolutions.

The Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee played an active role in the organizing the rally and other events in the Triangle. Peggy Misch is a key leader of this group.

Though lighthearted at times, the protest was deadly serious to its participants. Here’s a sampling of why some of them said they came:

  • Elizabeth Ito from Winston-Salem said she was fired by Forsyth Technical Community College because she told her English class, “the (Iraq) war was illegal, immoral and the whole world was against us.” Two students in her class went to the dean, and Ito says she was fired six weeks later, despite earlier excellent evaluations.
  • Eva Farrington, a member of the ACLU-NC said she had lost her civil liberties to the Nazis when living in Austria, and she doesn’t want others to lose their civil liberties.
  • Ed Whitfield, a leader of the Greensboro Peace Coalition, said that it’s really important that people understand Bush’s conception of the U.S. and world. “It’s our responsibility to challenge the Bush administration.”
  • Rachel Fields, a college student from Asheville, had recently returned from Germany. It was only there that she learned how the Patriot Act is threatening our civil liberties, and blames the lack of media coverage in the U.S.
  • State Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), a professor at UNC-Greensboro, said he encourages students to read a wide range of opinions, but the Patriot Act is a serious threat to our basic liberties because it requires libraries to keep records of names and books checked out, and supply them to police upon demand.
  • Johnny Crawford, a Libertarian Party member, said the Patriot Act was whittling away at the civil liberties of all people.
  • Anna Carson-Dewitt, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of End the Cycle of Violence, said we need to send a message to Ashcroft that he is infringing upon our civil liberties and we will not let this happen.
  • Patricia Camp, former director of the ACLU-NC, said it’s crucial for the ACLU and other organizations to mobilize against the Bush administration’s attack on the Bill of Rights. Patricia did a head count showing at least 450 protesters.
  • Joan Walsh, Susan Alstin, and Jim Senter of the Durham County Bill of Rights Defense Committee said that under the Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act, the Justice Department was exaggerating the threat of terrorism, resulting in the abuse of civil liberties.
  • Barbara Nettesheim, 69, of Chapel Hill, told The New York Times in its story Monday that she’d never been to a protest before. “But what the government is doing really scares me,” she told the Times, “and I think Ashcroft should have the guts to talk to regular people and listen to them.” EndBlock