Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The TSA Stole My Belt Buckle... For Safety.

I am livid. Angry. Filled with rage.

A few minutes ago (as of this posting, a few hours), I lost my favorite belt buckle to the TSA at Los Angeles International Airport, because - they claimed - it was a "replica" of a gun.

What kind of a gun, you might ask?

A 1950s Flash Gordon-style RAYGUN!! A fictional weapon. A child's toy.

Here it is:

A photo posted by CitizenA Media (@citizenamedia) on

On my flight out to LA, I dealt with the same issue with an imperious and stupid TSA supervisor who tried to take the buckle under the same pretenses at DCA until I protested long enough for her to get the top level supervisor in the terminal.

I wrote about that event on Facebook when it happened two days ago:
"Now that I'm in a restaurant in Philly, I have time to share more of the stupidity. First, they did a bag check, which happens to me every time I fly anyway, so who cares. When I walked over, the guy said, "Yeah, there's something in there that's kind of shaped like a gun," to which I replied, "Yeah. It's a belt buckle."

He pulled it out of the bag and looked at it. Yep. Belt buckle. He didn't seem like an idiot, but he called his supervisor over, who instantly made it clear to me that she was one of those petty authoritarian, logic-impaired idiots you often come to expect in positions of middling power in law enforcement. Her word was law... Even when, you know, it wasn't actually law. She said, "Listen, you can either go back out of security and put this in your check luggage (which I don't have), or we'll confiscate it."

But this is honestly my favorite belt buckle, and I'm me, so - realizing I was speaking with a woman with the brainpower of a block of Parmesan cheese - I looked at her and said, "You understand that this is a belt buckle, right? It is not a danger to the safety of anyone nor is it against the law to carry. I have also traveled with this belt buckle all over the country and it's never been a problem. So please explain to me how exactly you would justify taking it."

Her response was to suggest a hypothetical scenario. "What if", she postulated, "you take this object out of your bag and point it - like a gun - at a police officer? He would have no choice to assume that it was a gun, and take action against you."

Now... Let's leave aside for a second that the entire premise behind this argument is that police officers are too dumb and hopped up on their own power that they can't recognize a dangerous weapon from a belt buckle in the shape of a 1950's toy ray gun. I'm glad she recognized this reality, but I don't think she really processed what it says about law enforcement in America. But leaving that aside... Why in the hell would I ever take my belt buckle and point it at a police officer?

To this, she had no answer.

She also had no answer to the point that even if I did that, it would represent a danger to me and not, say... an airplane full of people.

At this point, she got red in the face and loudly declared that she wasn't going to argue with me or "have a debate about this". "You have two options. That's it," she said. So I asked to speak with *HER* supervisor. Fine. She took the belt buckle and walked it over to some other guy far out of earshot and talked to him for a bit while someone else came over and talked to me. Also seemed like a fairly reasonable guy.

Eventually the woman came back, curtly handed me the buckle and said, "Here you go. Have a good flight, sir.""
By the way, while fighting me over my belt buckle, the TSA had absolutely no problem with the straight razor blade I had in my suitcase for shaving. Not that they should, but... At least terrorists have actually used razor blades in a major attack. I cannot say the same about a belt buckle made to look like a Flash Gordon prop.

Needless to say, on my return flight to DC, I assumed that I would deal with the same nonsense and kept the buckle outside of my bag and put it in one of the plastic tubs, hoping that it would be easier for them to clearly see what it was and why it was posed absolutely no danger to anyone.

Unfortunately, I had left my hotel too late and LA traffic was terrible as per usual, so by the time I arrived at the airport, my plane was already boarding. So when the officers took the buckle and called their supervisor to ask about what they should do, I simply did not have time to battle them up the chain of command again. Instead of miss my flight, I had no choice but to leave it with them.

I'm also kicking myself (again) for not recording the whole thing. I was so busy looking at the clock and worrying about missing my flight that I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Plus, I think that in spite of everything I've seen and experienced, and in spite of everything I know to be true about the growing police-state in America, and my philosophical beliefs, I think I STILL subconsciously hold onto a mental model of people in uniform that says, "If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about."

This mental model is and always has been incorrect.

