ARCATA — This old mill town, until recently, has been dismissed as being out there, driven politically by a neo-counterculture bent. Here, on the north coast of California where transients are known as "urban travelers," freshman City Councilman David Meserve is flouting the federal government in his pledge to protect civil rights, giving him the biggest stage of his life.
Much to his surprise, Meserve, a 53-year-old grandfather, recently has emerged as a voice on the leading edge of a nationwide movement that is turning increasingly subversive. A small but growing chorus of local governments and other entities is denouncing, and even defying, a federal law that critics consider a violation of civil rights -- the USA Patriot Act, approved by Congress a month after the Sept. 11 attacks to expand the government's surveillance powers in terrorist investigations.
Under one of the most controversial provisions of the act, FBI agents were given easier access to bookstore and library records, allowing them to secretly track what an individual is reading. In terrorist investigations, government attorneys who seek search warrants no longer must show "probable cause" before an open court; they now can go behind closed doors and ask for an order to seize any record that is relevant to an investigation. The law also prohibits the record keepers -- booksellers, librarians, etc. -- from telling anyone about the seizure. A companion to the act, which would broaden its scope, is under discussion at the Justice Department.
Critics -- including librarians, booksellers, city officials, and a group of congressmen -- say the Patriot Act violates provisions of the Constitution including the 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures and prohibits the execution of search warrants without probable cause.
In April, Meserve steered Arcata to a provocative stand. The town became the only city in the country to make it illegal for its top officials to cooperate with Patriot Act investigations, in which federal agents also have broader authority to monitor e-mail, conduct wiretaps and use other intelligence tools.
Arcata's ordinance prohibits its managers, including the police chief, from voluntarily cooperating with federal authorities under the act. (Other cities, such as Eugene, Ore., have approved resolutions, which have less force, with similar directives.) Meserve, who drafted the ordinance with the help of the city manager and city attorney, says he has gotten interest from such far-flung media as Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel. He has also fielded calls on how to draft such a law from about 30 cities across the nation, though he declines to name them.
"It has obviously caught the imagination of a lot of people because we're saying, 'Not here in Arcata,' the little town that stood up for the Constitution," Meserve says. (City Manager Dan Hauser declined comment on the ordinance; City Atty. Nancy Diamond did not return telephone calls.)
As a longtime antiwar and environmental activist, Meserve is used to challenging the system with little attention from outside Arcata, population 16,400. Last fall, as a first-time candidate for public office, Meserve, a Green Party member, used the campaign slogan: "The federal government has gone stark, raving mad." He is "delighted but amazed" at the press coverage of the anti-Patriot Act ordinance.
"That's the only way you get a movement that isn't marginalized," says Meserve, a pony-tailed, backpack-carrying building contractor who rides his mountain bike on errands around town. "That's the only way you get real change in a society is when it embraces not just the left but the whole spectrum." Councilman Michael Machi, the lone "no" vote on the anti-Patriot Act ordinance, says the issue has been a distraction at a time when the city is facing major budget cuts. Machi, 53, a bearded, Birkenstock-wearing woodworker, says he is often thanked for being "the voice of reason on the council."
Parts of the Patriot Act are "very troubling," he says, but that doesn't mean the city should pass a law against it. "Next thing I know we're going to be weighing in on capital punishment and abortion, which is not our job. I ran to be a public servant, and I ended up in a public circus."
Momentum against the act has been building among local governments, according to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a citizens group in Florence, Mass., that is monitoring, and helping to foster, opposition to the act.
By December 2002, for instance, 17 cities had passed Patriot Act-related resolutions, according to the committee. To date, 112 local governments have approved such resolutions, including city councils in West Hollywood, Santa Monica and Claremont, along with tony Evanston, Ill., and North Pole, Alaska, population 1,570. Hawaii and Alaska also have passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions.