Better Not Drive While Black on I-91

Vermont felt a long way from Manhattan when the twin towers went down. Isolated by tall mountains, long winters, and primordial memories of rural independence, many of us watched the fires from a deep remove. It was horrible, and yes, things would be different now, but there was also a sense that our isolation insulated us. Were the terrorists going to dive bomb Ben and Jerry’s?

Then came Iraq. Our congressional representatives all expressed pre-war misgivings. Until the anthrax-grams arrived. Hmm, on second thought

So now we had a shooting war with Vermonters getting killed and wounded. Vermont began chalking up one of the highest per capita casualty rates in the states. But without a draft, what more could you do? The soldiers were volunteers. Sure, Bush hijacked our National Guard, but we had a Republican governor in Montpelier and there was no recall. The GOP was selling yellow ribbons all the way to the bank.

I was parboiling along with the rest of Vermont’s well behaved frogs, until one chilly summer morning in 2004. Driving south on the Interstate near White River Junction, traffic began to slow. Tall, hunkering solar powered warning signs flanked the road.


Dayglo orange plastic pylons funneled us into the left lane and movement slowed to a crawl. Checkpoint? I knew there was a rest stop ahead; perhaps a scaling station set up to weigh commercial trailers. The car ahead of me stopped and I saw a uniformed cop lean down and talk to the driver. The cop nodded, stood up, and waved the car through. My turn. I rolled the window down. He scanned the inside of the car. The patch on his sleeve read U.S. Border Patrol.

“U.S. citizen?” he asked.

“Uh, yes”

He gave the car another quick look and said, “Ok, go ahead.”

I did, and as the traffic picked up speed and we fanned out into dual lanes again, my heart was pounding and I was clenching the steering wheel. I hadn’t been pulled over by a cop in years. (Another reason to live in Vermont.) So why now, and why did I feel like a fat buck in deer season?

Who were all those people in the rest stop, the long line of parked cars, drivers pulling out papers for the guards to thumb through? That was no weigh station. And why the Border Patrol? Hell, we were half a state south of the Canadian border.

I let my eyes play over the ancient mountains. I put in a tape and pushed up the speed. But I couldn’t get those big orange beacons out of my head. U.S. BORDER PATROL. They looked like the War of the Worlds alien tripods.

Over the next couple of weeks I watched the papers and asked around, but the checkpoint remained a mystery. A neighbor said that it was indeed a Border Patrol stop. “How’d it wind up a hundred miles south of the Canadian line?” I wondered. He shrugged. “Climate change?” His theory was that as the planet warmed, the Canadian border was sinking south.

“That mean I’m Canadian now?” I often daydreamed of moving to Canada when the shit hit the fan.

I checked the internet and there it was. Quietly and without formal notification, my home state had been commandeered by the feds. Beginning in late 2002, the Border Patrol had in fact started manning a checkpoint near the I-91 rest stop in Hartford, southbound lanes only, mid state between Canada and Massachusetts.

In a brief article in the Valley News, the local daily, a spokesman for the Border Patrol tersely explained that the checkpoint was part of the country’s increased vigilance against terrorists. After 9-11, Customs and Border Patrol had been folded into Homeland Security.

“The position on the traffic checkpoints is they are a second tier of enforcement that augments the primary line of defense (at the border),” John Pfiefer said. Pfiefer is the assistant Chief Patrol Agent for the Border Patrol’s Swanton, Vermont, sector, which covers Vermont, and parts of New York, New Hampshire, and Maine.

But anyone with a map could spot a dozen backroads tailormade for detouring around the blockade. Barricade busting is an old Vermont tradition, from the northbound emancipation underground railroad to the southbound Canadian rum runners during prohibition.

Even more absurd, the checkpoint was run sporadically, jack-in-the-box style, because manpower depended on importing agents from already overrun positions along the Mexican border. All this was quite legal, whispered into law during the Reagan administration, green lighting border patrol agents to set up checkpoints as deep as 100 miles inside our borders. In fact, customs and border patrol agents have the power to stop and check anyone, anywhere within this 100 mile fuzzy law zone.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he winced, recalling a youthful liberal overconfidence when the legislation was passed. “Won’t happen, it infringes too much on our right to travel.” He hung his head in mock remorse. Or maybe not so mock.

