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The last place you expect to run into a federal government goon squad is the Blue Ridge Parkway, the scenic highway that runs through Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
But the abuse of power spawned by the Bush administration and the rights robbing USA Patriot Act runs rampant throughout the federal bureaucracy, as I learned this week while traveling the Parkway to get to an assignment photographing a summer music festival for my newspaper.
The festival, FloydFest, draws thousands of people each July to a picturesque patch of land just off the Parkway not far from the Blue Ridge hamlet of Floyd, VA. Now in its sixth year, the festival enjoys a national reputation. It also provides an opportunity for the National Park Service police to harass patrons of the festival.
For the last two years, the Park Service has brought in its “CIT” (Criminal Interdiction Team) from Asheville, North Carolina, to police crowds that use the Parkway to reach the festival. The team, composed of swaggering young officers with little regard for due process or civil rights, is the embodiment of federal excess.
As I drove towards the site Thursday, I passed two CIT Park Police officers that had pulled cars over and were forcing the occupants to pull everything out of the car so they could search coolers, back packs, luggage, glove boxes and consoles.
I pulled off the road ahead of the second NPS patrol car, grabbed my camera and headed back to take a photo of the police action. As I approached, the Park Service officer wheeled around and pointed at me.
“Sir, if you raise that camera to take a photograph I will place you under arrest,” he barked.
I identified myself as a working journalist on assignment and said I was simply covering a news event.
“Sir,” he retorted, “this is U.S. government property and under the provisions of the USA Patriot Act you cannot take photographs of official government activity without authorization. Put your camera down now!”
I could not believe what I was hearing. I grew up in this part of the country and have photographed on the Blue Ridge Parkway since my days as a high school student. I asked for his badge number. He refused to reveal it.
“Sir, you have 15 seconds to leave or you are under arrest.” He had his hand on his gun so I left. Media General, our newspaper’s owner, has strict rules about interaction with police. At the top of the hill, I stopped and shot some photos back towards the scene.
At the festival, patrons told numerous horror stories about encounters that day with the Park Service Police. One young woman was pulled over because she had beads hanging from her rear view mirror. They detained her for more than an hour while they searched her car and found nothing. Another young man was stopped because he had a bolt missing from his license plate frame. When the cops found no drugs or alcohol, they ticketed him for “improper equipment.”
On Wednesday night, the CIT cops pulled over a car driven by Shannon Zeman, the sheriff of Floyd County, VA. Zeman later told Virginia State Trooper Andrew O’Connor that the parkway cops were rude and abusive, even to a fellow cop.
Calls to the Park Service police headquarters were not returned Friday. I called the office of Congressman Rick Boucher and they promised to check into the situation. According to the National Park Service web site, park police “provides highly trained and professional police officers to prevent and detect criminal activity, conduct investigations, apprehend individuals suspected of committing offenses against Federal, State and local laws.”
Nice to know the park service cops have professionals on board. Next time, let’s hope they send the pros instead of the goon squad from the Criminal Interdiction Team in Asheville.
UPDATE — 07/29/2007: The National Park Service recalled their CIT unit and ordered them back to Asheville after Congressman Rick Boucher, who represents the area, intervened on behalf of the festival. Boucher’s office received numerous calls of complaints about the NPS police activity on Thursday and Friday and called the director of the National Park Service. Security for the remaining two days of the festival was turned over to the Virginia State Police who patrolled the Parkway but did not harass festival attendees.
UPDATE — 07/30/2007: Talked with Congressman Boucher today. He is “very upset” over the actions of the Parkway Rangers and says he will meet personally with the director of the Parkway to “make sure nothing like this happens again.” Boucher said he does not believe the Patriot Act gives a Park Ranger the authority to prohibit a person from taking pictures and he will insist of a “full and complete investigation” of the incidents of this past weekend.