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Thursday, Jul. 15, 2004 at 7:25 AM
Photo student draws attention of authorities
By Sara Jean Green and Katherine Sather
Seattle Times staff reporters
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Ian Spiers drew the attention of Seattle police and Homeland Security personnel in the spring when he took pictures at the Ballard Locks. Spiers, pictured near the Locks yesterday, says he hasn't returned to the public park since a federal agent told him to stay away.
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On Monday night, the volume of Internet traffic to Ian Spiers' Web site — www.brownequalsterrorist.com — crashed his server. Strangers from Chicago and New Zealand offered him space on their servers to get his story back online.
Spiers, a Seattle freelance graphic designer and amateur photographer, has been amazed at the outpouring of international support he's received since posting a tale of two run-ins, the first with Seattle police and the second with agents from the Department of Homeland Security, for taking photos at the Ballard Locks, one of the most popular tourist spots in Seattle.
Spiers gave this account:
He was taking landscape photos at the Locks on April 5. Someone apparently thought he was suspicious and called Seattle police, giving them Spiers' license-plate number. Two officers later showed up on Spiers' Ballard doorstep to question him.
Spiers showed the officers his notebook — which included a list of shutter speeds and subjects — and explained he had been working on an assignment for an introductory photography class at Shoreline Community College. An officer asked to see his identification, and Spiers complied.
On May 26, Spiers was again at the Locks, this time hoping to photograph boats as a train passed over the trestle in the background. As he was setting up his tripod, he was approached by a man he thought was a security guard.
Spiers says he politely explained that he was a student photographer and showed a copy of his class assignment. The man asked to see Spiers' ID but when pressed, admitted Spiers had no legal obligation to hand it over. Irritated, Spiers this time refused to comply and the man left, but soon returned with seven others, all with guns holstered on their hips. They questioned Spiers and again demanded his ID. One of them snapped a photo of him.
Spiers, 37, who describes himself as half black and half Scottish, suspects he was singled out because of his skin color, adding that other visitors at the Locks were taking photos but no one else was being questioned or detained.
What upsets Spiers most is that during the second incident, after he'd answered a slew of questions and had been told he could go, an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a branch of Homeland Security, asked to take Spiers' photograph. When Spiers said 'no,' "he told me, 'You really don't have a choice,' " Spiers said.
"I'm still like everybody else, trying to ask all kinds of questions, wondering why somebody needs to see my ID just for being down there with a camera," said Spiers. "As for the photo of me, I don't know if I should be concerned about getting on a plane. Am I now on some no-fly list or something?"
The American Civil Liberties Union is investigating the incidents, questioning officials on Spiers' behalf. In a June 21 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that manages the Ballard Locks, ACLU attorney Aaron Caplan wrote that at the end of the May 26 questioning, "Special Agent Daniel McNamara of the Department of Homeland Security told Mr. Spiers that he was not allowed to take photographs at the Locks, and that he was not to return to the Locks without advance notice and permission."
ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said yesterday that he is not aware of any law that prohibits taking photographs of government buildings or federal facilities such as the Ballard Locks.
"You've got to wonder why Ian was singled out," Honig said. "The government says somebody made a complaint about Ian. It made sense they would talk to him, but it's quickly obvious he poses no security risk."
Spiers was told he had violated the Patriot Act, but there's nothing in the legislation that prohibits his actions, Honig said. The ACLU wants an explanation for what happened.
"You'd think government officials should be able to distinguish between a student and a spy, or a tourist and a terrorist, when it comes to taking photos at the Ballard Locks," Honig said.
Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said her agency wasn't involved in either incident. "Any member of the public is welcome to come on the grounds of the Locks and take pictures," she said.
ICE Special Agent in Charge Leigh Winchell said yesterday he wasn't aware of either incident; he also declined a reporter's request to interview McNamara, saying that, as a matter of policy, agents don't answer media questions.
Though he declined to discuss protocol for questioning and photographing people, Winchell said "our security, particularly in and around our waterways in the Puget Sound area, is paramount at this time. ... we address all those situations seriously."