Well, happening it was, and it was infringing me and a bunch of other lawful citizens, most notably those with dark skin. While caucasians were routinely waved through, non-whites faced more questioning, detention, vehicle inspection, arrest. William Craig, a writer and college instructor, had to drive through the checkpoint to work, and sometimes the traffic jams made him late to class, despite his anglo skin. Arriving after the bell one morning, he explained the delay and asked his students their opinion about the patrol stop. “Oh, you mean the ‘whiteness checkpoint,’ one of them said. The kids snickered at the real function of the terrorist dragnet. It was little more than a racial Brandenburg Gate.

It looked that way to Brenda Taite, a 41-year-old black woman living in Claremont, New Hampshire. Taite began commuting to the Vermont Law School in South Royalton in 2003, just about the time the checkpoint went into place. And for two years she politely answered the Border Patrol questions, quickly recognizing that they went on longer for non-Caucasians like her. She also saw that those actually detained in the rest stop were usually dark skinned. And then one winter afternoon in 2005, she balked. She answered affirmatively to the U.S. citizen question, but when the agent asked her where she was coming from, she said, “I don’t have to tell you that.” She’d been through the checkpoint hundreds of times. It was cold and dark and she wanted to get home to make dinner for her 14 year old son.

“It’s the law,” the agent said.

“I know something about the law, too,” she replied.

He told her to pull over in the rest stop — secondary detention — and she was questioned by another agent. She refused to give them her social security number. A white woman driving ahead of her had been waved through, why was she being grilled?

“Is it because I’m black?” she asked.

“You want to play the race card?” one of the agents snapped. He took her driver’s license to one of the trailers. When he returned he gave her back the license.

“Go on,” he told her with an angry waveoff.

When she got home, she was in tears. She called the local paper.

I meet Brenda Taite for lunch at a Panera’s not far from the checkpoint. It’s been almost a year since her showdown at I-91, and she’s graduated from law school. She’s a tall, regal looking woman, and she wears a long overcoat and a Borsalino hat. She walks with a limp, leaning on a wooden cane. I have no trouble recognizing her in a restaurant full of north country anglos. A cold November rain is pummeling the parking lot outside, and we settle into a booth and order onion soup and french bread. The cappuchino I order comes in a bowl as big as the soup.

Brenda Taite believes in miracles, and her odyssey to a law degree in Vermont does have elements of a ritual passion play. Begin with a single black mother working a day job in Maryland, raising a young son. On top of that she attends college classes working toward a degree. Suddenly she’s diagnosed with cancer, gets fired, and loses her employee based health insurance. She goes to state court to have her insurance reinstated, and argues the case herself. “I couldn’t find a lawyer so I did it myself.” She learns enough law to get the case bumped up to federal court, secures a high profile pro bono beltway lawyer, and settles for a nice sum out of court.

With her cancer in remission, she works her way up to a master’s in health care and then decides to apply to law school. Why the law? “Other people are hurting,” she says simply, “and I want to help.” A Maryland school she applies to turns her down, but the Vermont Law School welcomes her enthusiastically. After finding an apartment through friends in Claremont, she begins the 90 mile round trip commute. It’s her first time north of New York City.

“I was born in Alabama, and grew up in a spiritual family. Even in Maryland I never saw poor white people before, not like here,” she says. “I’d never heard the ‘n’ word. In my son’s high school, the kids spit in his food.” She quickly transferred him to a private school, where he won a scholarship and started pulling down a 3.94 grade average.

“That day at the checkpoint I just decided I had enough,” she recalls. “Sure I worried what they might do that might affect my chances for a job in the legal profession, But I just didn’t feel I had a choice. Sometimes you just have to stand up.”

The Valley News makes some calls to the Border Patrol, sends a reporter to talk to Taite, and runs a story on her accusations of racial profiling at the checkpoint. The reporter tells her that the paper has received numerous complaints about discrimination at the stop.

The story hits the front page, but she is dismayed to read that Border Patrol officials plan to take no action against the agents. She contacts the Border Patrol in Washington is told that a “pattern and practice” of racial profiling has not been established. She calls the ACLU. She reports the incident to Homeland Security. Conclusion: the incident will be taken care of “internally.” But now when Taite drives through the checkpoint, the agents smile and wave her through. “Have a good day, mam!”

