The USA Unpatriotic Act

I wish I could say an incident last week was the first time the rights-robbing USA Patriot Act has been used to prohibit me, as a working journalist, from doing my job.

Unfortunately, the Blue Ridge Parkway Ranger who threatened me with arrest if I photographed him subjecting attendees of FloydFest to unreasonable search and seizure is only the latest time the Act has been thrown in my face and used to cover up the acts of a government that’s out of control.

Since its passage in the aftershock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act has been used, and abused, by the FBI to harass American citizens and destroy the foundations of freedoms that used to define this country.

Most members of Congress admit they initially voted for the act without even reading it. Last minute revisions were rammed through by then-attorney general John Ashcroft, who was acting from a mandate from President George W. Bush to “do whatever you can to make sure nothing like this (the 9/11 attacks) ever happen again.”

Ashcroft’s bill gave police virtually unlimited powers, allowed the FBI to wiretap citizens without court review or approval and opened the door for Bush’s controversial warrantless domestic spying program that a federal judge and has ruled unconstitutional but still has to get through a conservative Supreme Court stacked with Bush appointees.

Vast areas in and around Washington suddenly became off limits for photography. Photographers were banned from shooting in Union Station, on the Washington Metro and in areas where a federal building might be in the background.

Amtrak cops arrested independent filmmaker Jem Cohen for shooting footage out the window of a train enroute to New York – something he has done for years. The New York Times told Cohen their photographers are routinely prohibited from taking photos of public places in the Big Apple, so often in fact that they no longer considered what happened to him to be news.

Indian filmmaker Rakesh Sharma was arrested and detained for four hours for shooting footage on the streets of New York.

In Northern Virginia, Park Police on the George Washington Parkway stopped to question me for shooting skyline photos of the Nation’s Capital. Even after I identified myself as a working journalist and produced identification (including a Department of Defense press pass) they tried to confiscate the digital image cards from my camera, saying I needed “written authorization” from the Park Service Superintendent’s office. I stood my ground and they backed off.

In October 2002 I was shooting kids in Halloween costumes at Tyson’s Corner Mall in Northern Virginia, something I had done at Halloween for nearly 10 years. Two security guards approached, ordered me to stop, and escorted me to the security office. Even though I was on assignment to cover a story about parents bringing their children to the Mall for trick or treating, I was ordered to leave the property.

I hoped we had left all that behind when we moved from Washington to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia in late 2004. I grew up along the Blue Ridge Parkway and have photographed many stretches of the highway that stretches from Front Royal, Virginia, to the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee.

Until last week, no Blue Ridge Parkway employee has ever interfered with my ability to photograph there, not until a member of the “Criminal Interdiction Team” out of Asheville, North Carolina, threatened me with arrest if I shot pictures of him searching a car belonging to attendees of a summer music festival.

Assistant Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett says his CIT officers “don’t remember” encountering a photographer while on duty last week. In the news business we call that a “non-denial denial.” Not remembering is the oldest cop out in the book (pun fully intended).

Don’t worry Ranger Stinnett. Your officer may have trouble remembering but I don’t. When someone who carries a gun threatens me with arrest, I remember him very well.

I think you will also find the sheriff of Floyd County, VA, Shannon Zeman, has a clear memory of the night last week when a member of the CIT unit pulled him over and treated him like a criminal. Zeman says the officers were “rude and abusive,” something the sheriff would never tolerate from his deputies.

Virginia State Trooper Andrew O’Connor, another respected member of law enforcement around these parts, says he was shocked and dismayed at the behavior of the CIT Rangers.

Stinnett promises a “full and complete” investigation into the incident. I’m not holding my breath. Stinnett is also the one who sent the CIT team up from Asheville to harass attendees of FloydFest and the one who says he doesn’t consider 177 traffic stops along a five mile stretch of road over two-and-a-half days “excessive.” In fact, he calls the effort “low intensity.”

Congressman Rick Boucher doesn’t consider the effort “low intensity” and he does consider the actions of the CIT team “excessive.”

“This situation is intolerable and unacceptable,” Rep. Boucher told me Monday. He promises to call in the director of the Blue Ridge Parkway and demand an investigation. Boucher says he will recommend that traffic enforcement responsibility near the FloydFest site be taken away from the Park Rangers during the event and turned over to the Virginia State Police

According to federal records, the CIT is funded, in part, by grants from the Department of Homeland Security – the same Department of Homeland Security that so often invokes the USA Patriot Act to routinely revoke freedoms once considered untouchable in America.