But seriously wrap your minds around what this means. Our "Transportation Security Administration" cannot recognize the difference between the following things:
  1. A belt buckle and a prop replica.
  2. A fictional/toy gun that has never existed in human history outside of sci-fi & fantasy stories, and a firearm/weapon that actually exists.
  3. An object that poses a danger to others... and... a goddamn belt buckle.
I ran the whole way to my gate with my pants falling down as my belt had no way of fastening, and barely made my flight. I was the last person to board the plane.

Do I really need to go on a long-winded jag about how ridiculous this is? The TSA is busy protecting you from the scourge of novelty belt buckles. Meanhile, their track record of stopping an actual threat: terrible.

But on the upside, the TSA is really good at one thing: stealing items from travelers' luggage.

Are you angry? I am.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hands Against the Wall: My experience with out-of-control Port Authority Police

On Thursday, October 9th, 2014, I boarded the Northeast Regional Amtrak from my home in Washington, DC to Penn Station in New York City. 

A day which began with incredible promise ended with my hands against the wall of a building while being accosted and intimidated by an aggressive, out-of-control, Port Authority Police Officer - in spite of having committed absolutely no crime.

This is my story:

Allow me first to begin by talking about why I was in New York.

I was in NYC that night to attend the annual Fellows Dinner for The Moving Picture Institute. For those who don't know, MPI is an incredible organization dedicated to developing the careers of talented, aspiring filmmakers who are interested in promoting freedom through entertainment media, with financial support and mentoring opportunities.

I became a fellow of their Rising Filmmaker Program in 2010, when I was awarded a grant to produce two films on the history and philosophy of the Bill of Rights. While no one would look back on those two short films as anything special, MPI's support at that time enabled me to change the trajectory of my career in entertainment and achieve my goal of becoming a full-time multimedia producer for libertarian causes.

Without The MPI's support, I would not be where I am today.

Their annual fellows dinner is an opportunity to connect with donors and other filmmakers - many of whom are good friends from NYC or Los Angeles that I don't get to see very often. A lot of these folks - myself included - are documentarians, journalists, and narrative filmmakers; and we're all freedom fighters. Here's a list of some of the projects MPI has supported over the years: http://www.thempi.org/mpi_films/

MPI itself was co-founded by Thor Halvorssen, a Venezuelan freedom advocate who also created the Human Rights Foundation and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; and who has presented on human rights abuses at venues around the world, including the United Nations. Thor is a bold and courageous man.

WATCH him take on the Venezuelan representatives at the UN when they absurdly tried to gain a seat on the UN's human rights council.

I ate dinner at Thor's table during the event, in fact.

My point in sharing all of this is not just to show how proud I am to be associated with The MPI (extremely) or to explain to everyone what kind of an event I was at (ie. intimate fancy gala, not frat party); but also to fully contextualize what happened after my friend and I left Tribeca Grill to return to our hotel.

This setup is so everyone can clearly understand precisely how ironic (or at least poetic) our interaction with the police state that is New York City really was that night.

So, here's what happened.

The event started at 6:00 PM with a cocktail reception. They held a short film screening at the Tribeca Film Center's theater at 7:00, followed by a 7:30 private dinner.

By about 11:00 PM, dinner was over, and guests were mingling and enjoying connecting with each other. At this point, the staff started nudging us out the door so they could clean up and go home themselves. Since MPI had put most of the out-of-town folks (including myself) up at the SoHo Grand hotel about a half a mile away, many of us decided to go back there and continue our conversations at the hotel bar.

I ended up walking back with a DC friend, Matthew Szewczyk, who moved to Los Angeles a couple years ago to work as a commercial director.

As you can see on the map below, the Tribeca Grill and the hotel aren't too far away from each other, but the streets are disrupted by some parks and the Canal Street entrance to the Holland Tunnel, so the easiest way to get there is a little circuitous.

And therein lies our mistake.

Instead of heading directly East from the Tribeca Film Center, Matt and I walked uptown along Hudson Street.

We were engaged in conversation, and although I used to work and go to grad school in this area, I wasn't really paying attention to the fact that we'd gone too far. We'd walked a ways up before I realized that we'd have a painful time getting across Canal, and suggested that we just cut across over to West Broadway from wherever we were if we could.