“I think they’ve got a picture of me in one of those vans,” she laughs. “Don’t mess with her!”

She considers pursuing a complaint, another marathon of legal proceedings, and the effect it might have on her studies, her record for future employment, even the repercussions on the agents themselves. Does she want to destroy someone’s career? She figures she’s made her point and lets it drop.

After lunch we walk to her car, and she points out the personalized license plate. MS BAMA. She shakes her head. “I’m not that sweet little girl from Alabama anymore.”

From its inception, the checkpoint raised concerns. Critical items appeared on the internet. Craig started a website called He alerted readers to a fatal crash a few weeks earlier at a similar interior checkpoint in the Adirondaks. Four people had been killed when a tractor trailer slammed into a line of cars waiting for processing. A month before that, 55 passengers in a bus were injured in a collision there. Angry citizens and politicians demanded improved safety, and one Albany assemblyman called for immediate removal of the checkpoint. Hillary Clinton complained. In Vermont, fears rose about the safety of our checkpoint, which was sited dangerously close to an on-ramp. Vermonters began griping to their representatives.

On March 31, 2005, Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders wrote Robert Bonner, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security.

Dear Mr. Bonner,

I am writing concerning a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 91 in Hartford, Vermont, approximately 100 miles from the U.S./Canadian border. I have heard from many of my constituents who are concerned about this checkpoint. They appropriately have questions about the necessity and effectiveness of the checkpoint, as well as the impact of this checkpoint on the civil liberties of those who are stopped. The questions they raise are reasonable in my view based on anecdotal evidence I have heard and due to the fact that the checkpoint is far within the borders of the United States on a road that can be easily by-passed by any who would enter the country with ill intent.

Specifically, I would ask that you address the following questions:

Why is the checkpoint nearly 100 miles from the border?

What are you hoping to accomplish with a checkpoint so far from the Canadian border?

How will this help to prevent terrorism or illegal immigrants from entering the United States?

How many people have been arrested as a result of this checkpoint? Have any been charged with a crime? If so, what are those charges?

How do you determine which cars to stop and which ones to wave through the checkpoint?

Will this checkpoint become a permanent fixture on Interstate 91?

Everyone is committed to defending this nation from another terrorist attack. However, the effectiveness of the I-91 checkpoint in accomplishing that goal is not apparent at first blush. Hopefully, you can shed some light on how the I-91 checkpoint is an effective tool and some assurances that it is being utilized in the least intrusive manner possible.

Bernard Sanders

An assistant to Bonner, L. Seth Statler, wrote back that his agency had reviewed the matter, and outlined Customs and Border Patrol responsibilities and actions.

“CPB is the single unified border agency of the United States responsible for preventing terrorists, terrorist weapons, contraband, and illegal aliens from entering the United States. Within CBP, the Border Patrol is the primary Federal law enforcement agency responsible for carrying out this mission between the official ports of entry. Border patrol agents typically perform their duties in close proximity to the 8,000 miles of U.S. boundaries but have jurisdictional authority throughout the entire United States. (my emphasis.)”

“Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, such as the one on Interstate 91 operated by the Swanton Border Patrol Sector’s Newport Station, are a critical component of CPB’s multilayed border security strategy. This strategy was developed to maximize resources and secure the Nation against terrorists, smugglers of weapons of mass destruction, other contraband, and illegal aliens. Traffic checkpoints have been established to restrict the criminal elements’ ability to use our highway system to further their entry into the United States. Placing traffic checkpoints on major roads, away from the immediate border, greatly increases CBP’s detection and interdiction capabilities and enhances homeland security.”

Indeed? Let’s see how that jibes with Statler’s conclusion:

“Historically, manpower constraints dictated that continuous operation of this tactical checkpoint was not sustainable. However, present manpower resources and projected future manpower increases will allow more frequent operation of this tactical checkpoint. The only restrictions on operation are inclement weather or road conditions that create a safety hazard for both the public and employees.”

In other words, you can count on us being there more in the future, except during bad weather. Right. Welcome to the state with three months of summer and nine months of tough sledding. In addition to a road map, let’s add a weather forecast to the terrorist back pack.

And let’s not forget Sanders’ question about checkpoint results.

According to Statler, “Agents operating the Interstate 91 checkpoint arrested 817 deportable aliens during Fiscal Year 2004. During the same period, agents seized 154 pounds of marijuana.”