Seattle police spokeswoman Deanna Nollette also declined to comment on the incidents, saying she hadn't known about officers' contact with Spiers until reporters started calling about it.
Chris Simons, who taught Spiers' photography class, believes Spiers was racially profiled.
When Spiers showed up in class soon after the May 26 incident, "he was in shock — he was upset, confused and didn't know what to do; he was a little bit afraid, but it hadn't really hit him yet that he was being profiled," Simons said.
"That photograph (the agent took) is going to be attached to a file somewhere, and that's a little scary. When it comes to police photographing you, that's serious because they don't photograph you just for fun."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
add a comment on this article
Posted by: goldman at Jul 14, 2004 00:32
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
We've seen the enemy, and he is us
Photo student experiences the 'real threat' to America
By ROBERT L. JAMIESON Jr.
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLUMNIST
Ian Spiers is ... a terrorist?
A threat to homeland security? A spy out to wreak havoc on the Ballard Bridge and Hiram Chittenden Locks?
If Ian is any of these things then this is his weapon of mass destruction: a 35-millimeter Olympus camera.
Paul Joseph Brown / P-I
Ian Spiers was taking photographs at the Ballard locks for a class at Shoreline Community College when Seattle police and federal officers detained him.
What recently happened to the longtime Ballard resident is one of those wrenching and uncomfortable stories of post-Sept. 11 America, and it is far from being black and white.
Try difficult shades of gray.
The whole thing would seem like a bad joke if the experience didn't leave Ian crushed and confused.
Ian is an amateur photographer.
In May he was taking photos for his Shoreline Community College class at the Ballard locks, where waves of tourists flock to take pictures and where no signs prohibit shutterbugging.
Ian says he suddenly found himself surrounded by more than a half-dozen guys wearing black. He says they glowered, brusquely asked what he was doing and demanded his identification.
He tried to explain he was a photo student who had done nothing wrong and shouldn't have to show his ID. One of the men, Ian says, erupted: "See this badge! This is a federal badge! I'm with homeland security!"
Intimidating tactics are one thing. A presumption that Ian -- who says he tried to be cooperative while not forfeiting his rights -- was guilty of something sinister is another.
What made the camera episode especially troubling for Ian, who was not arrested, is this: Other people around him happily toted cameras and clicked away, but he was the one singled out.
Here's a reasonable conclusion: Ian's skin color is to blame.
Someone saw him and saw no good. He was profiled.
If you look at Ian's smooth, light-brown complexion you could jump to the conclusion that he is vaguely Middle Eastern looking or Latin, maybe even Muslim.
Put a camera in his hands and place him near federal property such as the locks and Ian transforms into, well, what else? A potential terrorist.
"So upsetting," sums up Shoreline instructor Chris Simons, who taught Ian in Art 100 -- Beginning Photography.
Ian, 36, is half Scottish, half African-American. He is a Christian Scientist who has lived in Ballard for 10 years. He chose to photograph near the locks and bridge because he knows those places well.
Ian's camera trouble started even before the May incident.
In April he went near the locks to take snapshots and returned home. Before he knew it, he says two uniformed Seattle police officers were at his door.
"Were you just at the Ballard locks? Taking pictures?" he says one of the officers asked.
Ian said yes, said he was a student. Ian said he showed the officers his notebook with shutter speeds and aperture settings.
Had he done something wrong?
The officers said no. Ian said they asked for his identification.
"If I've done nothing wrong why do I have to show identification," Ian asked them, feeling fear.
A Seattle police report of the April incident described a man of medium skin tone acting "suspicious" at the locks and "photographing the bridge and writing notes."
The officers who visited Ian took down his information and left.
On May 26, Ian returned to the locks to finish his class assignment.
He set up his tripod to take snapshots of passing boats. Within moments, he says a security guard -- with a gun at his side and a German shepherd -- was in front of him. The guard asked for ID. "I told him my constitutional rights were being infringed upon," Ian recalled during an emotional interview.
Ian said the guard walked away.
