Ever since Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras interviewed Edward Snowden, government surveillance has been in the news. Then there was a lengthy article in the New York Times in which Poitras’ experience with flying, particularly with arriving in the US, was documented. Then Jacob Appelbaum recounted similar experiences on Democracy Now!. And Greenwald’s partner was detained at Heathrow for just under nine hours, all his digital devices were confiscated by the authorities there, and the Guardian’s offices in London were raided, and the authorities forced people there to erase computer hard drives. In something I read about David Marina’s detention at Heathrow, it was noted that 3 in 10,000 people who enter the UK are detained for questioning, and when detained, the detentions generally last under an hour. When Poitras was detained in one instance, she developed a rapport with the official who was questioning her, who helpfully informed her that the US government had a system for scoring people for their security risk and that sort of thing, and that her score was 400 out of 400. Various people noted the Kafka-esque nature of all this stuff — how the officials generally don’t tell you why things are happening to you, and you’re generally left not knowing if you were part of a random sample or whether you were being targeted for some unknown reason.
All of these folks have experienced far more intense levels of scrutiny than I have, and generally they’re all people who are involved with disseminating massive amounts of government secrets provided to them by organizations like Wikileaks and people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. But for being a topical songwriter with a more or less nonexistent criminal record (a few misdemeanors, all of which resulted in charges being dropped, all of them over 20 years old), as I was listening to these various interviews, there were many instances where I thought, oh yeah, that happened to me, too. And I’m just starting to develop the impression that, perhaps, the things that happen to me aren’t quite random. Recent experiences have led me to the pretty solid conclusion that although I’m definitely not scoring 400, I’ve got some kind of rating, and the experiences I’ve had with surveillance and government harassment of one kind or another over the past 13 years aren’t random, and aren’t normal. I mostly tended to think, well, I travel a heck of a lot more than most people, so maybe my experiences are par for the course as a frequent flier. I don’t think that anymore. I’m curious what other frequent travelers’ experiences are like. I thought I’d recount some of mine, for the sake of comparison.
Sometime after the WTO protests in Seattle, but well before 9/11, I was heading up to Quebec City with a German anti-nuclear organizer to participate in the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks that were taking place there. Prior to that border-crossing experience, my experiences with crossing the Canadian border was usually one of being waved through after a quick ID check. Until around that time, US citizens didn’t even need to show a passport. This time we were directed to go inside the Customs and Immigration building. Our vehicle was thoroughly searched, and we were questioned separately for about two hours. During the time we were being questioned, a number of other people were being sent back home, after they had gotten tired of answering the same questions over and over again. We were also being asked the same questions repeatedly, but we kept on answering them, knowing that if we stopped answering their questions, this would be grounds for turning us back. Eventually, they let us cross.
I have probably crossed the Canadian border a hundred times since then, either to visit friends or lovers, or to do gigs, sometimes gigs that required a work permit, other times gigs that didn’t require one. I have been waved through after showing my passport maybe once or twice, early on, but the rest of the time, crossing the Canadian border has involved a thorough search of my vehicle and some combination of waiting around and being questioned for between a half hour and two hours. On one occasion the agents took my laptop and copied the hard drive, and they took a notebook and photocopied it. They took these items into another room, but the door was open, and they were fairly open about what they were doing. They forgot to give me my notebook back, and very helpfully mailed it to my PO Box a couple weeks later.
Prior to the G8 meetings in Alberta in 2002 I intended to cross the border north of Missoula, Montana. The Immigration agent was a nice guy, a fellow musician, and we talked for 15 minutes or so about music, Martin guitars, and musicians we both liked. He was a fan of Martin Sexton. I mentioned that I heard Martin Sexton playing on the streets of Boston back when he was a young street performer. He said I was going to be able to cross, after they searched my vehicle. After they searched the vehicle, the agent looked very nervous, because he had just been handed a piece of paper that had come out of their computer system. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to show it to me, but he did. I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to photocopy it, and I didn’t ask if I could, which I regret. But what it said was that I was an activist with ill intent, and that they should basically throw the book at me and try to find a good reason to turn me away. It didn’t say I should be turned away for no reason, but that a reason should be found. The agent was visibly shaken by this piece of paper, and he told me very directly that he wanted to let me in, but he was afraid if he did, he could lose his job. I was given an 8-day ban on entering Canada — the length of the G8 meetings. I was told there would be an all-points warning put out on me, and that if I attempted to cross the border anywhere else, I would be detained for 8 days. After that time, he said, I would be free to cross the border.
