Punk’d by the Feds (or: God Bless America and George W. Bush)

Big Brother

My original intent tonight was to post a tale of two post offices—a compare-and-contrast piece between the always-busy-as-hell-no-matter-what-time-of-day-or-year post office in Los Feliz and the surprisingly efficient and hassle-free experience that is the post office behind the Federal Building in Westwood.

Since I work not that far from Westwood, I often visit that post office and am always impressed with the courteous staff, the absence of long lines, and the ease of sending out a parcel from that location. With Mother’s Day right around the corner, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone on my lunch break today. Conduct a little research, mail off my package, whoopdee-freakin’-do.

Unfortunately, I also had the bright idea of taking a few photos of the Federal Building.

It’s fairly ugly architecturally, but in a certain light and from a certain angle the building does have its qualities. Plus, I thought the massive concrete structure would look dramatic up on this site. So after mailing my package, I went to the east end of the building, snapped a few pictures, and then started walking back to the parking lot.

As I approached the building, a security guard exited from a sliding glass door and said his colleague noticed I had removed a camera. Taking pictures of the building was not allowed, he explained, and I’d have to delete the pictures. Not wanting any trouble, I agreed and asked him if he wanted to erase them himself. He gave me the okay to do it, so I began deleting them.

As I was deleting them, he asked me to move closer to the doorway, the reason for which I thought was to reduce the glare on the viewfinder. But after I finished, he thanked me, and said, “Oh, really quickly, could you take a look at the President up there?” and pointed to Bush’s portrait up on the wall.

I wasn’t really sure why he wanted me to do that, but I looked up and, dammit, that goofy grin made me smile and laugh out loud. Maybe it was a nervous reaction. Anyway, it took all of half a second for me to realize they were making sure my face was caught by a security camera.

Crap! Now my stupid, black-bearded mug has been immortalized on federal surveillance equipment.

Now I’m not sure how to feel. The security guys were nice enough, and I can certainly understand the no photos policy. They didn’t ask me for my name, fingerprints, or a DNA sample, but I’ve watched a little too much X-Files to not be concerned about having my face captured on their cameras.

Is there a legitimate reason for me to freak out? Am I now on some list? Does this go on my permanent record? Will I be under surveillance? Will I still be able to get on a plane in July for a family vacation? And most importantly, are they going to intercept my mom’s gift in the mail?

Anybody out there ever gone through anything similar?

12 thoughts on “Punk’d by the Feds (or: God Bless America and George W. Bush)”

  1. Were you on federal building property? From my understanding and everything I’ve been able to find to read (and if anyone knows of something concrete in writing to the contrary, please let me know) – if you’re on private property you can be told to move along (although I believe private “public” places don’t count… like shopping malls) but it is not a violation of law to photograph what is visible on private property. The only exception that I know of with government installations are classified locations and I’m pretty sure that “no photography” signs need to be posted. This issue really bugs me because it’s becoming all too common that individuals are told not to photograph things without valid reason. Happened to me Downtown taking pictures of buildings one evening. Happened to a friend of mine when he was taking pictures of the Beverly Center from across the street about a year ago… Most people don’t want the hassle of questioning orders from someone seemingly with authority – I didn’t when it happened to me though I did ask why and got a muddled reply… But after thinking about I’ve decided that next time I will ask for a valid reason. These are the little ways that our freedoms disappear.

    Now, if you think this sort of thing might be annoying in the US, apparently in the UK things are even more ridiculous.

    You should be very worried about that photo – probably more because of incompetence than nefariousness… I just listened to this perfect illustration today – it’s the second story.

  2. Like the above commenter, this issue disturbs me and I’m hoping you were on the actually grounds of the building because that would be the only justification for the guard’s actions. If you were on a sidewalk you had every right to photograph the structure and they had no right to detain you and force you to destroy the images.