Terrorists apprehended? Zero. (Same as the two previous years.)

So much for CBP’s multilayered border security strategy.

Despite his liberal credentials, that was the last grumble out of Congressman Sanders about the checkpoint.

Jim Jeffords had more backbone. When asked about the Checkpoint on a radio talk show, the senator bluntly questioned its usefulness. “What good’s going to come of it? I don’t see its utility at this point.” When the host pointed out that several hundred people had been caught for immigration violations, Jeffords suggested that might indicate lax security at the real border. “It seems to me that’s what the border is for,” said Jeffords.

Ironically, it was Georgia Republican and former GOP house speaker Newt Gingrich who hit the checkpoint hardest. Gingrich was in the area to promote a new book, and spoke with the editors of the Valley News. You may recall that Gingrich was a member of a national commission that had warned pre 9-11 of a likely terrorist attack in the United States.

When asked about the effectiveness of the Border Patrol checkpoint, he replied, “My view would be you only want the border to be hard to get over, but the country easy (to travel in). It just strikes me as everything your average citizen wanted to know about why the border is not working, that we should set up the checkpoint 100 miles in. By the way, how many roads would you guess there are around your checkpoint?”

Our checkpoint? Alas, the editors didn’t point out that the checkpoint belongs 100 percent to the Feds, as does the entire interstate, and Vermont has no legal jurisdiction to remove it. In fact, that might have been one of the original inducements to set up. Not that we weren’t warned. In the Sixties, many Vermonters objected to plans for the new federal interstate, and one of their concerns was the potential for a government trojan horse in the Green Mountains. Never know when it might start bucking.

The U.S. government rationale for setting up a Vermont checkpoint ranges from the officially stated objectives (stop terrorists; catch illegal aliens and contraband) to more venal, sinister motives.

Take the official line, which you’ll recognize as a variant on the war strategy in Iraq. Begin with one premise (find weapons of mass destruction), then switch to a fallback policy when the original fizzles out (promote freedom/stop terrorists). With the checkpoint, the U.S. announces that it’s trying to catch terrorists, but eventually settles for arresting illegal aliens. Of course, neither approach explains the stupidity of setting up a border patrol checkpoint 100 miles south of the border, with webs of unpatrolled roads around it.

What else might be driving this? Money, perhaps? Mountains of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funds apportioned by Congress after 9/11, billions flying around looking for a place to land. DHS funding shot up 300 percent in the three years after 9/11, from 15 billion to 50 billion. And it wasn’t long before the revolving doors started spinning. DHS Secretary Tom Ridge decamps to Savi Tech, beating the drum for radio frequency id’s embedded in our passports. Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson moves to Venable LLP, to promote airline security systems and lobby for Lockheed Martin. Another Under Secretary, Lt. General Frank Libutti, goes to Digital Fusion, which is raking in millions in Defense Department contracts and scheming up future roles in aerial reconaisaance and border sensors. The beat goes on. One dazzled think-tanker familiar with this Washington pork-out called it a “sea changea Turkish bazaar,” worth 11 billion slated for fiscal 2005 alone.

And somewhere in this bubbling cauldron is a pending appropriation for nine million dollars to make permanent the Hartford, Vermont, checkpoint. Although all of Vermont’s congressional representatives are opposed to it, our Republican Governor is cheerleading for the 12 new jobs estimated to follow. A dozen jobs in exchange for an incalculable loss to our civil liberties. Lousy tradeoff, I’d say. And it doesn’t work.

Perhaps there’s a deeper motive. Many people consider the checkpoint one hundred proof Big Brother. Scare the public, then supply a reassuring albeit intrusive solution. Goebbels had it figured out during the Third Reich. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Another theory is that the Checkpoint does indeed have a practical, working dimension. An attorney familiar with immigration issues suggests that the stop is being used to train the thousands of new Border Patrol officers recruited for the overrun southwest border areas. Commandeer a remote spot in the boonies where rookie agents can practice their tactics without seriously jamming up traffic. (Sorry about those smashups in New York.) Might that explain why checkpoint downtime is always excused because of a shortage of agents from the Southwest? Traveler’s tip: I’ve heard that if you speak decent Spanish, you’re likely to get through no problemo.

