Taking Pictures While Brown
Securing the Homeland Against Shutterbugs
Not long after he got home, two Seattle police officers knocked on his door to ask him what he'd been up to. Spiers asked if he'd done anything wrong, and the police said no--but they'd received a call that Spiers' picture-snapping behavior seemed "suspicious." The cops asked for his ID, so they could run a background check. Finding nothing, they left Spiers' apartment. "I thought it was a hilarious little misunderstanding," Spiers says.
Spiers wasn't laughing when he was stopped again, a few weeks later, during a return visit to the Locks. This time, Seattle police were accompanied by Department of Homeland Security agents, who demanded to see Spiers' ID. Upset over the repeat interrogations, Spiers--who is biracial, and suspects post-9/11 profiling is part of the problem--recently set up a website, www.brownequalsterrorist.com, detailing his story.
Spiers' run-ins with the police while taking pictures aren't that uncommon in PATRIOT Act America. In Portland, security guards have questioned people taking pictures of the federal courthouse. Photographers in New York City have banded together to defy a proposed rule against photography in the subway system. In Seattle, professional photographer Alan Abramowitz has been questioned for standing near the federal courthouse to take pictures of the library. And then Spiers was stopped.
Spiers wasn't too troubled when the initial pair of officers visited his house: They were just doing their job, he figured. So he didn't think twice about returning to the Ballard Locks on May 26 to shoot a roll of film for his latest photography-class assignment on motion. He set up his tripod on the Magnolia side of the water, hoping to catch a boat or two sailing through.
After Spiers snapped a few frames, a security guard walked up and started asking questions. "He wasn't politely asking me questions," Spiers says. "He'd accessorized his ensemble with a 90-pound German shepherd, and was talking at me."
Spiers kept his cool and explained why he was taking photos. But Spiers was upset that of all of the people in the park--a homeless guy was sleeping on a bench a few feet away, tourists were strolling through with cameras, and joggers ran along the footpaths--he was being questioned. Spiers assumes he was singled out by the security guard because he's "brown." So when the security guard asked for his ID, Spiers politely declined. "I asked him if I was legally obligated to [show ID], and he said no," Spiers says, remembering his story carefully, recalling the details--it was about noon, and there was a light rain. "I said, 'In that case, I don't think that I'm going to be showing you my ID. I feel like my rights are being infringed on. I know I can be here.'" The guard walked away, Spiers says, and he returned to his assignment.
Fifteen minutes later, a Seattle police car pulled up, and a few officers, plus several men in plainclothes, headed toward Spiers. "They were making a beeline right toward me," he says. "The first words out of one officer's mouth: He's asking to see my ID 'right now!'" Spiers handed over his driver's license, trying to explain that he was a photography student, and hadn't done anything wrong. He pulled out a notebook to show he was writing down his camera settings.
One of the plainclothes officers stepped forward, whipping out a federal badge from the Department of Homeland Security. The agent, Daniel McNamara, told Spiers he'd broken the law by taking pictures of federal property--the Locks. Spiers protested, pointing out that there were no signs forbidding photography, that tourists all over the park were taking pictures, and that he'd had a conversation just two days earlier with a park ranger who had told him it was fine to take pictures from the Magnolia side of the ship canal. Ignoring Spiers' explanation, McNamara started lecturing Spiers about September 11 and the PATRIOT Act, Spiers says, before finally returning his ID. McNamara told Spiers not to return to the Locks without permission. When contacted by The Stranger, McNamara referred calls to a public information officer, who did not return a call by press time.
"It was embarrassing," Spiers says, tearing up as he talks about the encounter. "It was in front of my neighbors. I've lived in Ballard for over 10 years." Giving up on his original assignment, Spiers packed up his camera and headed out of the park. On the way out, he snapped pictures of tourists with their cameras. He turned those photos into a class project, complete with a seven-page account of getting stopped by McNamara. Three weeks ago, the incident still bothering him, he bought the web domain and posted his story--scrapbook-style, with his photos--and the police report from the SPD's earlier visit to his apartment.
In the past week, his site has made the rounds of blogs and message boards--that's how Abramowitz's story surfaced, in response to Spiers'. He's getting 10,000 visitors daily, and e-mails are piling up in his inbox (both supportive notes and ones calling him a "big whiner"). He contacted the Washington chapter of the ACLU, and they sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--which manages the Locks--demanding to know whether Spiers "is subject to any type of trespass notice, warning, or admonishment that limits his ability to visit the Locks or take photographs while there." The letter, written by attorney Aaron Caplan, points out that "thousands of pictures are taken every week by visitors at this prominent open-air tourist attraction... the ACLU is not aware of any law or regulation preventing photography at the Locks."
Spiers hasn't heard back from authorities at the Locks, so he's staying away for now, and throwing all of his free time into getting his story out. "I haven't come up for air. All I'm doing is putting it out there," he says.