Constitution Free Zone Victim
Below are the remarks of Craig Johnson on October 22, 2008, at the ACLU's press conference on the U.S. "Constitution-free Zone."
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Good morning. I am Craig Johnson. I’m an associate professor of music at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. First, I want to thank you for allowing me to share my story with you. Point Loma, I’m proud to say, encourages its faculty and students to involve themselves in social justice and reconciliation issues. And it was through my involvement in one such event that my story begins.
On June 1 of this year I was privileged to participate, along with my two oldest children, in a vigil sponsored by the San Diego Foundation for Change and supported by members of the Point Loma campus community at the Border Field State Park on the U. S. border with Mexico. My involvement in this event was to demonstrate my opposition to the Federal government’s proposed construction of a dual layer border fence through this park and the nationally protected estuary and research center that are part of the grounds. One activity during the vigil was to have been what is known in some faith traditions as a “love feast” – it was to have been the sharing of food through the fence to demonstrate solidarity and hospitality between citizens of both countries. That day, however, there was a much stronger presence of Border Patrol agents, a dozen or more, than is typical at events of this nature. They informed us that if any food was passed through the fence, we would be arrested on violations of customs regulations. We took them at their word and the love feast became a love lament, with only the US citizens eating while our Mexican neighbors looked on. Incidentally, an article appeared in yesterday’s New York Times about this park and the Border Patrol agents, and it seems that they have softened their position on this considerably.
While there was a strong presence of agents at the park itself, other officers were recording license plates of all the vehicles in the parking lot, which unfortunately was a mile and a half away. In fact, one student’s car was even towed for expired registration during the event.
Six days later, on June 7, I went to Tijuana, Mexico to sing a benefit recital. On my re-entry into the U.S., I submitted my current passport to the Customs agent and was then told to freeze with both of my hands on the desk in front of me. After being asked if I had any weapons on me, I was handcuffed by Customs agents and told that I was listed as “armed and dangerous.” At that point I was escorted in front of literally hundreds of onlookers waiting to enter the U. S. and taken to a holding room where my suit coat, tie, outer shirt, belt, and shoes were removed, my pockets emptied and the contents confiscated and I was aggressively searched. This was not your typical airport security pat-down. Every inch and crack of my body was thoroughly pressed and probed. I was in complete bewilderment. I felt violated and frankly, I was embarrassed. I could not believe what was happening.
After this I was questioned about my reasons for being in Mexico, my length of stay there, and where specifically I would be returning to the U. S. After about 45 minutes I was released to collect my belongings and rejoin my friends with whom I had been in line.
I normally travel to Mexico for any reason that presents itself – escorting visitors from out of town or just going down for the sights and sounds of the country. I even worked regularly there in 2006 with Tijuana Opera and would cross the border several times per week. Never before my June 7 experience had I encountered the slightest problem.
It took me four months to muster the courage to try crossing again. I had hoped that this was a mistake and that I would be removed from “armed and dangerous” status. On October 5, I decided to go to Mexico to try re-entering in order put my mind to rest. I was hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst, and once again I was subjected to the same treatment – arrest, searching, questioning, and detainment.
I do not own firearms. I do not have a criminal record. Yet when I think of the treatment that my own government shows to me, I am alarmed. It’s frightening enough knowing that my personal and private data are being accessed with unknown consequences, but when I know what some of those consequences are, I am even more disturbed.
It took me four months to return to Mexico after June 1, not because I’m afraid of travelling outside of my own country, but rather because I’m afraid of returning home. This should not be.