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Homeland Security

God Bless America. I love the open road. I am traversing 3000 square miles at my leisure, and watching the states roll into one another and the dramatic crests and troughs of the landscape of the United States of America. Freedom of movement is one of the purest ways to experience the elusive American concept of freedom.

At dusk I am on the I-8 – between Yuma and Tucson, heading East. The traffic slows to a standstill, we move forward inches in fits and starts.

After twenty minutes of this I see signs “Caution, Working Dogs Ahead”.

It becomes clear that this is a border patrol checkpoint. I know I’m over 50 miles from the Mexican border, probably closer to 100. I’ve passed a few checkpoints today, took photos of a guy in handcuffs with six men in olive uniforms standing over him, his car open and the contents splayed over the ground in front of him. The last time I traveled this way there were none of these, as Homeland Security didn’t exist ten years ago.

Make shift Homeland Security search station by the side of the road, with agents standing around

Desert tents line the highway and have been fashioned into makeshift tollbooth style coverings over the lanes. There is a middle eastern look to the scene, right down to the uniforms. I wonder if it’s purposeful – if the designers of Homeland Security are emulating the enemies in the War on Terror. Perhaps subconsciously we feel our tax dollar funding is justified in this process.

As I approach the small stop sign, I see they are circling every car with search dogs. I keep an eye on the young German Shepherd that does his duty on my Yaris. I move the rearview as he walks behind the car to make sure there are no blind spots. The dog then moves on to the car behind me.

I’ve seen the CheckpointUSA videos. I know better. But when the young black agent stops me I roll my window all the way down. I have been through three of these checks earlier in the day, and was waved through as soon as they saw the color of my skin.

“Are you a citizen of the United States of America?”

“Yes.”

He makes eye contact with another agent, who has checked my license plate. I see the other agent nod. I’m in Arizona. I have California plates. I must be a criminal.

“Are you the registered owner of the vehicle?”

“Yes.”

I own a new car. I must be a criminal.

“Please pull over to secondary” The Homeland Security agent points at the tents on the right side of the road. I love how it sounds so official, but is really just the gravel shoulder of a two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere. This is my last chance to say no.

Traffic lanes at a Homeland Security checkpoint

I don’t. I know I am carrying nothing. I’m slightly curious about the process. I’ve had my share of law enforcement encounters, but not this specific one. I drive the ten feet to the shoulder. They direct me to park underneath a tent with bright lights set up at all four corners. Three Homeland Security agents surround my car, two white, one Mexican American.

The tallest white agent asks “Are you the registered owner of the vehicle?”

“Yes.”

“Please step out of the car.” I want to say no. I want to start the engine and drive away. My curiosity is ebbing away. I step out of the car.

“Where are you headed?” he asks.

“Bisbee, Arizona.” I answer.

“Please step under the tent.”

“I’m already under a tent.” I reply. My patience is wearing thin. It seemed like a fun game, it’s seeming less and less fun by the minute.

“Please step under that tent.” The Homeland Security agent points to a tent with a park bench under it. I walk over and sit on the bench. I look at my car. The Mexican American agent removes a dog from a cage and has it circle my car. The dog looks uninterested. While this is occurring the first agent asks again:

“Where are you headed?”

“Bisbee, Arizona.”

“Where are you coming from?”

Los Angeles.” I’m coming from LA. I must be a criminal.

“That’s a long drive. Why are you going to Bisbee?”

“I have a friend there.” The other white Homeland Security agent walks over to us.

“Where are you headed?” he asks.

The other agent answers “She’s going to Bisbee.”

Whitey #2 asks “Where is that?” like he doesn’t believe it exists.

I answer, like a smartass: “It’s in Arizona. The state we’re currently in.”

The agent chuckles and retorts “All I know is Yuma to Tucson”

The Mexican American agent joins us.

“Where are you headed?”

“The moon.” I answer, having lost all patience with their efforts to trick me into mismatched answers.