So we turned down Vestry Street and headed to the end of the block, hoping to get across that way instead. Alas, there was a low fence at the end of Vestry, which at the time, we assumed was just there to stop cars from going the wrong way onto the street marked on the map as I-76.

At that point, Matt suggests that we just hop the low fence and keep going. Not ideal, but it seemed fine to me, so we tossed our program booklets and DVD from the dinner over the fence and my friend started to jump over.

As he got about halfway over the fence, we heard a man on a bullhorn from across the street shouting at us not to go that way.

Of course, our books and such were already on the other side, and Matt was halfway over already so he shouted back that he would just get his books and we'd go back the way we came... Which is exactly what happened. He landed on the other side, grabbed the booklets and DVD, handed them to me and climbed right back over to the acceptable side.

No harm, no foul... Or so we thought.

A few seconds later, as we began walking back out the way we came, a couple of goons wearing coveralls that had some kind of Port Authority markings on them showed up and told us to stop while they and the guard-stand guy across the street with the bullhorn figured out "what to do with us." They didn't ask us if we would stick around for a few minutes, they simply demanded that we don't go anywhere.

These men were not police. They did not present any identification. They did not have any authority of any kind to detain us. And they were not being polite.

Keep in mind also that this is taking place at the end of a dark, unpopulated dead-end street in New York City, in the middle of the night.

It was extremely creepy.

As my friend and I continued to walk up the street, the goons said that cops were already on their way to talk to us. We heard the sirens. They weren't lying.

At this point, we knew that we'd be interacting with police officers.

Now... Note that Matt and I are both people who spend a lot of time working in an issue space as filmmakers who take human rights, liberty, and the growing American police state extremely seriously. Way back in 2010, I produced a short piece on police abuses in America being more worrisome than international terrorism and small-government political activism.

Since then, I've produced and contributed to films that deal with police abuses ranging from my documentary, "No Vans Land", which (among other things) touches on intimidation and violence against immigrant entrepreneurs competing with taxis and city buses, to work with the Institute for Justice exposing the practice of police profiting from taking people's property without so much as a conviction via civil asset forfeiture, which was recently brought to the national spotlight by John Oliver's "Last Week, Tonight".

Matt is currently working on a film about drone surveillance called "The Right Hand of God".

But even if we weren't particularly attuned to this stuff, we've all recently seen horrendous abuses in New York City, with an NYPD officer choking Eric Garner to death; who, by all accounts a sweet man whose heinous crime was selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island. Not to mention the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked massive riots and exposed tremendous corruption throughout the St. Louis area police force.

We both intellectually know the risks of dealing with police very well, and we were prepared for what was likely coming our way.

The first thing Matt did was ask was if I had any drugs on my person. As someone who has never smoked a cigarette, let alone been high or had the slightest interest in drugs of any kind, the answer was - of course - no. The second thing he did was suggest that we should both get out our phones and begin recording video of what was about to happen.

Matt pulled out his phone and began recording just as a squad car with lights flashing and sirens blaring rolled up to the curb next to us. I did not get my phone out in time, not that it would have mattered, given what happened next.

Officer Pasquale Carpentiere
Mere seconds later, an officer of the Port Authority Police Department - Officer Pasquale Carpentiere, PAPD Badge #: 2562 - jumped out of his cruiser, and shouted at us to turn around and put our hands against the wall of the nearest building. We immediately complied.

Matt still had his phone in his hand, with the camera pointed toward the officer.

And wouldn't you know it... The very first thing the officer did was jam his knee into my friend's back, shoving him against the wall and attempt to confiscate his phone. At this point, my friend protested and tried to hang onto his phone, but the officer got extremely aggressive, violently taking the phone from his hands while shouting at both of us telling us to comply and stop resisting. In no way had either of us "resisted" anything, though once the officer took my friend's phone, we both clearly told him that he had absolutely no authority to do that and that he was in violation of the law.

For those who don't know, It is 100% legal (and extremely important!) to record police officers on duty. 

Officer Carpentiere did not acknowledge this point or return the phone. Instead, he claimed that we were being non-compliant with his requests (completely false), and that my friend's phone "might have been a taser".

Utter. Nonsense.

