PCC/BORDC/GFR conference call

The call was held at 11pm on November 20, 2008. The agenda was simple:
  1. Chip Pitts (GFR'r and board member/President of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC.org), the organization that has served as the catalyst/convener of the People's Campaign for the Constitution, or PCC) introduces himself and Glenn Devitt (treasurer and technical guru for the BORDC/PCC).
  2. Chip describes the vision of PCC and how it could work with GFR (In the event, this became more about PCC per se.)
  3. Glenn describes technical stuff about PCC
  4. [MAYBE?] Jon Pincus or other longtime-GFR person adds historical context and comments.
  5. Q&A
  6. 60min max
In the event, the call lasted 90 minutes. :) Participants included: Chip Pitts (TX), Glenn Devitt (NY), Evalyn Gossett (IN), Joan Mokray (NJ), Frank Ploof (CA), Lee Needham (NC), Jon Pincus (WA), Thomas Nephew (MD). Thank you to everyone who joined!

(The notes below are partly from notes, partly from memory, and only loosely track the agenda, in that I've put comments I remember where they seem useful in the text below, rather than necessarily in their exact sequence. Corrections are welcome.
Perhaps the key part is "what PCC would like from GFR; how GFR might need to change" -- Thomas Nephew)

Chip Pitts, Glenn Devitt
Chip Pitts is a lawyer/businessman/activist (and a law professor with expertise in human rights and constitutional as well as international law) who has served on the board and as board chair of Amnesty International USA, and remains a local board member of the ACLU as well as a board or advisory board member of other human rights organizations. He became deeply concerned about the direction the country was taking after 9/11/01, and decided to focus a substantial amount of his time on the abridgements of the Bill of Rights under the "war on terror." He became involved with and a key Dallas leader of that city's local "Bill of Rights Defense Committee" (BORDC). BORDC began in Northampton Massachusetts and was modeled on the Revolutionary-era "committees of correspondence" -- community activists committed to fighting for civil liberties at the grassroots level. BORDC through its grassroots activists was successful in establishing over 400 "civil liberties safe zones" throughout the country, from Boise to Dallas to Ground Zero/New York City. The city council resolutions had provisions like requiring libraries to notify patrons that their activity might be monitored, and admonished police not to engage in or cooperate with profiling or arbitrary detentions or repression of peaceful dissent. The nonpartisan nature of the group helped it succeed in places that at first seemed unlikely to support it, e.g., Boise and Dallas.

Glenn Devitt is a small business owner in New York City who got tired of simply being angry in November 2002 and joined and (like Chip) served as volunteer chair of the local BORDC committee, which succeeded in lobbying the New York City Council for a similar resolution. The effort drew in about 80 very active volunteers, supported by thousands of other people, with diverse skill sets, including media and technology.

People's Campaign for the Constitution (PCC) -- against the "new normal"

PCC is a recent initiative of BORDC. PCC aims to be a "non-partisan grassroots movement to take back our constitutional rights" (from the web site). The idea is that seemingly disparate issues resulting from the so-called "war on terror," like surveillance, dissent, secret prisons, torture, and more are of a piece; they all run counter to the Bill of Rights, subvert the presumption of innocence, and aggrandize executive power. Chip: "By focusing on education about rights, we hope to protect those rights."

A question arose whether he saw Obama as being willing to voluntarily give up powers amassed during the past 8 years by the Bush administration. Chip is skeptical, worrying both that a number of Obama advisors have themselves sadly endorsed preventive detention, warrantless surveillance and other rights infringements, and that "power doesn't give up its privileges willingly." Such infringements threaten to become the "new normal", as institutions like the NSA become habituated to new procedures, and Americans become habituated to them as well.

Technical capabilities of PCC (Glenn Devitt)
PCC aspires to become an "open platform" using wiki and other technologies to allow bottom-up development of documents and plans, much more direct person-to-person and group-to-group collaboration, and dissemination of those ideas to supporters. The idea will not be to remain wedded to "technical" activism, but have it result in actual restoration and defense of the Bill of Rights through educating people and their representatives about the significance of those rights and achieving meaningful and enduring change through grassroots action. People will donate their skills, professional abilities, and time; they can find like-minded PCC supporters in their town or region. A database is already underway ("soft launch") that documents human rights abuses associated with the "war on terror" here in the United States, to help make clear that these abuses can happen here and refute the all-too-common fraudulent arguments that no such abuses have occurred. Devitt and Pitts felt that advantages over the current status for Get FISA Right were a unified, stable platform that people can reliably access over time persistently as opposed to episodically.

