Talking to Local Restore the Fourth Organizers: A Letter from Rochester

Rochester City Hall

Daniel Cole was looking for a non-binding referendum opposing NSA spying. What he got was even better. The Rochester City Council wrote a letter directly to Congress.

When Dan appeared before the city council, he was well-armed with a great speech, well-researched background information to distribute and copies of a resolution the council could make its own. The council listened attentively but didn’t commit to anything.

Dan didn’t give up. He contacted the mayor’s aide at least once a week, by phone and by email. “I got the ‘talk-around,'” Dan said. Eventually, the aide let Dan know that the council doesn’t do resolutions, particularly if they don’t relate to city business, so it just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, the aide suggested the city draft a letter to New York’s U.S. senators and Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who represents the city and voted no on the Amash amendment.

Much to Dan’s surprise – and delight – it happened. A few weeks later, when Dan was hoping to see a mere draft, the aide sent Dan a copy of a letter that had been drafted, signed by all the council members and mailed. Signed, sealed, delivered.

The letter was a stern reminder to Slaughter and New York’s Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer that the council had warned the delegation of dire consequences when the Patriot Act was reauthorized in 2006. “… where do we draw the line between protecting our citizenry and country and destroying the very values upon which our republic has thrives?” says the letter. Where, indeed?

Dan said he believed his success with the Rochester City Council was two-fold. First, the Rochester Restore the 4th chapter held a sizable and successful rally on July 4. “People couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks and weeks,” he said. So the council members knew how outraged the citizens of Rochester are. And, secondly, and most importantly, was Dan’s physical act of appearing before the council. Dan said his actual appearance seemed to act as a catalyst for council, giving them a concrete reason to act on thoughts the members already privately held.

Dan made it easy for them. He provided a resolution, he provided all the background information and he provided plenty of research. “If you can provide it all for them, it just increases your chances of them (writing a letter or passing a resolution),” he said. And he followed up. Dan sent emails to each city council member, thanking them for signing and sending the letter.

Just as a physical letter sends a stronger message than an e-mail, a letter from a city council sends a much stronger message than a letter from an individual. If we want Congress to take action to end unconstitutional surveillance, we need them to hear our voices. But we also need them to know they aren’t going to stop hearing our voices, that our voices and capable of influencing things like elections. If a City Council decides it needs to take notice of opponents of unconstitutional surveillance, that sends a strong message to your representatives in Congress that they need to as well. Slaughter, Gillibrand, and Schumer didn’t just get a letter from Dan. They got a letter from Rochester.

If you’re interested in emulating Restore the Fourth Rochester’s activism with your own city council, feel free to use these resources for reference or as templates:

Proposed Resolution for Rochester City Council

Memo to Rochester City Council

Letter to Congress from Rochester City Council

Talking to Local Restore the Fourth Organizers: Two Hours in Birmingham

Two people.  Two hours.  One hundred people reached.  That’s how Christy Johnson and the Birmingham chapter pulled off a Constitution Day event on September 17th.

“Constitution Day was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” said Christy.  “But it fell on a Tuesday, when we knew people would be at work.”  So she and another volunteer set up shop during a long lunch hour at Linn Park, which sits between the Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse, picking a time when the park is packed with lawyers and jurors and other citizens on government business.

“Our goal was to get in front of a lot of people and make it matter to them personally,” she said.  They spread out, individually approaching people in the park, taking time to explain to each person how his own individual cell phone is accessed by the federal government, how the government is tracking every number he calls.

Christy told us that many people were unaware of the NSA surveillance and shocked by the idea of the government spying on them.  “Only one person said he was fine with the surveillance, if it meant the nation was safer,” she said.

They handed out flyers outlining the Fourth Amendment and NSA issues along with pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution and American flags, wishing everyone a Happy Constitution Day.

“We have made it a large part of our mission to be educational,” Christy said.  “We feel like if we can raise awareness and educate people, then people will connect the dots for themselves.”

The Birmingham group did not seek any sort of permits for the gathering and did not have any problems.  When approached by a policeman, he only said he was glad to see people concerned about NSA surveillance.  “It’s cool to know that even people in law enforcement feel the government has overstepped its bounds,” Christy remarked.

The Birmingham chapter is working hard to keep the NSA surveillance issue in the forefront of citizens’ minds in every way, from non-binding resolutions, to “papering” events, to meeting with a Congressman.

The chapter’s next step is to meet with Birmingham’s city council members to ask for a non-binding resolution condemning the use of drones for domestic surveillance.  “It’s only a message. It’s non-binding, but at least the message will be sent,” she said.  Christy has hopes the resolution will happen, even though, ironically, Alabama state leaders are working to recruit drone manufacturers to operate in the state.

Chapter members met with Congressman Spencer Bachus, a Republican representative for parts of the Birmingham area, to express their concerns.  They were surprised when Bachus enthusiastically agreed with Restore the 4th’s message.  Bachus was the only Alabama representative to vote for the failed Amash amendment in July.

Just as in Austin, the Birmingham march on July 4 encompassed a cross-section of Alabama folks *Tea Partiers marching with Occupiers, 60-year-olds alongside teenagers.  “What makes this successful is our focus on a singular issue,” Christy said.  “I really believe that’s what makes this bulletproof.  We won’t be divided and conquered.”

Alongside the flyers on Constitution Day, Christy taped up a copy of the feisty Alabama state motto: “We Dare Defend Our Rights.”

“If anybody is gonna roll over and take it, it better not be Alabama!” Christy vowed.