May 18, 2003
ARCATA, California (AP) -- More than 100 cities and one state have passed resolutions condemning the USA Patriot Act, saying it gives the federal government too much snooping power. But in this liberal fold of Northern California's Redwood Curtain, a simple denouncement just doesn't go far enough.
To cooperate with the act, the City Council says, is criminal. Starting this month, a new city ordinance would impose a fine of $57 on any city department head who voluntarily complies with investigations or arrests under the aegis of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism bill passed after September 11.
Arcata's law is mostly symbolic, since federal law trumps any local ordinance. Still, the notion of civic disobedience is drawing plenty of attention.
'We knew we were doing something a little bit bold,' says Dave Meserve, the councilman who sponsored the ordinance. 'It certainly did not occur to me that it would catch the imagination of the American public.'
In Arcata, the ordinance is the latest in a long line of actions that set the former mill town apart from the flannel-clad conservatism of California's North Coast.
Home to about 16,000 and nearly 300 miles up the coast from San Francisco, Arcata made waves in the early 1990s as the first city with a Green Party majority. Greens now hold two of five seats on the council, which recently issued a proclamation against war in Iraq.
At Northtown Books, one of several businesses lining Arcata's charming town square, employees have followed reaction to the ordinance with interest. 'Some of the reports of what's going on here have made it seem like, 'Oh, it's those crazy hippies in Arcata,"" Jay Herzog said.
The USA Patriot Act gives the government new powers to use wiretaps, electronic surveillance and other information gathering. Opponents say it violates civil liberties; supporters say it has helped fight terrorism.
'The Patriot Act has been an invaluable tool in the government's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks,' said Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez, who said the act is constitutional and is being used only against people suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power or foreign terrorist organizations.
But Martinez calls the groundswell of resolutions 'merely symbolic. We haven't had an instance where localities are not complying.'