Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Zine: Adventures at the Border

This is another article I wrote for a friend's Zine. Again I don't know what kind of circulation or response it ever got.
As the introduction states, this was written before the 2001 FTAA protest in Quebec, Canada. Many people were talking about potential problems crossing the border, and I was frequently telling my story about crossing the border the summer before. So, a friend from Media Mouse asked me to write the whole thing up as an article she could put in her Zine for anyone interested.


This April, thousands of protesters are expected to converge on Quebec to fight the FTAA, an expansion of NAFTA. Many of us in the United States are planning on being there, but no one should set off without giving careful thought as to how they will deal with the border guards. This summer, I went to Windsor, Canada, to also to protest against the FTAA. Since the protest in Quebec is supposed to be much bigger, one can only imagine how much more of a hassle it will be for American activists.

Adventures at the Border
6:00 AM

I arrived at the house of my traveling companion. It was the first time we had met. We shook hands and exchanged names, and then we were on our way.

“Nice car,” he commented, as he got inside.

“Thank you,” I replied. “It’s my parents’. They were worried that my normal car wouldn’t survive the trip, so they offered to trade cars with me.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, this ought to work out pretty well for us. It’s a big gas guzzling SUV. No self-respecting protester would be caught dead in this thing. It will be perfect for crossing the boarder.”

“What do you think the border will be like?”

“I heard they’re keeping an eye out for hippies and protesters, but I’ve got the perfect disguise. Check out my clothes man, all GAP apparel.” My companion examined his clothes. “Not to worry,” I chimed in. “I’ve got Khakis in the back seat for you. You can change before we get to the border.”

I thought I had prepared for every eventuality. Since my companion was only 20, we even had the perfect story. We were just two Americans looking to take advantage of Canada’s low drinking age for a night of bar hopping and non-political mischief. I had emptied the car of any political literature, emptied my wallet of all political memberships, and was ready to assume my new identity. I was a typical apolitical American, who loved the GAP, top forty radio (which I intended to have playing at the border), and N’Sync (a picture of whom was taped to the dashboard).
10:00 AM

We arrived at the Detroit convergence center. We went in, looked around, and talked to the protest leaders. “What do you think our chances of getting across the border are?” I asked.

One of the women shook her head. “Not good. They’ve got the border virtually locked down now. They’re not too eager to let anyone across, especially if they know why you’re going.”

I conversed with my companion. “Well, we came all this way,” I said. “It’s worth a try.”

My companion agreed, however as we walked back to the car, I noticed he had taken a bunch of the protest literature with him. After having cleared the car of all political material, I was not to eager to obtain literature on the protest right before we approached the border. “Get rid of that stuff,” I said.

“It will be alright,” my companion assured me. “I’ll hide it at the bottom of our food bag. Even if they do search the car, they’ll never find it there.”
10:30 AM

We crossed under the tunnel with no problem. I was beginning to think all my worrying had been for nothing. However, as we arrived on the Canadian side, we saw a long line of cars waiting the border checkpoint. Police walked in and out of the line in full body armor, giving the feeling of a military checkpoint and making me nervous. There were even police with binoculars stationed on the roof.

“You know,” my companion suggested, “perhaps our story isn’t perfect. If we mention we’re planing on staying in the city of Windsor, they’ll immediately become suspicious. We should tell them we’re heading to Stratford to see a play.”

Changes at the eleventh hour always made me uneasy, but given all the police around it did seem like a good idea to pretend we weren’t going to be anywhere near the protest. I agreed. We changed the radio from top 40 to classical, and we took down the picture of N’Sync.

When we arrived at the checkpoint, we told the officer we were heading to Stratford to see “Fiddler on the Roof.” He asked if we were in college, and we told him we were. Then he asked to see our college I.D.s. We showed them, and he asked us to pull over to have the car searched. One of the border guards would later admit to us that all our efforts to disguise ourselves were really for naught. We were young, and we were college students, and that was enough to red flag us as activists. It didn’t matter how we looked.

We were instructed to stand against a wall with our hands out of our pockets, while a team of police officers went through the car. When I saw how thoroughly they were examining everything, my heart dropped for I knew it was only a matter of time before they found the literature. That, added to the coldness of the morning, caused me to shake with nervousness against my will. I was certain they could see I was nervous. I tried to hide it, but I wasn’t even allowed to put my hands in my pocket, and so they hung awkwardly by my side.

An officer came up to us and began talking in a very friendly tone. When he realized we were both from Christian colleges, he began to debate theology with us, trying to get us to relax as much as possible. He subtly inserted other questions in the dialogue. “Are either of you guys vegetarians? Have you ever been to any protests before?”

Well all this was happening, the search continued. At one point, the police had trouble lifting the back seat forward. I walked over to help them, but as soon as I left the wall everyone started moving rapidly to intercept me. I walked slowly backwards to my post. They then gave me permission to come forward and tell them how to move the seat, but they made sure I didn’t touch anything.

At other points they would come forward with various objects they had found. “What is this hose doing here?” they asked.

I shrugged. “It’s my dad’s car. I don’t know.” They looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief that I would tell such a crappy lie.

Another time an officer came forward with a Clearisel container. “Do you mind telling me,” he asked in an accusatory tone, “why you have a face wash container with no soap left in it?”

“There’s still a little bit left,” I replied. “If you squeeze it hard enough, it comes out.”

“Bullshit!” he replied. “We’ve all tried and none of us could get anything out.”