My friend's phone was out and visible from the very beginning, his hands were up and held against a wall, and neither of us made any motion whatsoever toward the officer. From the moment Officer Carpentiere arrived, we complied with each of his demands. There is absolutely no way he could have possibly mistaken the phone for a taser.

Even if he did briefly believe it to have been dangerous, within a few seconds of holding it he would have known that it was not. Yet, once he confiscated it, the officer did not return the phone to my friend immediately upon inspection.

Again, we registered our protests against this action.

Matt reminded the officer that it was unconstitutional to take private property without cause, and that in no way was it acceptable. The officer's response? Something very close to: "Are you a lawyer? No? Well then, shut your mouth."

It was clear that the phone would not be returned any time soon, so my friend suggested that I take out my phone from my pocket and begin recording the rest of our interactions. A great idea, except that the minute I began to do so, Officer Carpentiere shoved me against the wall and grabbed my wrist while aggressively telling me that either I could keep my phone in my pocket where it was, or he would take it as well.

I opted to keep it in my pocket. Who knows what the officer would have done with it.

Ever since this encounter I have wondered if I should have had my phone out from the beginning so that I could have captured a second camera angle and kept a more tangible record of what happened to us. Upon reflection, I don't think it would have mattered.

After the initial round of intimidation and displays of force, Officer Carpentiere took my friend's phone and both of our IDs back to his squad car with him as he sat down to "write a summons".

The whole time the officer was sitting in the car, Matt was asking to have his phone back, and for a "white shirt" (supervising officer) to be called to the scene. At one point, Carpentiere told us that he would give the phone back when he was done, and because of my friend's "belligerence", he would take as long as he felt like.

When Officer Carpentiere finally returned with the summons and the phone, easily over 15 minutes later, it was clear why he held onto it. The recording Matt had made of the officer's aggressive behavior was gone. Deleted by the officer. I know Matt will do his best to recover the data, but that may not be possible.

Had I immediately filmed these events, it seems most likely that I'd have had my recordings deleted as well.

The officer's behavior was unethical, disgusting, and - again - ENTIRELY ILLEGAL.

By this point, a second officer - Officer Miller - had arrived to support his compatriot. Miller seemed to be a different type of cop compared to Carpentiere. Our interactions with him were not immediately hostile, he did not raise his voice or treat us violently.

I wonder very much whether or not, had he been the first responder, things would have gone the way they did. Who knows.

Ultimately, Matt was given a summons to appear in NYC court for "trespassing". I wasn't. We were told that this was because the officer had reviewed security camera footage (or talked to someone who had), and that I wasn't on tape going over the fence. I suspect it may have also had something to do with the difference in my demeanor vs. my friend's. As you might imagine, once his phone was taken and he took a knee to the back, Matt wasn't exactly happy.

I tend to be pretty even-keeled in stressful situations, and spent most of the time trying to make sure that we didn't get shot or arrested for no damn reason. Freedom-fighter or not, I'm not particularly interested in dying at the hands of a stupid cop power-tripping on his own aggressive machismo.

And make no mistake... There were several points where I believed this to be a legitimately possible outcome, given the way Officer Carpentiere behaved towards us from the beginning.

45 minutes or so into our nightmare, the supervisor arrived. I did capture that entire interaction on camera.

See below:

There are a couple things I'd point out about this. For one thing, I'd note that the very first thing the supervisor did when he arrived on the scene was have a private conversation with Officer Carpentiere outside of our listening or recording range. I don't know what was said, but it made it fairly clear from the outset how the conversation would go.

I'd note also that the supervising officer says a lot of stuff that would make sense if events had unfolded the way he assumed.

For those who don't watch the video, the supervisor assumes that Matt made some quick movements toward his pocket that set-off the negative interaction with Officer Carpentiere. Based on that assumption, most of what he says is understandable - if I were a police officer, I too would be wary of someone in a dark alley reaching for something I couldn't see. I might even react "with prejudice."

But... That's not what happened.

Matt's phone was already out and in plain view when the officer arrived! And as he could see literally everything we were doing at all times and we had complied with each one of his requests immediately (not to mention the fact that the call he would have received could only have referred to us possibly being in a place we weren't supposed to be, with nothing actually criminal, violent, or in any way threatening having taken place), there was never any question of danger to the officer except to the extent that the mere act of recording his actions itself posed a threat.

