Participants were united in their opposition to the Government's destruction of the Bill of Rights. "If they start with immigrants, where will they stop?" asked Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer representing 29 of the detained immigrants and one of the conference speakers.
The conference, held at Rutger's University, was organized by the New Jersey Local of the National Writers Union and was endorsed by the NYC and Philadelphia NWU Locals, New Jersey Independents, NJIA, NJ Solidarity, Open Tent Middle East Coalition, Radius of Arab-American Writers, Inc. (RAWI), Socialist Party, and Student Lawyers Guild and Workers Democracy Network,. At an Activist plenary on Saturday, participants agreed that the network would begin to put together a database of the pictures and stories of the "missing and kidnapped"--the detained and the deported. These stories will be made available to the media on a local, regional and national basis. There was also clear support for the call for a "National Day of Action to Stop the War at Home", where teach-ins, rallies and other protests would be called on February 21 and March 21-22 to demand: Free All the Detainees! Free All Held without Charges by the US Government! End All Registrations of Immigrants! End the Repressive Laws -- Patriot Act, Anti-Terrorism Act, Home Security Act!
"Living in a Rogue State"
Conference roundtable topics ranged from "Feminism Pushed into the Background" to the "Israeli-Palestinian Struggle". Conference participants were mostly NYC/NJ area residents, but many came from outside the area, some as far as Los Angeles.
The Saturday session was the most heavily attended day of the two-day conference. It kicked off with an educational plenary where participants were brought up-to-date on issues related to the government's attacks on civil rights. Sohail Mohammed told the audience how some of his clients have been detained for over four months without formal charges. Mr. Mohammed told stories of immigrants arrested by mere coincidence, sometimes for asking directions from a police officer or bumping into an INS officer. Many of these clients have served months in prison for minor immigration violations. "We are living in a rogue state", he concluded.
Nancy Chang of the Center of Constitutional Rights and author Jim Edwards spoke on how the USA Patriot Act is giving the government the opportunity to disregard the constitution in the name of "national security". "Political discussion and decent is being quashed during a period where it is most needed" said Ms. Chang during her presentation. "The USA Patriot Act is criminalising acts of conscience like civil disobedience, while the government is developing technology to follow and record our every-day activities."
Other panels on Saturday included topics such as self-censorship, the impact of the war on terrorism on feminism and Bush's Endless War at Home and Abroad.
Moving to action
During the "Writers as Activists" workshop, participants moved from general discussion on what conference participants were doing as individuals to what we could do together. A draft statement entitled 'Stop the War at Home! Stop the Assault on Our Rights!" was discussed. Most of the participants felt uncomfortable in passing a statement, believing there was too little time to refine it, but the creation of a "Writers and Activists Network" was much more popular, and was approved without objection at the Activist Plenary. Several participants proposed the creation of the database on detainees' stories, which also was enthusiastically greeted..
Sunday's "Writers & Other Workers Fight Together" roundtable brought support for the Network idea and the Days of Action from Derrick Thomas, National Vice President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). Eight hundred and fifty thousand government jobs are about to be privatized by the Bush administration under the guise of 'Homeland Security". "Unionism is being labeled as unpatriotic by the Bush administration", said Mr. Thomas when explaining the pressure his union is now under. "We must re-claim unionism as being patriotic again." Thomas went on to say that AFGE, threatened with being outlawed under the Homeland Security Act, has changed from a service-oriented union to an organizing union actively seeking allies.
Other panelists on the labor plenary were the NJ NWU's co-chair Pat Hilliard (see speech p. ) and adjunct professor organizer Viji Sargis.
Sunday ended with a discussion on writing on the Israel-Palestinian struggle. Jordon Elgrably spoke on his experiences at the Open-Tent Middle East Coalition in Los Angeles. While other speakers discussed their experiences in the Palestinian community. Charlotte Kates of the Student Lawyers Guild and NJ Solidarity summed up what many of the panelists thought when she said, "the government and colleges are coming down hard on our work because our ideas are a threat not only to the government, but to the structure of power."
The conference was recorded in its entirety by WBAI and Manhattan Cmunity Cable for later broadcast. The conference was briefly described on BBC World News Service, which is heard by millions around the world, but there was no coverage by the US press.
The conference was a success on many levels, and the 'Writers and Activists for Civil Rights Network' is a promising accomplishment. Such a network can be an important first step in building the sort of network we need to link labor and community activists and to build a movement to oppose the governments 'war at home'. Click here to add text.