On another occasion several years later, I had a gig that required a work permit, but I hadn’t lined one up that time, so I made the mistake of saying I was just crossing the border to visit friends. The agent at the crossing south of Vancouver looked online and found that I had a gig in a music club, and she turned me back and banned me from entering Canada for one year.
Even if I actually was just going to visit friends, having a guitar with me has always caused me to be treated as a suspicious character that needs to be questioned and searched. At least I assume the guitar is a contributing factor. I don’t know, since I never travel without one. On one occasion I was not allowed to enter Canada with the guitar, but they said I could enter the country without my guitar, so I left it on the US side of the border inside my vehicle, and got someone to pick me up at the border.
For two years or so, most of the time I flew within the US or from the US to somewhere else, my flight ticket would have “SSSS” printed on it, which means the person with that ticket needs to be thoroughly searched. (This also happened to Laura Poitras for a couple years around the same time, according to the New York Times article.) For some reason that stopped as suddenly as it had started.
On one plane, I had sat down in my seat, when a flight attendant sat down next to me, and told me I could change my (political) t-shirt or get off the plane. I didn’t want to argue, and I changed my shirt, because I had a gig to get to. On a prior occasion, before I boarded a plane, an airline employee asked me if I wouldn’t mind changing my (political) t-shirt because another customer had complained about it. I responded that I had a strong belief in free speech and would rather not change my shirt. She went away and came back with an offer for me to take a later flight and get $300 in credit for a future ticket fo rmy trouble. (That worked out well!)
For a number of years, most of the time I flew a plane in the US or leaving the US, I had an empty seat next to me. While this is not unusual on planes that aren’t full, it very regularly was the case that the empty seat next to me was one of the only empty seats on the plane. Too often, I suspect, for this to be random, but it’s very hard to say for sure.
There have been a number of occasions during protests, such as the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, that me and some of my friends and fellow protesters at the event had very strange things happening with our cell phones. Regardless of how much we rebooted our phones, a number of us experienced things like the phone could make outgoing calls but couldn’t accept incoming calls, or vice versa. When we did connect, there would be a very pronounced echo, and lots of clicking noises. Sometimes it seemed certain key words would set off the clicking, such as the word, “explosive.”
And then most recently, last week, I had six gigs booked in New Zealand, for which I had not lined up a work permit in advance, and I received a phone call on an airline worker’s cell phone at Narita Airport in Tokyo from an immigration agent in Auckland who informed me that she had read my blog, made it clear that she knew all about my troubles crossing the Canadian border and the fact that I had been strip-searched on (false) suspicion of drug-smuggling at an airport in Norway, and that I would not be welcome to board the flight to New Zealand, even if I canceled all my gigs there. A few days later I was denied a tourist visa to Australia, although after that I was granted a temporary work visa to Australia, as I had been three times in past years.
These experiences with crossing or attempting to cross borders in Canada, New Zealand and Australia make me think that I am on a list that generally indicates that border agents should consider it their responsibility to look for an excuse to turn me away — like it said in black and white on the paper the immigration agent showed me on the Alberta border in 2002. Of course the surreal part is I can’t prove that, and it is my fault for not lining up the right paperwork on every occasion when attempting to enter Canada or another country to do one or a few gigs. But did I get on the international radar in all the Anglo countries for political reasons or for purely bureaucratic reasons? I don’t know, and can’t know. But if the paper the agent showed me in 2002 is not just a one-off thing, it’s political. Do other people have these kinds of problems? Especially for those of you out there who travel internationally on a regular basis for work or leisure, I’d be curious to hear if you have or haven’t had similar experiences to those I’ve outlined here.
David Rovics is a singer/songwriter who grew up in suburban Connecticut, currently based in Portland, Oregon. Songs and poems he’s written relevant to gun violence and modern-day massacres include “Song for Eric,” “All the Ghosts That Walk This Earth,” “I’m Taking Someone With Me When I Go,” “Aurora Massacre,” and “Breivik.” All of these songs can be found at www.davidrovics.com for free download.