Next, Ian saw a Seattle police cruiser pull into the area, followed soon thereafter by several men donning black. They approached him.
"Let's see some ID! Now," Ian says a uniform Seattle officer asked him. A federal special agent flashed his badge, huffed about being with homeland security and lectured about Sept. 11, Ian said.
Before leaving, Ian said the agent made a request: "You ought to let me take your picture."
The photo student felt devastated. "The real threat to America," he said when we spoke, "is what I'm experiencing now."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the locks, said they weren't involved in what happened. "Anyone who comes to the locks can take pictures," a spokeswoman said. "We want people to come."
"Obviously someone saw something suspicious," says Seattle police spokeswoman Deanna Nolette. "The department has been asking people, should they see something suspicious, to call and report it."
Leigh Winchell, a senior official for the Department of Homeland Security, paints a painful truth: "We have to respond to calls -- that's the day and age we live in. What would the public reaction be if we didn't follow through?"
Yet, authorities should have an obligation to use their training and common sense to assess a situation. They should be able to quickly determine a student taking class photos from a terrorist. They should be able to do their job without resorting to intimidating swagger that leaves a grown man in tears.
Authorities can ask folks for their IDs but people are not necessarily required to show them in a lot of situations. "This is one of them," says ACLU spokesman Doug Honig. "The justification they were citing doesn't apply to Ian."
The ACLU, which is following up on the case, obtained paperwork that explains why the folks with badges badgered Ian for identification. Basically, authorities used a law that cracks down on spies, Honig said.
But I don't think Ian's a spy. Ian loves America. Ian's crime was being a brown man with a camera in hand during a time of runaway fear. The law took action for the sake of the sockeye.
Should we really feel any safer?
We need to organize a "SHOOT-IN"!!!
Posted by: E Miesner at Jul 14, 2004 09:39
On a given day hundreds of us should show up at the locks with camaras and signs and pamphlets explaining what we are doing. We can make the locks the most photographed part of the world, and we can publish our photos all over the internet. Who is with me?
Right on E!
Posted by: heroin is my religion at Jul 14, 2004 10:01
I'm with you--lets form a radical photo club--we could go to all sorts of federal buildings and gaurded areas!! When?? Lets do it!
Posted by: give em what they want at Jul 14, 2004 10:03
"Anyone who comes to the locks can take pictures," a spokeswoman said. "We want people to come."
Posted by: go to website at Jul 14, 2004 10:11
Art 100E - Photography
Motion Study Artist’s Statement
by Ian Spiers
Humiliated, Angry, Ashamed, Brown.
I really wanted to take some pictures of my nephew riding his motorcycle for my motion assignment— maybe one of him making a jump with his dirt bike— but he couldn’t make a break in his soccer schedule to help me out with the shoot. I also thought about photographing a remote control plane or helicopter, which would’ve been really cool, but I don’t know anyone with a remote control anything, so that was out. I’d taken pictures of passing traffic after accidentally locking my keys in my car, but I knew that the whole moving car thing had been played out. It was Wednesday, May 26th, 2004. My motion assignment was due when my evening photography class convened, and I found myself quickly running out of both ideas and time.
Realizing that I’d have to settle and just go for the grade, I considered things that were less exciting, but more familiar and accessible. I finally decided to take photos of boats over at the Ballard Locks. Who knows, maybe I’d get lucky and even get a passing train into my composition.
I suppose a little background would help. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks are a bit of a sore subject with me. I’d been over at the Locks earlier in the quarter, back at the beginning of April, taking photos of the picturesque landscape surrounding this prominent local landmark. I’d even left my subject and returned with more film just to try to get the right shot. Being new to photography, I made careful notes of my camera’s settings.
Within a half an hour of my returning home I found myself confronted by two uniformed Seattle Police officers, both of which had their hands casually resting on their sidearms. (This is definitely not something you want to see at the door of your home.) I was sincerely surprised and alarmed to learn they were looking for me!
