Each month, BORDC recognizes an individual who has done outstanding work in support of civil liberties and the rule of law by honoring that person with our Patriot Award. This month, as we celebrate BORDC’s tenth anniversary, we honor our founding director, Nancy Talanian.
In November 2001, the PATRIOT Act had only just been passed, and many people had barely noticed. The US was still reeling from the September 11th attacks just two months earlier, and while people spoke about unity and coming together, fear remained the dominant emotion.
Enter Nancy Talanian: a dedicated anti-war and international civil rights activist, Nancy saw parallels between regimes she had previously protested (including apartheid in South Africa and dictatorship in Nigeria) and the direction she saw our country heading. She knew concerned Americans needed to step up and raise their voices.
At the Women’s Conference for Peace, held in Northampton, MA, in November 2001, Nancy met like-minded women in a breakout session on the PATRIOT Act. Recognizing that the national policy would be enforced on a local level, she pulled together local allies to join her in drafting a municipal resolution against the PATRIOT Act for the Northampton City Council. Working with organizers in two other Western Massachusetts towns, Amherst and Leverett, Nancy led the charge as all three communities passed anti-PATRIOT Act resolutions within a ten-day period in April and May 2002. Soon, supporters began pursuing state resolutions as well.
Nancy soon realized only a national organization could provide the coordination required for this growing movement, and so she transformed the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee into a national organization. The new national BORDC created a toolkit to help activists build local campaigns. Nancy hired BORDC’s first staff person in 2003 and organized a conference that same year. People came from all across the country to learn from each other about effective ways to do national work on the local level.
But the work didn’t stop at the local level—the actions in cities and towns across the country started to make an impact in Washington. While Congress had passed the PATRIOT Act without debate or controversy only a year before, suddenly Washington was on the defensive.
Attorney General John Ashcroft went on tour to defend the PATRIOT Act, and local BORDC supporters mobilized people to protest at every stop—despite the fact that each tour stop’s location and time was only released one day in advance. More than 1,500 people showed up in Boston and 1,500 more in New York when Ashcroft visited both cities on the same day. More than 20 resolutions rejecting the PATRIOT Act passed during the course of his tour alone.
Politicians opposing the PATRIOT Act used BORDC materials to bolster their arguments. In 2006, when the PATRIOT Act was up for re-authorization, BORDC supporters held in-district meetings with members of Congress during the Independence Day recess, and 12 of those members of Congress referenced BORDC’s materials during congressional debates. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) held up a book of BORDC resolutions and read it aloud during his filibuster. Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) read Idaho’s state resolution on the floor of the Senate.
While the PATRIOT Act was ultimately reauthorized that year, the final version of the legislation included changes that no member of Congress had originally thought possible. BORDC’s work on the ground shifted the national conversation. And it continued to do so: by 2007, more than 400 local resolutions and eight state resolutions had passed across the country.
After leaving BORDC in 2008, Nancy went on to found No More Guantánamos. This organization addresses years of wrongdoing by the US government by working to educate the public about the people held at Guantánamo Bay detention center. No More Guantánamos also carries forward Nancy’s powerful strategy of mobilizing local coalitions to support municipal resolutions—in this case, welcoming into their communities Guantánamo detainees who have been cleared for release. Resolutions have already passed in Massachusetts and California, and more campaigns are underway.
As we mark BORDC’s tenth anniversary, we salute Nancy Talanian and all her hard work creating a visionary organization that continues to fulfill her legacy by pushing the national conversation forward. All Americans owe her our thanks.