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Amtrak’s Suspicious Activity Reporting Guidelines & the White Privilege of Freedom of Travel

By: Friday October 24, 2014 7:51 pm

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained a copy of guidelines for Amtrak customer service employees in Texas. The organization received it as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which it filed because individuals have been submitted reports indicating they were “wrongfully searched and arrested on Amtrak trains.” The company may also be using suspicious activity guidelines to target individuals in a civil asset forfeiture program.

Presumably, the guidelines are universally applied and utilized at various Amtrak train stations throughout the United States. The guidelines obtained are specifically for employees in Texas in the “southwest division.” But none of the guidelines are specific to Texas.

“Ticket Agents may come into contact with passengers and travelers whose conduct is questionable. Some individuals can have characteristics that may or may not be indicative of criminal activity, such as illegal drug trafficking,” the guidelines state [PDF]. “When taken alone certain characteristics are not illegal per se, however, one or more may form the basis for suspicious criminal activity.”

First off, the guidelines are contradictory. “Taken alone certain characteristics are not illegal per se.” Okay, agree. But, “one or…” Wait, but the guidelines say “alone certain characteristics are not illegal”?

Does an employee need to have witnessed more than one “characteristic” to report “suspicious activity” to the Amtrak Police and Security Department? (Of course, who wants to be the employee that took a chance and did not report the behavior?)

The list of “characteristics” to watch for include:

• Evasive path through train station

• Carrying little or no luggage

• Last minute reservation

• Traveling by an unusual itinerary (multi-changes in reservations)

• Carrying an unusually large amount of currency

• Purchase of tickets in cash

• Purchase tickets immediately prior to boarding

• Unusual nervousness of traveler

• Unusual calmness or straight ahead stare

• Looking around while making telephone call(s)

• Position among passengers disembarking (ahead of, or lagging behind passengers)

If a passenger is looking around while making telephone call(s) and happen to be unusually nervous, perhaps, that passenger is waiting for someone who is expected to join them on the trip. He or she is late, and the passenger is worried because the train is leaving the station soon.

If a passenger purchases tickets with cash immediately prior to boarding, it is likely the person has a busy work life like many Americans and did not get around to purchasing their ticket beforehand. They are using cash because they happen to have cash on them.

If they make a last minute reservation, have little to no luggage and only pay in cash, it is possible the passenger is poor. Maybe, the passenger is even homeless and managed to screw up some cash and is now trying to get somewhere they have been trying to go for a long time.

What if a person makes a last minute reservation and takes an “evasive path” through the train station? It could be that the passenger is late and taking the best route to get to the platform.

How about someone who takes an “evasive path” through the station and also is “unusually nervous”? They could be uncomfortable around lots of people.

Let’s imagine a person has a last minute reservation, purchased tickets immediately before boarding, has little to no luggage, took an “evasive path” to get to the ticket counter, happens to be on his or her cell phone and is looking around making phone calls and lags behind or disembarks ahead of passengers?

I bet that passenger works as part of management at a Wall Street firm, and he or she should definitely be reported to law enforcement as “suspicious.” He or she may also be carrying an “unusually large amount of currency.”

Amnesty International Delegation Releases Report on Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson, Missouri

By: Friday October 24, 2014 12:42 pm

When Ferguson, Missouri, was experiencing a crackdown by militarized police forces in August after a white police officer killed Mike Brown, Amnesty International made the unprecedented decision to deploy human rights observers to a city inside the United States. A 13-person delegation monitored developments and the human rights organization has now released its report on what the delegation witnessed.

The delegation was deployed to Ferguson from August 14 to August 22. The most intense experiences for the observers seem to have taken place on August 18 and 19.

On August 18, around 10 pm, Amnesty International’s report states [PDF] police “activated a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that was mounted about 8-10 feet off the ground on top of an armored truck at the intersection of W. Florissant and Ferguson avenues.” This was apparently a response to the throwing of a few bottles and a group of protesters that decided to stop moving and stand in front of a line of police.

“The LRAD was pointed at a group of stationary protestors on the street approximately 15 feet away. Members of the media and observers were about the same distance from the device. Law enforcement gave no warning to protesters that an LRAD would be used.”