  3. Yes, unfortunately I was on the grounds of the building. I guess if I had just crossed the street, I would’ve been able to get the same exact shot without a problem. But I don’t really have an issue with them making me get rid of the photos. Hell, even Fry’s Electronics has a “no photos” policy. I’m more concerned about them making sure my face was visible on their cameras. Maybe it’s just a precaution on their part, but you hear these horror stories of cases of mistaken identity, and it’s just scary. (Oh, and Aartvark, in the interest of full disclosure, I fixed the links on your comments and deleted the multiple entries.)

  4. I’m not certain what your/our “rights” actually are. I mean, we can all think logically we ought to be able to take photographs from the sidewalk of whatever we want, but is that still true? I’m not sure. The Patriot Act changes a lot of what used to be “logical” ideas about rights. I do think that “roving surveillance” is now allowed and the Feds can photograph you wherever they want. I also know even before 9/11 they always took pictures in DC at major protests of the protesters. In any case, I wouldn’t worry on a personal level too much about it. It’s my experience as a pink diaper baby that the feds are fond of collecting data and unless you wear a hijab the chances of them using it against you are minimal. But anybody who is concerned about such things ought to 1.make a donation to the ACLU and 2.think carefully about who to vote for in the upcoming elections.

  5. Mike, if you were on public property I would hope you would have issue with someone of questionable authority detaining you and forcing you to destroy your images. Fry’s has a “no photo” policy. So does Pinkberry. So do innumerable establishments that have a right to control what goes on on their private properties.

    Travis, whether one wants to think logically or just lay down and let the Patriot Act be run over you by the overzealous and mal-informed, the fact is it is unequivocably still true. There is no legal basis for preventing me from standing on public property and taking photographs of anything or anyone. And in reference to your “roving surveillance” assertion, the fact is anyone can photograph anyone on public property with neither consent nor authorization. One doesn’t have to be a “Fed” to do so, just a human being with a camera.

    Supporting the ACLU and voting conscientiously are two excellent suggestions, but I would take it one step further and say if you’re concerned or unclear: educate.

    Here’s a great link to do so: http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm

  6. You know, Will, you’re absolutely right. It is disconcerting, but I think them making sure I was on camera took it to another level. Deleting my photographs became the less of those two concerns. Now I’m upset on both counts. Thanks for that link — more people should see it.

  7. I can very much understand your anxiety, Mike. Sounds like you handled yourself much better than I would’ve. There’s a spooky irony in them taking your picture without consent because they first prevented you from taking a picture of their building without theirs.

  8. To make things even more irritating for me, when I had a “no photo” issue come up, I thought – what the hell, I’ll call up LAPD and see if there’s some sort of ordinance or something. I try to stay on the right side of the law in all matters. I called and the desk sergeant I talked to acted like I was some punk trying to argue with him about whether graffiti was art or not. The really disturbing thing he said is that to make things easier one should always obey orders from people that seem to have “authority” whether it be a rent-a-cop or a guy in a suit. To me, that blind obedience is inconsistent with a free society. I wasn’t expecting the LAPD to be good at interacting with the citizenry, but I was surprised by the sergeant’s comments.

    I know that things are different when one is dealing with the Feds – I went to Area 51 years ago and got followed very closely by their security – including seeing a guy with night vision goggles watching me when I took a leak in the middle of the night. It’s just that when things slowly degrade to anyone with a uniform telling people what to do no matter how absurd and expecting them to obey, we gotta wonder what things are coming to.

  9. Regardless of how jerky this whole incident clearly was, the fact that they have look at a picture of George Bush in order to capture your face on film is pretty amusing. It’s like they found the most literal way to make sure you knew that George Bush was keeping an eye on YOU, possible insurgent photographer.

  10. My blood just chilled reading this post. No, really: chilled. We have got to get that evil fuck out of the White House and start restoring some sanity to the way we manage security in this country. I don’t think it’s hysterical hyperbole to say that we’re not too far off from the day when TSA agents decide they need to start frisking babies at LAX.

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