TRAINS, CAMERAS AND THE CONSTITUTION


It was Labor Day in 2009 when I became aware of just how bad things have gotten in the US.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’ve been naïve.  I’ve been a student of free speech and the political landscape of the US since high school, but Labor Day was the first time I have come into contact with a violation of my civil rights in a very real way.

Our office had a loaner 5D Mark II, and I took it for the weekend for a test drive.  I’ve had a fascination with the Houston light rail since they started laying track, and shooting it with the 5D seemed like the thing to do.  So my friend and I were standing on the platform when an angry homeless guy came up to us and starts harassing us for change.  I look to my right, and there was a Metro Police Car.  I waved at him hoping he would keep this guy moving who was now becoming belligerent.  I’m usually not so nervous in these situations, however, I did have $3500.00 worth of camera  strapped around my neck.  The cop yelled out something:  ”NO PICTURES OF THE TRAIN!”

Could he actually be serious?  After several calls to the Houston Metro Police Department, I come to find he was.  However, it seems there is no law on the books prohibiting photography of a train.  Nevertheless, Homeland Security has endowed local police departments nationwide with violating the first amendment rights of would be train photographers by harassing them and/or detaining them.

When I hung up the phone, I knew for the first time, I wasn’t dealing with some rogue cop or an over zealous police captain, I was dealing with the New American Police State.  The kind of police state they warned us about in speeches on Veteran’s Day when I was in elementary school.

It turns out, my experience isn’t unique in any fashion, except I might have gotten off easy.  Last February in New York,  Robert S. Taylor of Brooklyn was taking photos for fun in a subway station. Police saw him and cited him for unauthorized photography, even though the crime doesn’t actually exist.  Taylor states that charge was dropped, however, they also charged him disorderly conduct.  Ironically, Taylor works for MTA.  He was off duty at the time. More recently, on the other side of the country in California, Andrew Cichowski was taking pictures of the Diridon train station in San José.

I was taking a picture of the barbed wire fence, I heard someone shout “TURN AROUND SLOWLY!” I said “excuse me?” confusedly, and then slowly turned around. To my surprise, two police officers were staring at me. They asked what I was “suspiciously photographing industrial stuff for…” After about 30 minutes, they realized I wasn’t some sort of strange train terrorist, but were still asking me questions. A third officer and third and fourth squad car then arrived. Eventually, they copied the entire contents of my CF card to their police laptop and two flash drives, I told them they could have a copy of the photos as long as they didn’t sell any of them. They smiled and promised not to.  Aside from this being a terribly obnoxious waste of time, it was an interesting experience, and I’m now very likely on some sort of terrorist watch list for being a suspicious photographer…

Just today, someone posted the image at the top of this article which is a sign on a train in Chicago.  It asks citizens to call 911 if they see any suspicious behavior, and it explicitly lists photography and video as one of those suspicious activities.  So where does this leave free citizens who wish to maintain their Constitutional rights?  It leaves us with the burden of asserting ourselves I’m afraid.

Sometimes, the only way to keep a right is by exercising that right.  Therefore, take pictures whenever possible of everything possible, especially of trains, planes and buses.  We must report any police officers, security guards or other so-called officials who attempt to infringe upon our rights to their superiors and watch dog groups such as the ACLU.  Become locally active in photography groups in your area and most importantly, talk about these issues.  Post your experiences online using blogs and social media.  Above all, write your mayor, congressman and senators and tell them if they are incapable of stopping these attacks on our civil rights, we will elect someone who will.

The bottom line, there is now a real threat to the rights of free citizens everywhere, and no one is going to rescue you.  If you want to enjoy the freedom to use your camera when and where you want, you’re going to have to fight.  It’s up to you.

Other sites to check out:
http://tinyurl.com/nopicsinca

http://tinyurl.com/nopicsinny

http://carlosmiller.com/

http://www.nycphotorights.com/

http://tinyurl.com/nopicsintx

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2 Comments

  1. I was taking some time lapse video of one of Washington State Ferries in 2005 when 5 guys showed up with official Homeland Security Badges. They gave me the third degree, but in the end, they let me finish my project.

  2. Very sad indeed.

    The anti-terrorist culture and the culture of fear is surpassing the civil rights that millions of people have fought for in the past…

    There ARE private, public and commercial places where you must ask for permission to take photographs, that’s something every photographer must know to avoid any inconvenience, but the cases mentioned in this posts are near to take us to where? a place where fear is everywhere, a paranoia over freedom?

    What is the cost of the so called “safety” ?

    There must be a balance, some common sense. Because if not, it becomes a dangerous paranoia…

    The “culture of fear” was implanted (or “improved”) since 9/11, and aside of being very bad and a completely wrong perspective, it can turn against the rights of millions of honest people easily.

    Until know, at some places it seems more convenient to ask before taking photos… for our own “safety”.


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