They asked if I was taking photos of the train bridge, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I quickly pulled my notebook from my back pocket and explained that I was a new photography student over at Shoreline Community College, and showed them all of my notes — a list of exposures, subjects, f-stops, and shutter speeds. I think I talked to them for about five minutes, setting things straight and giving them all of the background information I could. They clarified that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I thought we were done.
“Can I see some ID?” one of the cops asked. I was really confused by this request. I’d already provided all the information I’d felt I’d needed to. If I hadn’t done anything wrong then why did they need to see my ID?
I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly comfortable with policemen detaining me, let alone running background checks on me. To my understanding, even though this kind of stuff isn’t admissible in court, I recognized that each background check is added to some undisclosed police file, and that any officer checking that file would have to interpret it. I really wanted to know at what point I had the right to say “no.”
“Well, you don’t have to cooperate,” the cop responded, exaggerating his tone. Yeah, I got his message. Have you ever tried not cooperating with a cop? I gave him my ID, and then sat through another ten minutes of awkward and demeaning questions. I was hoping my neighbors wouldn’t assume that I was a drug dealer. Aggravated and embarrassed, I retaliated by snapping off a few shaky photos of the strategic placement of their police cars when they finally let me go. (I've developed an odd sense of humor. It kicks in when I'm nervous.)
This episode kept coming back to me over the following days. I was angry, but more honestly, I felt embarrassed and powerless. I felt violated. For what it was worth, I eventually contacted the Seattle Police Department and obtained an official copy of the police report.
And now, back to my more immediate dilemma...
Being a Ballard resident, the Ballard Locks seemed like the best available subject for my project. I knew I’d be able to set up my tripod and work under fairly consistent conditions. Having spoken with the park ranger in charge of the facility on Monday, I also knew that I had every legal right to photograph from that location. So, I went to the Ballard Locks, in the rain, found the best location I could, and waited for passing trains and boats.
Within about thirty minutes of my setting up my tripod I noticed a lone security officer coming down the hill to ask me a few questions. Well, no… that’s not exactly accurate. He wasn’t politely asking me questions. He’d accessorized his ensemble with a ninety-pound German Shepherd, and was talking at me in authoritative and degrading tones. He wanted me to know that he was an authority.
I responded carefully, being as polite and cooperative as I possibly could. I explained my student status and produced a photocopy of my class assignment, and then translated my intentions for my composition into non-technical terms. I presented my camera bag, tripod and camera. I even casually mentioned some of the considerations regarding 50 ISO black and white film, and introduced my brand new yellow filter, all of which was intended to authenticate my student status. I told him everything I thought he needed to know, but I guess that wasn’t enough.
“Can I see some ID?” he asked, leaning on me verbally, asking without really asking.
OK, I’ll admit it: I’d really had enough at that point. I was tired of confrontations with small people with authority complexes. I was tired of feeling scared. I knew that I’d done absolutely nothing wrong, and that I’d presented clear evidence that I was not a threat. In fact, all things considered, I still think I’d been more than pleasant about the whole thing up until that point. I saw no good reason why I should have to give this canine patrolman my ID. He seemed intelligent, and I assumed that someone in his position was supposed to be reasonable. I also assumed that someone in his position would know that if I’d really wanted to take secret photos of this public landmark that he would never know about it. Sure, I knew why he was asking for my ID, and why he was really asking for my ID. And he knew why. But I was wondering if he had the balls to actually say it to my face. I was back to wondering when I could start saying “no.”
Proceeding thoughtfully, I calmly and politely responded to his request for my ID by asking him if I was legally obligated to show it to him. He replied, “No.” I responded, in that case, that I’d felt I’d provided him with all the information he needed regarding who I was and what I was doing, and told him that I felt that my constitutional rights were being infringed upon. Not being legally obliged to do so, I told him that I was not going to be providing him with my ID.
That pretty much ended that conversation. As my confronters ascended the hill, I couldn’t resist spinning my camera around and taking a quick shot of them returning to their security vehicle. I then got back to waiting for a train or boat to enter my composition so I could finish my class assignment. Of course, I soon realized that they weren’t leaving.
