Peter Vallone and The Allies

by

07/26/2004

3519 30th Ave, Long Island City, NY

Neighborhood: All Over, Queens

In February 2004, when the New York City Council passed a non-binding resolution-by a 36-13 vote-denouncing certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, what was more interesting to me than a symbolic defense of civil liberties was the fact that one of those 13 dissenters was Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr.

Pete and I were friends years ago and even played in the same rock band. I can still remember him telling me that his dream was to become a musician (and he had the talent) but going to law school was what his family expected him to do. Today, he’s become a reactionary local politician coasting on his father’s reputation and defending Ashcroft’s vision of freedom…while I, well, I write essays like this.

Our band was called The Allies. Thanks to Pete’s supportive Mom, we practiced in the Vallone’s Astoria basement and cut a 4-track demo. Pete played bass and, in a pinch, sat in on drums, keyboards, and backup vocals. I sang (sort of) and wrote the lyrics. Tellingly, Pete and I differed over some of my words. With his Dad (Council Speaker and longtime cog in the NYC Democrat machine) considering both mayoral and gubernatorial runs, Peter, Jr. didn’t want to be associated with anything too radical.

Considering Pete’s record as my local council member, it’s now me who fears guilt by association. With 60 percent of his campaign contributions coming from those who supported Pop, Junior voted for an 18.5% property tax increase and did nothing to stop a transit fare hike or a 10.5% raise for rent-controlled tenants. But, it’s when he opens his mouth about issues beyond his hometown that I duck and cover. Relying on unsubstantiated Saddam/Osama rumors, Pete refused to support a Council anti-war resolution “no matter what the wording” because “no one needs retribution more than New York City.”

Which brings me back to his vote in support of the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act” (imagine the brainstorming session it took to satisfy the acronym, “USA PATRIOT”).

With all due respect to Pete, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and those planning to protest the Republican convention in Manhattan, criminalizing legitimate political dissent is nothing new. In fact, it’s an American tradition with roots as far back as the Founding Fathers and the Alien and Sedition Act, signed by President John Adams in 1798.

This piece of legislation was aimed at anyone who might “write, print, utter or publish…any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.. or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States.”

The Espionage and Sedition Act-passed in June 1917-threatened punishment of “a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 20 years, or both” for anyone who “when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States.”

The wide net cast by this bill ensnared people like the Vermont minister who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for writing a pamphlet, distributed to five persons, in which he claimed that supporting the war was wrong for a Christian.

“The Espionage Act had very little to do with espionage,” writes Howard Zinn, but I’m not too sure my former bandmate has ever read “A People’s History of the United States.” (And for those keeping score at home, the Espionage and Sedition Act is still on the books.)

The US has long reserved its admiration and even outright encouragement for dissidents choosing the estimable path of non-violence and passivity…and I’m sure Pete, Jr. is careful to make time to celebrate that path each year on MLK Day. But in the land of the free, not all political protestors are created equal.  Even alleged liberals prefer to keep legal protest to a minimum. Bill Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act into law on April 24,1996. This USA PATRIOT Act prequel contained provisions that Slick Willie himself admitted “makes a number of ill-advised changes in our immigration laws, having nothing to do with fighting terrorism.” This unconstitutional salvo did little to address so-called terrorism but plenty to limit the civil liberties of anyone-immigrant or resident-who disagrees with US policies, foreign or domestic.

Which brings us up to the act Peter Vallone Jr. calls “a large part of the reason why this country hasn’t been attacked again.” The act for which John Kerry voted “yes.” The act condemned by almost 250 municipalities and three state legislatures across the US. The act Adele Welty deems “a serious threat to the exercise of our Constitutional rights,

Adele Welty’s son Timothy lost his life in the WTC collapse…one of the 343 firefighters who died that day. Welty testified before the NYC Council as part of a group of family members of 9/11 victims known as “Peaceful Tomorrows.”

“[The PATRIOT ACT] undermines our Fourth Amendment right to privacy and expands the ability of the government to use wiretaps and computer surveillance and to look at confidential medical, financial, business and educational records,” Welty said. “This administration has used the tragedy of 9/11 and the deaths of our family members to push its agenda of regime change abroad and repression here at home. I see my son’s death used again and again to scare this country into war, to undermine environmental protections and to concentrate power in the hands of the executive branch in ways that abrogate far too many of our liberty interests.”

Undaunted by the likes of Adele Welty, the NYC Council, or the former lead singer of The Allies, John Ashcroft had already issued a warning to anyone questioning the constitutionality of the USA PATRIOT Act: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

Back in the day, Peter Vallone, Jr. took particular issue with one of the lines I wrote for a song called “A Single Step.” I wrote: “Our fathers show us paths they have proven/but into the past is where they are moving.”

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