About the same time that Brenda Taite’s checkpoint encounter was playing out in Vermont and Washington, a fellow named Gregory Despres was getting ready to leave the small town of Minto, New Brunswick. On April 25, 2005, Despres approached the Customs and Border Patrol stop in Calais, Maine, on foot, carrying a heavy canvas bag. Subsequent photographs would show someone straight out of Wes Craven’s casting stable: broad flat face, jug handle ears, and a mullet of greasy hair hanging like a trophy scalp between a pair of wideangle eyeballs.

Border guards determined that Despres was a 25 year old Canadian native with dual U.S. citizenship. They asked him to open the bag and found a hatchet, a homemade sword, a knife, brass knuckles, and a chainsaw that appeared to be stained with blood.

He was questioned for two hours, and claimed he was a Marine working on President Bush’s security detail, and an assassin. Sounds reasonable, given what we’ve learned about Abu Ghraib, renditions, and Guantanamo. They let him in.

A couple of days later he was arrested, wandering down a highway in Maittapoisett, Massachusetts, wearing a red and brown stained sweat shirt. An alert cop had seen a Canadian arrest warrant for Despres in connection with a grisly double murder in Minto the day before he left the country. The warrant mentioned that Despres had once lived in Maittapoisett. Turns out he’d killed his Canadian neighbors, a 74 year old musician and his common law wife.

The man’s head was found in a pillow case under the kitchen table.

Security breach? Not according to Bill Anthony, a spokesman for the CBP. His excuse: Despres could not be detained because he is a naturalized U.S. citizen and was not wanted on any criminal charges on the day in question, in either country. True, the murder warrant hadn’t been issued, but Despres skipped a court appearance in Canada that day, which had prompted an alert. Did the U.S. Border Patrol bother to contact Canadian police? No comment.

What about the bloody chainsaw? Anthony conceded that it “sounds stupid” that a man wielding what appeared to be a bloody chain saw could not be detained, but he added that “our people don’t have a crime lab up there. They can’t look at a chain saw and decide if it’s blood or rust or red paint.”

As if that isn’t bizarre enough, the media coverage didn’t appear for over a month after the incident. When the story did surface, it ran for a couple of days, then disappeared. Remember, this is all happening in the state where Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, two of the 9/11 hijackers, allegedly boarded the first of two morning flights that led them to the World Trade Center.

I was not able to find any evidence that the incident prompted improvement in security along the border. No wonder they need interior checkpoints. (Six months later, in a follow up to its original report, the 9/11 Commission berated the Bush administration for not acting on its security improvement recommendations.)

Meanwhile, back in Vermont, not long after Brenda Taite’s showdown at the patrol stop, she was driving home from law school and the checkpoint was gone. Disappeared. The signs had been folded up, pylons removed.

“I won!” she thought. And indeed, the Border Patrol had pulled up stakes, leaving a couple of empty trailers in the rest stop. It looked like a sheet metal ghost town.

On May 25, 2005, the Valley News reported, “The U.S. Border Patrol has dramatically curtailed operations at a controversial traffic checkpoint along Interstate 91’Obviously, it’s reduced, as you can tell,'” agent John Pfiefer testily informed the paper. He explained that his sector could no longer rotate agents in from the Southwest, due to “lack of resources.” The checkpoint would continue to run, but only when they had the manpower to spare from the northern border. Pfiefer said the cutback “had nothing to do” with criticism of the checkpoint.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy issued a polite victory statement explaining that the Border Patrol had thoughtfully adopted a “threat-based” approach to manning the checkpoint. “I welcome this change to use the checkpoint with more discretion and less frequency,” he said.

Nobody mentioned Brenda Taite.

You could feel a collective sigh of relief throughout the valley. I drove past the dismantled checkpoint several times during the summer. The air seemed fresher. “It’s gone,” people said with relief.

I thought about Ms. Bama. A woman who believes in miracles, and just to help things along, kicks some butt. Here’s the real kicker: she isn’t even a Vermonter. All us locals who’d gone obediantly through the checkpoint, good Germans everyone. And it came down to a single black mother from the south risking her neck for our freedom.

But Vermonters still have a shot. Six months later, on Veteran’s Day 2005, the checkpoint was back up.

TIM MATSON is author of the Earth Ponds series, and even more fun, Round Trip to Deadsville a member of Vermont’s Second Republic. He can be reached at