Now, over the next half an hour or so, I noticed a number of suspicious men walking around the path in my general area. It was still raining lightly, but they didn’t seem to be dressed for an outing at the Locks. I noticed them, and I noticed them noticing me. They kept walking by me every once in a while, and I got that feeling I get sometimes when I’m shopping at a mall. These guys weren’t tourists.
I then saw a Seattle Police patrol vehicle driving on a nearby path, one that was inaccessible to the public, and parking in the hilltop parking lot. At that point, I knew what was coming. A few minutes later, I watched in dismay as eight men descended from the parking lot, down the hill, making a bee-line for me and my tripod.
One of the Seattle policemen, using his strongest, most authoritative voice, gripping his holstered sidearm, was now demanding to see my ID. I asked what this was about and why I had to show him my ID. “Look, we can do this one of two ways. You show me your ID right now! I'm not kidding!” the cop yelled.
Let me be the first to admit to my total loss of composure. Eight grown men, five of which were in uniform and wearing sidearms, now surrounded me. I just had a camera, a tripod, and a bad flashback to Rodney King. You bet I was emotional. How composed would you be?
I gave the cop my ID, and it was quickly whisked away by one officer to the top of the hill. I went on to express my sense of helplessness, shame, humiliation and anger about the confrontation. I insisted that I was a photography student and that I had done absolutely nothing wrong. I acknowledged my constitutional rights. I pointed to curious bystanders, and pointed out that they had cameras, but that none of the police were interested in them. I identified a man with a canvas and easel, standing directly underneath the train bridge, and asked why no one was asking him for his ID. In retrospect, I realize that I still wanted someone to say it to my face.
The police officer had failed to rebut my arguments, but he was definitely being a lot nicer now (which was quite welcome). He’d been explaining how the SPD are required to investigate all calls, which I said I understood, but I was still looking for some real accountability. That’s when one of the three non-uniformed men stepped forward, brandishing his badge, and began talking at me with his own rendition of the voice of absolute authority.
“I’ve listened to this for over five minutes. Look here. You see this?” Special Agent McNamara said, producing his badge. “This is a federal badge. We’re not with the rest of them. We’re federal agents from Homeland Security...”
He told me that I’d broken the law by not providing my ID to the original investigator (a man who I personally feel has entirely too much power). I told him that I’d asked if I was legally obligated to produce my ID, and that he’d clearly told me “no,” but it was obvious that that didn't matter to Special Agent McNamara in the slightest. I was just wrong, and he was just right.
He went on to tell me that the minute I’d photographed federal property, citing the Ballard Locks, the train bridge and the Patriot Act, that I’d, again, broken the law. Of course, I asked why there weren’t any signs on that parcel of public property disclosing that photography was forbidden...
You know, I just read (and reread) that last paragraph, and I still don’t get it. I mean, you’re joking, right? The Ballard Locks are easily my neighborhood’s most recognizable landmark and its highest point of tourism. Tour buses and tour boats make regularly scheduled visits here, and guided tours escort groups of visitors through this landmark daily. Everyone’s taking pictures of the Locks, the boats, the bridge, and the migrating salmon. In fact, on any given weekend, you really can’t throw fish at the Locks without hitting an amateur photographer. And yet, this guy is justifying this invasion of my privacy by telling me that it's illegal for me to take photos?
I knew something he didn’t know. I went on to clarify that I’d actually been to the Ballard Locks just two days earlier, where I’d met with the park ranger, specifically requesting permission to take a series of photos. We’d had a genuinely pleasant discussion about photography and the freedom of speech. In the end, he’d clarified that I had permission to take photos, just about any photos I’d like, on the city side of the Locks... which was the side I was currently on. Of course all of this information was immediately discounted as Special Agent McNamara’s dissertation turned towards the logic behind investigating suspicious activity.
I continued to ask why the eight of them weren’t “investigating” and harassing any of the curious, non-brown tourists that were now milling about. “There’s a man, right there, with an easel and canvas, standing under the bridge, right now! Why aren’t you asking him for his ID?”