“We’re going to need to search your vehicle, if that’s okay.” The Mexican dude says awkwardly and like he’s embarrassed. I would be too in his shoes, he’s clearly only one generation away from being on the other side of the line. I stand up and say the line I’ve been waiting to say for ten years:

“I’m sorry, I don’t consent to any searches.”

He dashes my brave stand in one sentence. “Well, we already have probable cause.” he says insecurely in his slight Hispanic accent. “The dogs have indicated that you have either hidden persons or narcotics on board, and it’s obviously not hidden persons, so…” He expects me to finish his sentence with an admission.

I laugh. The three of them are not laughing. I shrug – and sit back down.

“I don’t consent.” I repeat. The Mexican Homeland Security agent is already halfway to my car. He opens it. I think of my Taser lying in my bag on the front seat. They don’t find it.

I look down the line briefly and hear a guy with a thick Indian accent refusing his search. I see people of color, people with accents, and another person with dreadlocks. I realize I’m being profiled. I have dreadlocks. I must be a criminal. I know the dogs have not reacted to my car. Trying to block my view, the second white agent plants himself between me and the car, and the first one between me and him, and begins rapidly firing questions at me.

“What do you do for a living?”

“Internet marketing.” I crane my neck around him to keep an eye on my car.

“Do you work for a big company or a small one?”

“I have my own company.”

He stops at this and looks at me quizzically. He was expecting me to be a deadbeat. He’s realizing he’s incorrectly profiled and is wasting his time. I’m realizing he’s more poorly trained than any police officer I’ve ever encountered, and that the standards for his employment are lower than any rural Sheriff’s department.

“How did you get into internet marketing?”

“How did you get into Homeland Security?” He is silent. I continue. “Look, I really need to watch him search my car.” I get up and move closer to the car. The Mexican American agent is surprisingly ginger with my possessions. He has the dog on the leash, and the dog is inside my car. I’m afraid that they will plant something. I realize that these are Federal agents, should they “find” anything on me I am facing Federal mandatory minimums. I am less attentive to following questions.

“Why does it say that on the back window of your car?” he asks.

“It used to say ‘LOST BLACK CAT’ and it had my phone number. Now it just says ‘LOST’ because I like it that way. I lost my cat.”

“Did you ever find it?”

“No.”

“Why do you have all those things in your car?”

“Because I’ll be on the road for six months. How long does it take you to train those dogs?” I ask.

“I don’t know.” He realizes I am done answering questions and stops asking them. When they open the trunk I open my mouth.

“I have fragile computer equipment in the trunk.” Hearing this, they don’t even bother to empty the trunk. I am grateful they aren’t abusing their power as much as they could. My three file boxes, suitcase, and laundry basket are on the ground outside of the car. They search them one by one by hand and with the dog and place them back into the vehicle. Eventually the Homeland Security agent gets to my box full of vitamins, herbs, spices, and oils. He doesn’t bother to open any of the pill bottles. The Mexican agent and white agent #2 pull out my organic basil, parsley, and oregano and wave the bottles under the dog’s nose before holding it up to the light. The sun has set. The sight of the two of them scrutinizing my organic herbs makes me burst into uncontrollable laughter.

“What’s so funny?!” the first white agent narrows his eyes at me. I grab my keys out of his hand.

“Nothing is funny about this at all. I believe in open borders and decriminalization, yet I’m still paying you to do this ridiculous shit.” I say. I walk towards my car. “Am I free to go?”

“Yes. Get out of here.” says white agent #1, in a tone more bored and frustrated than angry. The second white agent has moved on down the line. The Mexican Homeland Security agent is putting the dog back in his cage. I get in my car, start the engine, and peel out.

Border Control Checkpoint line

That night I feel dehumanized. I feel my rights as an American citizen have been ripped from me. I thought it was meaningless, but as it sinks in I feel deep emotional chords being struck. I feel degraded, invaded, violated.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searches, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The joke’s on them. It’s the first time I’ve traveled without drugs in over a decade. I am a criminal.

Sunset in Arizona

Like stories about close calls with law enforcement? Here’s more:

1: Bribery in Uganda

2: Pink Taser

3. Homeland Security

4. Stowaway

5: Bodymore


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