It was supposed to be an inspiring and eventful week for three students visiting Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum.
They traveled from St. John’s University in New York to participate in workshops, lectures and even a massive march down Woodward Avenue. The progressive conference attracted more than 15,000 attendees from across the country for what shaped up to be an exciting and inspiring event.
For the three students, the excitement they had for visiting the Detroit area quickly faded when they were stopped at the Detroit/Windsor border and were singled out for extensive questioning.
The trouble started when a customs officer noticed the orange bracelets the three were wearing, which identified them as registered participants of the forum. Customs and Border Protection officers asked, “Oh, you’re wearing those bracelets. Are you here to protest?”
Once the other officers learned of the student’s participation in the forum they immediately started to interrogate them in a hostile manner. The students were separated and questioned individually. After an officer announced, “they all have bags,” the student’s journals and flyers were removed and read. One of the students had their camera examined and pockets searched. After an officer stated the students might be coming to Detroit to “start trouble,” they were asked a series of invasive questions about their political affiliation, what classes their professor teaches and what kind of lectures they were attending.
All of this is even more disturbing given the fact that other passengers on the bus, who weren’t wearing any items identifying them as forum participants, weren’t subjected to invasive searches or intrusive questioning. While the students were eventually released and allowed to cross the border, the implications of the customs officials using intimidation because of perceived political affiliation are clear.
The ACLU of Michigan and the National Lawyers Guild wrote a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Justice last week urging officials at both agencies to investigate the incident involving the students. It’s our belief that customs officials have a responsibility to protect citizens from potential harm and not to use their authority for political intimidation.
By Roland Leggett, ACLU of Michigan field organizer