Dear Surveillance State: Your Slip is Showing

(written by a friend)

The modern Surveillance State has swept all people into its wide reaching nets. As someone who advocates for privacy and state transparency, I am no longer surprised about how our State conducts itself. Still it is always a bit jarring to be directly on the receiving end of the more tiresome aspects of surveillance.

Traveling cross country by a moving truck is always stressful and an ordeal in and of itself. Crossing an international border during the height of our modern Police State is often perplexing, frustrating and laughable. Sometimes it is a needed lesson in the loss of basic freedom.

This past week I was given a taste of Homeland Security while traveling from Boston to Detroit. I had two potential routes, but due to a mileage limit, I opted to go up through upstate New York into Canada and crossing the border back into the US at Port Huron, MI.

I took I-90 to Queens Express Way and had no issue getting into Canada. My enhanced Michigan’s driver’s license allows me to cross the border without a passport. It is well worth registering for this driver’s license if you live in a participating state, by the way.

I had not crossed the Canadian border for a few years, and it was my first time driving cross country alone in a moving truck. Once I was on my way in Canada down QEW I got a bit confused and stopped for directions since it was getting dark. I had stopped at the perfect point before really getting lost, and got a map of Ontario and was given a short cut shaving 15 minutes off of my drive.

Still I was a little lost in the back roads of Port Stanley and after missing the 401 to 402 exchange heading towards London. I was not able to use GPS due to T-Mobile roaming suspension of my phone and hot spot. I wandered for a bit driving up my mileage before stopping at some 24 hour stores and getting reoriented. At this point I was plenty tired, stressed and ready to get home.

Once I got to the Canadian — Us Border it was almost 2:30 am and I was exhausted. I did not have any problem entering the country during my last trip and did not know what to expect this evening. After showing my id to the US border guard, I was immediately pulled out of line, though traffic was sparse to none, and asked to come into the building.

Once inside I approached the front counter where two officer sat looking at their computers. The gate guard came into the building after me and handed these two officers a sticky note with my name on it and “Operation Chaos” written largely in black magic marker. The one office took the note and casually stuck it on the counter in front of him, barely acknowledging my presence. “What’s Operation Chaos?” I asked. He took my id and typed a few things staring at the screen for a moment or two. ” It’s a random program where we check some of the vehicles crossing. You can fill out this form and you can have a seat over there.”

The sheet asked if I had stopped in Canada or made any purchases. Just stopped at the gas stations and gotten snacks.

I took a seat and waited no more than 5 minutes as they took two dogs through the cab and around the truck. There was nothing interesting going on in there and I knew it, so I figured I would soon be on my way. The officer did comment on some alcohol I had gotten at the duty free shop in New York saying I should move it to the rear of the truck.

The first order of business when arriving home would be to look up this Operation Chaos.

Over the years of working with Occupy Boston, The Massachusetts Pirate Party and May First people Link, among other leftists organizations around anti-racism, worker’s rights, economic and social justice, I have been alternately labeled reactionary, negative and paranoid for speaking out against active surveillance activities within the groups. Not to mention the prevalence of racism and sexism coming from the wrong end of the political spectrum within many of these groups, but that is another blog. Still, I manage to persevere in spite of warnings from older activists of enduring persistent, successive wacky character and endless meetings, sometimes to productive ends.

From past experience and my upbringing in a Marxist family, I was not unaware of the depths of the Police State. I have participated in my share of marches and protests against different causes from the surveillance state to income inequality. I expect I am named on a number of lists in spite of a clean police and arrest record. During my years of actively working for social and economic change, I have encountered people whose behaviors were counter productive the collective goals and often not living up to the principals of the group. Most are given the benefit of the doubt, but a political activist can never be too cautious about with whom they are organizing, collaborating and associating with. Taking a pledge to remain non-violent is a good step in a direction for avoiding a lot of drama along the way.

Something is unsettling about border guards who are as unintentional as to let the intended target see the name of the CIA program under which they are being subjected and scrutinized. There was such an aspect of the mundane to the search, it definitely was no longer a major event for these guards or me, just run of the mill distraction from the Internet. I wasn’t even mad. I offered no resistance, because I just wanted to go home. I knew better than to do anything illegal at the border.

At the same time, it lets me know that what is not for naught. It is sad to realize that advocating for the end of slavery and the education of poor girls in Africa can lead to my being permanently labeled as a potential terrorist threat. I have grown used to the shadow of big Brother, but occasionally I am saddened at not only the loss of personal privacy and freedom, but the loss of of psychological peace of mind from this type of grandly orchestrated stalking. At this point in my essay I will wax poetic about the nature of freedom I sort of the point I would like to make. In the spirit of the Stoics, our minds are essentially free and incapable of being caged.

Saying that, there are children who have been born into this level of over produced surveillance who will never know what it is to have private lives. We are potentially digitally tracked from the moment we leave our homes and everywhere we go. Our lives are paced and tracked through a maze of surveillance cameras, Geo-locators, license plate scanners, cell phone triangulation and paid provocateurs and informants willing to pass along any pertinent information from petty gossip to more serious and detrimental or damning information. It is a sad reality.

Under the Patriot Act, information is gathered with out our consent and can be arranged to present any of a number of scenarios without the input or defense of the target. The Enemy of the State is extremely vulnerable to being rail-roaded, set up or caught up at the wrong place, wrong time, as was demonstrated in the Sandra Bland case. The wise activist understand these propensities of out government and takes all precautions in traveling and organizing. We have a long way to go before we re-create the other world that is possible.

The traffic stop explains many of the more odd and questionable experiences I have had doing political organizing both in Michigan and Massachusetts. My stories are too many and too convoluted to recount. Odd experiences however do make the world go around and let us see where we stand in a sense. I must being doing something right, otherwise I would not be a blip on the radar. It should not deter us from organizing politically around the issues that we deem important and engaging in Constitutionally protected activities.

My message to the Port Huron US Border Patrol is : Police State, Your Slip is Showing. As for all of my sisters and brothers in the movement who have chastised me for unnecessary vigilance, in the immortal words of a former Detroit mayor, the Honorable Coleman S. Young, “I am only paranoid because they are out to get me.”