I've since pondered some other curious aspects of the experience that make the notion that Officer Carpentiere was reasonably acting out of concern for his safety absolutely ridiculous.

Consider that not once did he pat either of us down. Matt's question about drugs turned out to be pointless... Even if we did have drugs on us, Carpentiere didn't even look for them. He didn't ask us if we were carrying any weapons. If he had patted me down, he might have even noted something odd or questionable in my pockets that night. Apart from my wallet, keys, and cellphone; I was carrying about a dozen USB flash drives (preloaded with my two most recent documentaries, to share with attendees of the dinner), which would have probably seemed strange had he bothered to check my blazer.

And that's the thing... He didn't care about any of that. He didn't even ask us why we were there or what we were doing. It was quite clear that the officer did not believe we were a danger to him in any way.

The only thing he cared about seemed to be the phone and the fact that we were recording him.

In the end, waiting for the supervisor was kind of a waste of time. Predictably, his sole purpose was to back up Officer Carpentiere. He gave Matt an opportunity to file a formal complaint, but the likelihood that that will go anywhere seems slim to none.

Eventually we concluded our conversation and left. By the time we made it back to the hotel, many of our peers were wondering where we had been, and we had quite the story to tell.

Final thoughts...

Remember... This whole ordeal occurred for no other reason than because two guys took a wrong turn while walking back to a hotel from a gala dinner for people who make films about human freedom. That's it. And yet, the best thing I can say for this entire experience is that we didn't get killed.

So what have I learned, if anything?

For one thing, I'm now a lot more acutely attuned to the visceral reality of dealing with police. It's one thing to empathize and report other people's experiences as a documentarian. It's quite another to live one of your own.

I'm also not so convinced that recording police encounters is necessarily a viable option in most cases. If having your phone out immediately turns a bad situation into a dangerous one as it did for us, and the only record of police abuse is deleted by the officer while you are required to press your hands against a wall or lie on the ground, then it really doesn't do anybody a whole lot of good. There are a bunch of apps that purport to help people with these kinds of things, but as far as I can tell, they're mostly based on automatic/real-time uploading of video files to the internet.

But what if you don't have strong enough signal for that to work, or what if it doesn't go through in time?

A better app, in my view, would be one where you could start a video recording and have it continue to run until you enter a password, or your phone dies. Had my friend or I had something like that the other night, it's likely that we'd have proper proof of this officer's abuses - including his attempts to stop or delete the recording.

That said, I am much more likely now to record (from a safe distance) any encounter I see someone else having with police. I would encourage absolutely everyone to do the same.

Do not assume that because police have stopped or are detaining or arresting someone, that the person has done something wrong. While my friend and I were up against the wall for a half an hour, numerous people walked by. I don't know what they thought of us, but at one point, my friend shouted "No drugs! Just books!"

At this point, I honestly think it's safer to assume that police are just as likely to be shaking someone down for no reason as they are to be "protecting and serving" in any meaningful way.

Lastly, I would like to take a moment and acknowledge that if my friend and I were not well-spoken, educated, white guys, the whole situation would likely have played out extremely differently. I do my best to treat all police as individuals, just like I do everyone in life, but the statistics are what they are. Police violence and "officer-involved shootings" are far more likely to happen in cases where the victim is non-white.

This experience makes me even more empathetic to this problem.

I wasn't drunk. I don't do drugs. I'm not a violent or aggressive person in any way. I'm practically a pacifist, and mostly a teetotaler. I don't own any guns, and although I would love to carry a multi-tool or a knife on me most of the time, even that has been beaten out of me by years of interactions with security guards at airports and State/Federal buildings. I was wearing nice clothes, and spoke calmly to every person I dealt with that night.

The worst thing either Matt or I had been accused of - and the reason for which police were called to the scene in the first place - was hopping a fence, picking up a couple books, and hopping right back over when we were told not to.

Yet... We spent our night with our hands up and our heads down, getting yelled at and threatened with jail and the confiscation of our property by police like we had just robbed a liquor store.

If it can happen to us, it can absolutely happen to anyone.

And now, with that... I'm happy to take any and all questions. I will also try to edit this post to include more links and additional video if we can recover the important stuff.