Patriot Act Politics Hits Home

this articles is taken in whole from and will hopefully awaken people’s mind to the dangers of giving away freedom for the pursuit, not of happiness, but of security.

Patriot Act Politics Hits Home
Submitted by worker on Tue, 2006-05-23 03:10. The State
by Jesse Zerger Nathan‚ May. 22‚ 2006

When USA Today broke the story, news that the National Security Agency—working in secret with phone companies like AT&T—had obtained access to tens of thousands of phone records, millions of Americans reacted in alarm. With few exceptions, citizens asked at random on the streets here by the local Lawrence Journal-World expressed everything from deep unease to ribald outrage. And they should. But the premise of the question—“should the NSA be given access to Americans’ phone records without a warrant?”—and the sudden, shocked nature of reactions from Kansas to California reveal an even more stunning fact: Americans are acting like this behavior is something new—even unheard of—from the Bush Administration’s Orwellian policymakers.

Not only is it not new, but this NSA phone-record fishing expedition may be one of the most benign examples yet uncovered. In late April, for instance, buried in the middle of most newspapers, the Associated Press reported that the FBI had used the Patriot Act’s provisions to mine the personal information—ranging from credit card to telephone to net-surfing behavioral data—of over 3,500 Americans, even though the agency had never been given a warrant, nor even found these folks to be linked to anything resembling a crime. Funny how the Fourth Amendment goes by the wayside when convenient, isn’t it?

I should know. From personal experience, that is.

In late January, just after a snowstorm had melted into the usual post-winter weather muck which lay blanketing the streets, I packed up my camera and headed out into downtown Lawrence on foot, hoping to walk around taking photographs. As a photographer—and one who considers himself, however erroneously, something of an artist—I had a specific type of picture in mind. After studying the work of Barry Winogrand, a camera-wielding artist known to wander the streets of New York City and snap photographs by turning around randomly to capture faces in the crowd behind him, I set out to do something similar. Like Winogrand, I was—and still am—interested in the most candid, rough-around-the-edges shots. Shots that, in my opinion, reveal something intangible about human beings—human beings not give the time to prepare themselves, to put on their “picture-taking” face. These un-posed photographs, I suspected, would reveal something unique and original. An idealistic—even interesting—idea, at the very least.

Full disclosure: not only did I want to do what Winogrand had done, but I wanted to take it up a notch. Rather than shooting the folks who sauntered and laughed and spaced out as they walked down the main drag (intriguing fare, no doubt), I wanted to take pictures of surprised business clerks in local businesses, attendants whose publicly presentable persona would be unmasked, perhaps, by my photographic interruption. My plan—a bizarre one, I admit—was simple: I would walk into businesses, snap a photograph of the surprised clerk, smile, wave, and walk out. It had fascinating, varied results—everything from “hey, take another when I’m ready” to the kind of mystified stares one gets from cows—until I got to the bank.

On the corner of Ninth and Vermont, a large, architecturally unique bank caught my eye as a potentially interesting place to take one of these surprise photographs. So, I strolled in, waited for one of the busy tellers to peak up at me, and then, with her mouth gaping, I took a photograph—and left, ambling quietly out the door. I hadn’t gotten more than a couple blocks when five police cruisers circled around me, detained me and questioned me—about everything from my lifestyle to my educational background to my choice in cameras—for over an hour and a half. I even missed my four O’clock.

Throughout the whole ordeal, I expected to be questioned and then turned loose with some sort of vague warning about bearded men coming into banks with cameras—a warning that, in retrospect, I certainly understand as valid, especially in the world of post-9/11 paranoia that we live in. Well, I got the warning. And, I got arrested. Arrested, believe it or not, for disorderly conduct. Both the cameras I had on me, including the one I wasn’t using, were confiscated.

After looking up the definition for disorderly conduct (which referenced any behavior that includes “loudness, obnoxious activity, public brawling, yelling of obscenities or threatening behavior”)—and meeting with the city prosecutor, Tom Porter, to explain rather sheepishly, my weird behavior—the city attorney gave me a slip of paper to take to the Police Department the next day in order to retrieve my camera. He also dropped the charges, smiling as he told me to please try and avoid banks when doing these kinds of strange photographic experiments. We shook hands and I left whistling.

It should have ended there. But the next day, I went to Police HQ and proudly presented my signed document allegedly permitting the return of my equipment. I was rebuffed. Rebuffed harshly, in fact, and told to “go talk to the prosecutor because we can’t help you.” Angry and more than a bit surprised, I went back over to see Mr. Porter.

The prosecutor’s demeanor had changed completely. He was frowning and scratching his graying beard nervously. “Have you,” his eyebrows twitching, “ever been involved in any…anarchist organizations?” I couldn’t believe he was asking me this. I had had contact—the pick-up-a-brochure or sign-up-for-an-email-telephone-number-listserv kind of contact—once or twice last fall with a local, perfectly legal anarchist organization whose library and headquarters are located downtown. I am certainly sympathetic to some of what they call for, such as universal healthcare and education instead of government bureaucracy. “We don’t know,” Mr. Porter continued ominously, “whether you are a terrorist or a bank robber.” A terrorist or a bank robber? “We’ve decided to hang on to your equipment while we investigate further.” With that he refused to tell me more—not even his sources—and told me he’d see me in court.

Eventually, with legal assistance, my cameras were returned. Months later, we still don’t have the negatives from the film I used that day—they are rotting in some police department evidence bin while my attorney wrangles with Mr. Porter to get them back. Whether or not I ever have the negatives returned—and despite the fact that I did end up, four weeks later, getting my cameras back—it is still shocking to realize that Mr. Porter’s attitude, as well as his decision about whether to let me have my cameras, changed entirely when—somehow—he found out that I’d had passing contact with a “dangerous” organization. How the government found out about my brush with these young anarchists I can only guess—email? Most likely. Telephone? Possibly. Either way, it shouldn’t really matter, even if I were the president of this organization: my alleged “crime” had been dropped, and with no further evidence against me except for something garnered by way of 1984-style eavesdropping, the case should have been closed.

Once in a while, policies or events that seem far removed from our daily lives—seemingly relegated only to the decorated halls of politicians—hit home. This time, the Patriot Act—and all of the attitudes, policies and paranoia that produced it—landed squarely on my doorstep. Bush claims the NSA is not “trolling through Americans’ personal lives.” Last fall, he alleged that the only calls that were being tapped without a warrant were those in which one party was outside the United States. According to sources quoted in USA Today—and directly involved in the program—Bush is lying. Flat lying. And even if my story is somehow not connected to the Patriot Act or the NSA program, it is a product of the intense paranoia that puts everyone’s liberty—from Lawrence to Los Angeles—at risk. “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,” said Benjamin Franklin. He would know. From personal experience, that is.


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