In my last column, I laid out the history of the area near the border of the United States known as the “constitution-free zone” (CFZ). This policy, rooted in xenophobia and stemming from restrictions on immigration, prohibitions on substances associated with immigrants, and the all out “war on drugs,” has made casualties out of freedom of movement, rights to privacy, and human dignity at border crossings.
Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the “war on terror” has been a pretense to justify an even greater level of surveillance along the border. Yet, according to a Government Accountability Office Report from 2009, Customs and Border Protection officials only seek to interdict 30 percent of the illegal traffic at ports of entry (p.5, PDF). This poor performance is then the justification they give for a “third tier” of security within the interior of the country and the expansion and proliferation of internal, suspicionless checkpoints.
As more and more internal checkpoints spring up within the CFZ in places like California, Arizona, Texas, and even the northern states of New York and Maine, a public wary of the encroaching police and surveillance state has taken notice, and not everyone is going along with it.
As Seen on YouTube
Despite the smears of “YouTube fad” by local media outlets near the border (and therefore thoroughly inculcated by “bordertown thinking”), serious journalists and law professors have recognized checkpoint refusal activism as a legitimate form of civil disobedience.
A few months ago, a video titled “top DHS checkpoint refusals” (embedded below) went viral on YouTube and caught the eye of several media outlets, including the Texas Observer, Reason, the Huffington Post, and ABC News. The video includes a compilation of footage taken from all over the country by checkpoint refusal activists, including me (yes, that’s me you’ll see at minute 5:35 of the video; the full video of the encounter is available here).
The mistake some made after viewing this video was to assume that all, or even most, of the footage was recent — that this was somehow just the latest trend to hit YouTube. Critics did not seem to realize that, unlike making a Harlem Shake or Gangnam Style video, refusing to cooperate at an internal DHS checkpoint and filming it is serious business, and there are consequences.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Terri Bressi, a pioneer in checkpoint civil disobedience, who has been in and out of court since 2007 as a result of his activism. Pastor Steve Anderson, who along with Bressi is featured in the video mentioned above, has also faced severe consequences for his actions. Not only did DHS agents arrest Anderson in 2008 for refusing to cooperate with Border Patrol agents, they also brutally beat and tased him for his efforts.
Yet, despite the consequences, both of these men continue in their efforts to resist, record, and inform. Within the last year, acts of civil disobedience at these checkpoints and the resulting YouTube videos have increased dramatically — and the media aren’t the only ones who have taken notice.
The Border Patrol Cracks Down
In March of this year, Oscar Omar Figueredo, a US citizen and native of New York, was arrested at an interior checkpoint in Brownsville, Texas, near Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport. His case received a fair amount of media attention, and when interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Figueredo explained his actions were meant to “question the authority that the Border Patrol has to harass and to force people to answer questions that they don’t have to answer when they’re traveling within the 60-to-100-mile border zone in the United States.”
Most recently, this past July, yet another man, this time at a checkpoint in California, was arrested for doing, quite literally, nothing. Robert Trudell, a native of Arizona, was stopped at a checkpoint on Interstate 8 Freeway in Pine Valley, California. He sat quietly in his car, filming and photographing the encounter, never uttering a word. He ignored the agents’ requests to lower his car window and answer their questions. Several minutes later, the agents smashed open the driver-side window, forcibly removed Trudell from his car, and handcuffed him.
According to Trudell, he was held for over nine hours (six of those hours while still in handcuffs) and later released on foot — his car, cameras, computers, phone, and glasses seized through “asset forfeiture.”
One would be naive to think that the Department of Homeland Security has not become aware of the sudden rise in civil disobedience occurring at their inland checkpoints, or that agents out in the field have not been embarrassed by the videos circulating on the internet of successful refusals. There has clearly been a concerted effort on the part of DHS and CBP to crack down on activists attempting to exercise their rights and challenge the authority and legality of these checkpoints.
Liberty at Stake
If any significant change is to occur as a result of these acts of civil disobedience, arrests and subsequent action through the courts is necessary. Already, the actions of the aforementioned activists have had an appreciable effect on the public consciousness and have exposed the Border Patrol over-reaching their authority.
It was after the arrest of Figueredo, in fact, that the Border Patrol had to publicly admit that there is no law requiring any one to answer questions regarding their citizenship status, or anything else, at a checkpoint.
Rio Grande Valley Sector Operations Supervisor Enrique Mendiola: “While an individual is not legally required to answer the questions, ‘are you a US citizen and/or where are you headed[?]’ they will not be allowed to proceed until the inspecting agent is satisfied that the person being questioned is legally present in the United States.”
If CBP recognizes, and freely admits, that no law requires an individual to answer their questions, then why do they so aggressively come down on those who refuse? Is this really about “border security” or an agency flexing its authoritative muscle and exerting control?
One must not forget that historically internal checkpoints have been a classic hallmark of a totalitarian state. If there is any example of a “free society” anywhere throughout history, in any part of the world, where internal checkpoints have been allowed to flourish, I’d like to know.