The officer who was debating theology gradually chipped away at our story. “You say you’re going to the play, do you have tickets? Where are you planning to stay in Stratford? We notice you don’t have any maps to Stratford.” Finally, he went for the kill. “We don’t think you’re planning to go to Stratford at all. We think you’re here for our little protest. It’s all right. You can tell us. We’re not going to beat you.”

My companion tried to laugh. “Wow, that’s kind of funny. I don’t know where you would get that idea from.” The Officer listened patiently as my companion went on about how shocked he was that anyone could think that we were protesters. It seemed to me a useless endeavor, since all the protest literature had been uncovered by this time. As soon as he was done, I came forward with the truth.

“We were told we wouldn’t make it across the border if we were honest,” I said.

The officer nodded. “Well, here’s what were going to do. Were going to search the rest of the vehicle, and see if there’s anything we need to confiscate. We might impound the vehicle itself, but I hope we won’t need to do that if you cooperate with us. We’ll ask you a few questions, and then I imagine we’ll just turn you back and you’ll be free to return to the United States.”

Almost immediately after he had finished, my companion and I were separated, and we were asked almost every question imaginable. Each of us had a team of police officers questioning us. One would ask the question, the others would stand in the back ground, shaking their heads in disbelief at each answer, in order to intimidate us if we were not being entirely truthful.

The manner of the Police officers was also designed to intimidate. “Alright,” one of them would say, “now, I don’t want any more of your bullshit, just tell me the truth.” Or they would say things like, “look at me sir. No, not at my hands, look here, in my eyes. Don’t look at them, look at me.”

After they had finished interrogating us, they had us empty our pockets and then led us to separate holding cells. I sat in the cell for about ten minutes, and then a couple officers came in and interrogated me again, asking all of the same questions.

They wanted me to describe to them what everything in the car was and what it was for. The hose? I told them I didn’t know, my dad must have left it in the car. They shook their heads in disbelief. The bungy cords? Same thing, it was my dad’s car. They shook their heads in disbelief. My brother’s poetry that they found in the glove compartment? No I didn’t have a clue what it meant.

But there was one piece of paper that in particular attracted their attention. It had just the following words written on it: “Butterball’s cell phone number [followed by the number itself], activities begin at 6 PM tonight.”

I tried to explain to them that Butterball was my roommate’s name, that our phone wasn’t installed yet and so it had become necessary for everyone in the house to learn his cell phone number, and that the activity was a housewarming party we had thrown the night before.”

“Bullshit,” they responded. “Who is Butterball?” The questions flowed, and by the time they were done, they had enough information about Butterball to write a small book. “How long have you known Butterball? When was the last time you saw Butterball? How many siblings does Butterball have? Where is Butterball’s hometown? What is Butterball studying? What organizations is Butterball a part of? Is Butterball a communist? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Periodically, they would say something like, “Okay, enough of this Bullshit. Butterball’s a code name, isn’t it? Butterball is already across the border, isn’t he? What are you planning for six O’clock tonight?” (Incidentally, I have since warned my friend Butterball that he might want to avoid going to Canada for a few years).

They also asked why I was going to the protest. “These are issues I’ve been concerned about for sometime,” I answered. “I was at the IMF protests in DC this April.”

This opened up a new area of interest for them, and they wanted to know everything. Was I a violent protester? Was I around any violent protests? Did I meet any violent protesters? Was I pepper sprayed? Was I tear gassed? What were the names of the people I had gone to DC with?

And they asked me all sorts of questions about my companion. Had he gone to the protests in DC? Was he ever arrested? Again, I tried to tell the police that I had only met my traveling companion that morning. We had hooked up through a mutual friend, but neither of us knew much about the other.

At the same time they were interviewing my companion, to make sure our stories matched up. They asked him repeated questions about Butterball, and he told them he had no idea what they were talking about.

Eventually, we were let out of the detention cells, and waited to be interviewed by customs. A dog sniffed our belongings for drugs. I was also informed of the items that the police had chosen to confiscate. The hose and bungy cords were confiscated, because they were thought to be weapons. My companion’s bandanna was confiscated, because the police thought he might use it to protect himself against tear gas or pepper spray. My empty Clearasil container was confiscated, because the police were worried I might fill it up with water, and use it to wash my face off if I got Pepper sprayed.

Then, we were individually called in to talk to a custom’s officer. First my companion went in, then when he came out, I went in. The man said the same thing to both of us. “Look,” he told me, “I’m very sympathetic to your cause. In fact, I plan to be at the protest tomorrow myself. And, believe it or not, I was once young and radical just like you. But, this weekend we are under a tremendous amount of political pressure not to let you guys through. So, I’m going to make a few phone calls, and then we’ll probably just send you back to the United States.”

I answered that I understood. We waited outside for a while longer, and then we were once again called in. “We’ve decided to let you guys through,” the custom’s officer said. “You don’t look violent, neither of you has ever been arrested, so we really can’t think of any reason why you can’t come in. But be warned, if you’re arrested in Canada, you’ll have to undergo a lengthy deportation process. And please, stay away from any violent activity.”

We had to show proof of United States citizenship. The only things they accepted were a birth certificate, a passport, or voter’s registration card. Fortunately we both had our voter’s registration card on us. After the three-hour ordeal, we were finally allowed to pass into Canada.

We were laughing with relief as we drove away. “Boy, all that made me pretty hungry,” my companion said as he reached into the food bag. “Do you want a cracker?”

I nodded, but about this time my companion realized that all our crackers had been crushed to crumbs by the police, who wanted to make sure razor blades had not been hidden among the saltines.

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