“Have you read today’s paper?” Special Agent McNamara asked gruffly.
Exasperated, I gave up, saying that I really didn’t want to play those kinds of guessing games. No, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
Special Agent McNamara went on to lecture me in front of his peers and the gathering crowd on the finer points of 9/11 and the social climate that’s ensued. (Thinking back on it, I think he skipped over several significant points regarding the damage to American liberties.) At long last, he punctuated his keynote by referring to some “maniacs” slamming 747’s into skyscrapers, and saying something about how people are concerned about suspicious activity in their country, and how they needed and deserved to feel safe,
I couldn’t help myself. I interrupted again, stating that I knew about 9/11, ‘cause it happened in my country, too!
After being detained for thirty of the longest minutes of my life, my ID was finally returned and the congregation of men— three Seattle Police officers, three Federal Homeland Security agents, and two security guards for the Ballard Locks (including my original confronter)— slowly disbanded. After a quick thought, I caught up with Special Agent McNamara in the parking lot at the top of the hill and asked for a business card. (“Here he comes,” one of the men announced sarcastically.) Special Agent McNamara gave me his card, and then retrieved a bulky digital camera from his car and asked to take my photo… you know, just to help him out… just for his file. He even instructed me to call him before returning to the Locks to take additional photos. I reiterated that I’d done nothing wrong, and that I did not want him taking my photo. He continued to gently persuade me, and I continued to refuse, and then he made it perfectly clear that I had no choice in the matter. So, I let him take his goddamned photo, and then I returned to my tripod.
I tried to act like I even cared about my class project for about ten minutes before giving up and packing up my gear. I felt sick. My head was swimming with all kinds of ugly thoughts regarding what had just happened, and passing by dozens of camera-happy tourists en route to my car really didn’t help to lift my spirits. I knew that this experience was going to be with me for a while. I wished I could find a way to do something about it... and then, like a bolt of lightning, it came to me!
On the way back to my car I approached everyone I could that had a camera and was out taking pictures of the Ballard Locks. I simply and quickly explained that I was a photography student with Shoreline Community College, that I was working on a class assignment, and that I’d decided to incorporate photos of tourists taking pictures into my project. I then asked for permission to take their photograph. That was all it took. I got a bunch of friendly smiles and a few odd looks, but not one person that I approached turned me down. They were all very happy to pose for my camera… and they didn’t even ask to see my ID!
So, why have I gone to such great lengths to write about all of this? Well, as the saying goes, if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry. In an all too literal sense, it seems like it’s getting harder for me to be comfortable in my own skin, which is about as difficult to admit as it is to convey. I honestly don’t know what to say to family and friends, except that I’m still embarrassed, angry and utterly heartbroken over these events. I’ve lived in Ballard for over ten years now, and I’ve lived in the Seattle area all my life. Now I’ll have to make an effort to going back to feeling safe and free in my own neighborhood. And the worst part is that I can’t stop wondering how long it will be before I have my next altercation with the Seattle Police, or Homeland Security, or something else, simply for looking the way I do and carrying a camera. I’ve been persued, detained and interrogated twice, just in my first quarter of photography classes, and in both of those instances I was on public property, in areas well known for their high volumes of tourist traffic. Dear God, I really don’t want to think about what might happen to me without witnesses around, or when I finally get to work on those industrial studies in the photojournalism class. All I can try to do at this moment is raise local awareness about this issue, and look for a way to make a constructive contribution within this bizarre social and political climate.
— Ian Spiers
Now, as far as the rest of the technical requirements for my official motion assignment go, both of my motion photos (the boats) were taken with a 35—105mm zoom lens, with my aperture set at f-8, a shutter speed of 4, and a yellow filter. I don’t remember what the settings were for any of the accompanying photos.
Cheery and bright, dreary and wet, I hope this series of photos ultimately conveys a loss of innocence to the viewer. I hope they make you curious, and I hope they make you chuckle, and I hope they make you uncomfortable. And more than anything else, I sincerely hope this project makes you think.
©2004 Ian Spiers - All Rights Reserved
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