Views on Get FISA Right (GFR) and mybarackobama.com-GFR
Chip's analysis of GFR was that it blossomed prior to this summer's FISA Amendment Act, but despite the educational and other benefits it achieved the efforts were ultimately not sufficient alone or with GFR's allies to halt the legislation it targeted. He recommended that the GFR now consider aligning itself closely with the PCC, expanding beyond FISA to more broadly focus on the gamet of civil liberties violations associated with the "war on terror" and adopting a less partisan stance and cast to its statements and actions. Jon gave a capsule history of GFR, saying that the most visible achievement was writing Obama and getting an answer (even if it wasn't one they wanted), and that from a social network and civil liberties activism perspective, we broke important new ground in many areas. He noted that while activity flagged after the FISA Amendment Act vote, much was done -- netroots platform work, Democratic platform work, ad campaign noting the FISA defeat but not giving up, ad campaign targeting the RNC in St. Paul. (more details here). Jon also mentioned that in the Vision thread on the getfisaright.net site, most respondents to a poll favored a broader focus on constitutional/Bill of Rights issues.

Opinions differed on the utility/value of the mybarackobama.com GFR mailing list; on the one hand, not many answers to recent e-mails; on the other hand, the potential to continue to engage the Obama organization and administration on FISA (and wider issues, in concert with PCC).

Evalyn and Thomas stressed that mybarackobama.com-GFR -- and their own work on behalf of Obama during the campaign -- did not mean they were averse to criticizing Obama or pressuring him to change his position on FISA or related issues. mybarackobama.com-GFR were "clear eyed Obama skeptics" when it came to the FISA issue, even as they preferred him to McCain in the general election. Lee ventured that rather than a "loyal opposition," now that the election was over there was no need to be "loyal" when it comes to these issues.

What PCC would like from GFR; how GFR might need to change to most effectively complement PCC
In response to questions by Thomas, Chip said PCC would like GFR to be an "ally", likely meaning an endorsement such as from the Center for Constitutional Rights or the ACLU, but also even more active engagement and leadership -- by offering skills, energy, and their resources to the PCC as happened with people generously leading "leaderless" GFR itself. The nature of the engagement is by no means fixed, but might involve anything from simply "mining" GFR email lists to promote shared goals with or introductions to PCC, to simply informing them of PCC initiatives, to providing technical expertise to PCC, to becoming in some sense even more integrated with PCC. Technically, PCC as opposed to prior initiatives offers an attractive, developed site and platform for ongoing nonpartisan creative collaboration with others; organizationally, PCC has a bank account and a treasurer and GFR does not.

What might need to change if GFR was formally a part of PCC would be:
  • resolution of the longstanding ambivalent status of GFR (purportedly "nonpartisan" in the very first sentence of our "about" self-description on GFR.net, but also stemming from and still self-identified as Democratic, Obama supporters) in favor of a more authentically nonpartisan status (i.e. no longer endorsing Obama or other specific candidates, evolving from prior Obama-centric mission statements, language and (presumably) logos; perhaps maintaining the self-identification in the hearts and minds of individuals involved as a matter of personal choice but not formally proclaiming any longer, e.g. "We are a proud group of (organized but unofficial) Obama supporters."
  • no campaign/candidate fundraising (e.g., no efforts like the "Jim Martin/Better Democrats" one late in the 2008 campaign), since this would go against the 501(c)3 status currently held by the BORDC and most PCC partners, granting donors tax deductions as charitable contributions funding the educational efforts but allowing no substantial lobbying or campaigning for candidates.
  • no PACs or explicit support of PACs.
  • openness to other political parties or nonpartisan activists as GFR has actually proclaimed in theory and the PCC actively encourages, e.g. not just a mybarackobama.com "get fisa right" effort, but ones on other political open membership sites, whether of Republican, Libertarian, or other political bent.
  • (Note, TN: One difficulty with the mybarackobama.com group site in this respect is that the Obama fundraising option remains built in there; I happen to know these can't be removed even by a group administrator, only installed. This might be solved by non-overlapping administrator lists for myBO.com, GFR.net, and/or future GFR/PCC joint sites, and could also be addressed by more explicitly acknowledging the evolution from MyBo into GFR as a distinct initiative, and now the affiliation of GFR with the PCC.)
Note that much of this might be good advice whether or not GFR and PCC partner or merge in some sense.

Lee Needham stressed that the phone conference group had been kept small mainly because of cost considerations, and shouldn't be seen as making decisions. Everyone agreed; Thomas volunteered to create a first draft summarizing the phone conference -- this document. It (or some version of it) will be made available to the various GFR mailing lists for their consideration and feedback.

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