By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – Attorney Constantine Kokkoris believes the passage and signing into law of the USA PATRIOT Act only a few weeks after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in September, 2001 was, for such a sweeping change of American law, surprisingly quick. That’s why he supports a new resolution introduced Wednesday by New York City Council member Bill Perkins and supported by many of his fellow councilmen.
Named “The Defense of Bill of Rights,” the resolution calls for the repeal of USA PATRIOT Act provisions that, in the opinion of its supporters, erode fundamental rights. It calls for an end to “sneak and peek” searches without notice or probable cause; an end to ethnic and religious profiling; an end to spying on First Amendment-protected activities; NYPD assurances to refrain from subjecting NYC residents to secret detentions; public libraries to give notice to users that federal agents could examine their borrowing records without notice; the release of the names of all residents detained since 9/11. If the resolution is passed, New York City will join more than 100 other municipalities and two states that have passed similar resolutions.
“It is one thing to quickly pass a declaration of war, which is a fairly straightforward Act,” said Kokkoris, who was a speaker at a Washington, D.C. protest against the PATRIOT Act and the war in Iraq. “It is quite another to pass complex, far-reaching legislation that changes this many aspects of federal law. I don’t think you’ll find anything else like it in history. Some members of Congress even went on record saying they didn’t have much time to consider it.”
A member of the newly formed Astorians for Peace and Justice (APJ), Kokkoris encourages all New York City residents to contact their City Council representatives and urge their support of the resolution. Coordinated by Debbie Riga, who has been active with Cypriot-American organizations in the community, APJ grew out of the successful initial “Greeks for Peace” effort to fill busses with area citizens who wanted to protest government policy in Washington in February and April. The group meets every Thursday at 8 p.m. at Bohemian Hall in Astoria, with representation from many Queens communities.
“9/11 was a turning point in terms of how active I was,” Kokkoris explained. Instead of merely believing and discussing certain issues, I decided to be active and speak up about certain things. 9/11 was used to push so many agendas that are unrelated to terrorism or that particular event that people have to start speaking up about it.”
He believes that the PATRIOT Act is one of the agendas being pushed and that 9/11 was “an excuse to pass legislation or measures that certain elements of the government have wanted to pass for years but didn’t think they’d be able to get away with.
“For example, it is commonly known and not disputed that the same people who are now in the Bush administration (Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Cheny) had, before Bush won the presidency, developed a position paper advocating that we invade Iraq, actually proposing the concept of preemptive war; and this was out there before 9/11 happened,” he indicated.
“People behind the [PATRIOT Act] policy try to instill fear in the general public to sway public opinion, which can affect how the judiciary, currently a primarily conservative body, responds to any PATRIOT Act-related cases brought to the courts.” He believes a strong grass-roots effort to rescind the PATRIOT Act can be equally as influential on the judiciary.
“People should contact their own council members by letter, e-mail, or phone,” he said. “Writing on behalf of groups involved with the issue makes the contact more effective.” Riga added that citizens should also contact Council Speaker Gifford Miller at (212) 535-5554 and ask for a hearing on the resolution and “then show up.”
When asked why people who aren’t involved in illegal activities should be concerned about the PATRIOT Act, Kokkoris recalled the Niemoeller quotation: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
“Greeks, especially, who suffered through the dictatorship in the ’60s and all that it meant,” he said, “should be able to relate to what is happening and take action against it.”
He calls the PATRIOT Act “criminal” in terms of subpoenas and surveillance.
“Today, just as Japanese-Americans were wrongly held in camps after the attack at Pearl Harbor, and were later paid reparations, Arab or Muslim-Americans are being detained without people, including their family members, knowing where they are or why they’re being held. Detentions are secret and no justification is being provided for them. If it wasn’t for public pressure, the hearings themselves would continue to be held in secret as they were when these actions were first taken.”
At Thursday’s meeting, after learning from people involved with immigration issues that Queens residents are being detained under these conditions, APJ decided its focus for future action would be both the anti-PATRIOT Act resolution and the detentions. The group asks the community to support future events concerning this issue, which will be publicized.
Kokkoris is also a member of both the left-of-center National Lawyers Guild, which favors repeal of the PATRIOT Act, and the right-of-center American Bar Association, which represents a variety of political views but tends to be conservative in nature. He Kokkoris cites an ad campaign by the latter group that juxtaposes the pros and cons of the PATRIOT Act but “appears to be planting the idea that the danger to people’s civil liberties is worse than its supposed benefits.
“I will be surprised and saddened if the resolution doesn’t pass. This is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country; it has the most people with different points of view from different cultures. I can’t imagine it not passing,” Kokkoris said.
Riga added, “My father was an immigrant and I think about how it would be if he were affected by the PATRIOT Act. I would hate for him to be deported or to not be able to speak, or to have someone watching what books he took out of the library. For myself, I’m a demonstrator and although it’s my right to demonstrate, I’m afraid of being labeled a terrorist or being stopped from getting on a plane because I’m outspoken.”