Memories of Ashcroft

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

In times of emergency, nations have historically set aside certain civil liberties – a notable (and shameful) example in our own country being the herding of Japanese-Americans into detention camps during World War II. Many of us are concerned now at the abrogation of civil liberties since 9/11, with a special concern for Arab-Americans incarcerated in a sort of legal limbo as possible ‘terrorists’, awaiting trial by special ‘military tribunals’. Adding to the horror is the secrecy and threat of torture which attends their detention, along with the usual propaganda meant to instill fear and hatred of them in order to make these measures more ‘palatable’.
Such worries are contingent upon whether or not we trust our leaders. Polls indicate an 80-90 percent approval rating for President Bush. But we must remember that, despite the cult of ‘individualism’, one of the greatest fears in American culture is that of having an opinion which deviates from the majority. That which most Americans see as a beloved national trait -“coming together during a national emergency” – is seen by some of us not as a predilection for community but as a fear of non-conformity, not altogether unlike mob reactions displayed at football games and political rallies – and at lynchings.
All of which brings me to the subject of John Ashcroft. I was once the unfortunate victim of his dubious notions of due process
During the years when Ashcroft was Attorney General, then Governor, of Missouri, I resided in a small rural town (300 souls) in the central part of the state, an area where Baptists call the shots – a rather literal metaphor. I had purchased some land, built a passive solar house, established a small non-profit artists’ colony, and was quietly practicing Zen Buddhism.
When my religious preferences became known in the town, I was declared a ‘witch’ – a ‘terrorist’ of a sort – and what followed was nothing less than terrorism against me. For four and a half years – until I left the state – my house was pelted with rocks, my trees cut down, fires set, my garden and myself sprayed with pesticide, my road repeatedly blocked. There were continual threats to “run me out, burn me out, make me sorry I ever came there,” night“visits”, assaults, and finally a brutal beating.
My long search for justice during those years began with the local sheriff, who was notified of each instance – some 93 of them – of trespassing, property destruction, assault, and threats to my safety. When this availed nothing, I appealed to the county prosecutor, who declared everything a ‘civil’ matter, including the assaults and the beating. He said I would “just have to shell out for a lawyer…and my fee is $40 per hour.”
My neighbor, a deacon in the local Baptist Church, was clearly a ringleader, so I tried to retain a local attorney to bring a civil suit against him. But all of them refused, admitting that since they tried cases before the local prosecutor they were concerned about reprisals if they took my case.
The ACLU at first promised to help me, but then backed out at the last moment because the chapter’s president “was a minister”, leaving me fully exposed and in even greater danger. Many of you may believe, as I did, that the ACLU are the guys on the white horses. And they are, sometimes. But it is important to realize that local chapters are made up of local lawyers who reflect local attitudes and ethics and are, in addition, often lacking in competence.
Finally I appealed to the state’s Attorney General, giving a concise history of the crimes against me and the local law enforcement officials’ refusal to act. But Attorney General John Ashcroft never responded to my plight. The terror continued, even intensified, since the perpetrators by now felt that they could act with impunity. I literally lived in constant fear for my life. (I suggest that you read my book, Habits: A Journal, Niangua Press, for a revealing glimpse into what passes for justice in more parts of this country than you might imagine.)
A year or so later Ashcroft had become Governor, and I again appealed to him for assistance. This time he did respond. He pretended that I had requested a referral to a lawyer, and said that though he “regretted” it, he was prohibited by law from doing so. I wrote again, pointing out that I had requested neither referral to nor recommendation of an attorney, that my appeal was more in line with a Writ of Mandamus, an official demand for law enforcement officials to act in accordance with their mandate. This would at the very least provide me with protectionand prosecute the wrongdoers. (I was now being coached by the new president of the local ACLU chapter who, though capable and empathetic, feared to represent me openly when she learned that the county prosecutor was on the board of regents at the university where she was employed.) I received no further response from Governor Ashcroft.
At last, in a city sixty miles away, I was able to find a lawyer willing to take my case since he rarely, if ever, tried cases in my jurisdiction andso was not vulnerable to recrimination. Just entering private practice, he had previously been an assistant prosecutor in a southern county of the state. After learning of my appeals to my county prosecutor and then to Ashcroft (in both of his capacities as Attorney General and as Governor), he told me of some of his experiences. First, I learned from him that my local prosecutor was also Ashcroft’s campaign manager. He told me further that in the county where he’d been assistant prosecutor, the prosecutor there had made a practice of putting locals in jail whenever he or the sheriff had a quarrel with them. Often enough, my lawyer told me, they were held forup to a YEAR without being charged, then released. Shocked, I asked if Ashcroft was aware of this. “Oh, yes,” my lawyer replied. “I told him.”
The outcome of my case? Exhausted and ill, and after spending over $7,000 on legal fees without visible result, I finally gave up and left the state of Missouri.
So there you have it. For John Ashcroft and his cronies, the undermining of civil liberties is not a daring new approach to protect America in these unusual circumstances. It’s merely John’s same old, same old. And this has frightening implications not only for those held hostage since September 11 under conditions of strictest secrecy, but for all Americans who care about their Constitutional guarantees of liberty and due process.

This entry was posted in Arts. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.