A skit featuring the characters Lady Liberty, one of the founding fathers, “General Attorney” John Ashcroft, Bill O’ Rights and a pint-sized “Dubya” opened this year’s annual meeting of the Washtenaw County Branch and the University’s Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday.
A panel of speakers that included ACLU Legal Director Michael Steinberg, University history Prof. Martha Jones, United Auto Worker Health Safety Specialist Luis Varquez and Heidelberg Project artist Tyree Guyton spoke on the need for political dissent.
“Dissent is easy and can be done in many different ways,” Washtenaw ACLU board member Mary Rave said. “The important thing is to speak out so they can’t say that everybody agrees with them.”
Steinberg, who spoke about the legitimacy of dissent, said speaking out against injustice is an American tradition. “In times of crises, it is even more important for citizens to dissent when the government is doing wrong,” he said. “Dissent is not antipatriotic. … That’s the point we’re trying to make.”
Steinberg referred to recent post-Sept. 11 events that have raised concerns about the civil liberties of Arab-Americans.
The ACLU recently filed a suit to open the high-profile Rabih Haddad case to the general public. Haddad, a local Muslim leader, is being held on a visa violation, while officials investigate the Global Relief Foundation, a charity he co-founded, for possible links to terrorism.
The union also created the Know-Your-Rights Hotline for people of Middle Eastern and Arab descent who received letters requesting interviews following the terrorists attacks. It is also investigating potential lawsuits involving complaints against racial profiling people of Arabic descent.
Rave said they tried to put together a program that would get more people to come to their annual meeting, where they nominate members for board positions.
“It’s a very exciting program all about dissent as an act of patriotism,” said Ellen Rabinowitz, president of the Washtenaw County ACLU. “It is a topic that I think is important to the times.”
Varquez, who directed the opening skit, said theater has a long history as a tool for expressing dissent. The cast of the opening skit sang parodies about Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush as Bill O’Rights was literally stripped of his rights by the “General Attorney.” Lady Liberty, played by Rave, saved the day by striking down the General Attorney and driving away Dubya.
Guyton said he used art to show dissent with his Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
“I went out and decided that I would change my community myself,” Guyton said. He converted an abandoned building into a highly controversial work of art that the city is trying to shut down.
“These things speak to people at some unintellectual level and it’s very powerful,” he said.
“(Guyton’s) art deals with social and political issues that we’re facing today,” said Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg Project.
Rave said the ACLU is a watchdog for the state legislature and the courts. She said they defend people whose rights are threatened as well as hold lobbies and educational programs.
“Many people don’t really understand what the Bill of Rights really is. …What it does is defend the minority from the majority,” she said.