After providing earplugs to a member of Amnesty International, a St. Louis County police officer said, ‘This noise will make you sick.’ Several members of the delegation reported feeling nauseous from the noise of the LRAD until it was turned off at approximately 10:15 pm.”

“While Amnesty International did not see police officers launching tear gas canisters to disperse crowds, on the night of August 18 the delegation was caught in the middle of a gas cloud,” the report describes.

…At approximately 10:20 pm, several protestors uprooted a traffic yield sign and walked into center of road in front of armored truck at north end of W. Florissant Avenue, removing it a few minutes later. At 10:43 pm, an announcement from law enforcement was made telling “all members of the media, please separate yourselves from the protestors immediately.” Over the next 20 minutes, a police line formed on the north end of the street and forced the protesters south before Amnesty International heard the sound of six loud pops from the north end of W. Florissant Avenue, followed by two more. According to members of the delegation it appeared that flash bangs and tear gas were thrown directly in front of the line of protestors, forcing the protesters along with members of the media to run south down W. Florissant Avenue. Amnesty International approached the police lined up near Ferguson Avenue and asked why police resorted to tear gas and how much warning was provided, however the officer said “You will have to ask at the other end.” As the delegation tried to make its way north down W. Florissant Avenue to reach their transportation and leave the protest site at 11:24 pm, they witnessed officers aboard armored truck in full riot gear, including helmets, vests, masks, and boots. Some of the officers had their guns drawn with no names, badges, other identifying information visible. Amnesty International requested information from the officers regarding what agency they were from and why the gas was used but were told “not right now, please go back down W. Florissant.”…

After tear gas and stun grenades had been fired on August 18, the delegation chose to leave so delegation members were not hurt. The delegation had to cross a police line to get to their vehicles.

“One officer directly in front of the delegation pointed his weapon at the delegation and shouted ‘get on the ground!’ A staff member at the front of the delegation knelt on the ground and informed the officer, ‘We are human rights observers,’” the report recounts. “A St. Louis County commanding officer immediately waved the delegation through the police line with his gun in hand. As the police line parted, officers nearest the delegation kept their guns trained on the delegation until they passed through.”

Republicans Welcome Ebola (Satire)

By: Friday October 24, 2014 7:09 am

The Republican midterm strategy is based on creating a perfect storm of fear.

Giggling, the Chairperson of the Republican Party could barely contain himself when he learned a major hurricane was headed for the east coast of the United States. “Can anyone tell me if it’ll hit any blue states hard? We can always use some extra help I guess, but with ISIS and ebola, maybe that would be piling on. We live in great times.”

Documents show that the entire Republican midterm strategy is based on creating a perfect storm of fear in the U.S., combining over-reaction and panic over ISIS with growing fears of an apocalyptic ebola epidemic sweeping through the nation’s gun shows. “Friends,” the chair continued, “This could be like the election after Watergate, when the Dems could have run nearly anyone, even a nut job like Jimmy ‘James’ Carter, and won. We just need to tie Obama a little bit more directly to the ebola thing and we are in, control of the Senate.” The chair actually lit a comically large Cuban cigar at that point.

According to leaked documents left at a Chili’s by Edward Snowden while changing planes in Atlanta enroute from Moscow to a vacation villa outside Vladivostok, the initial Republican plan was to convince its base that ISIS operatives were everywhere. “The party must let every voter know that ISIS is dressed as terrifying clowns out there and plans to eat their dogs and behead their fat kids. That will be a money shot for November.”

But as confident as the Republicans were after encouraging Fox, then CNN and then Cartoon Network to run ISIS beheading videos 24/7 as part of the plan, even their senior leaders admit ebola was a surprise gift. “Think about it. Unlike terrorism, which has basically killed no one in the U.S. since 9/11 but still controls our daily lives, ebola is an actual thing. We don’t even have to make this one up. And, and this is the best part of all, it comes from Africa, er, you know, um, from “not white people” which speaks to our Red State voters’ most cherished beliefs. And two boneheaded nurses in Dallas can’t remember enough high school biology to even wash their hands, followed by the CDC– Obama’s CDC– telling one of them it was OK to fly. And then– praise Saint Reagan in heaven– she flew to Cleveland, in Ohio, a major contested state. It writes itself: Obama is trying to kill Ohio. Our guys are already ordering furniture for their new Senate office spaces.”

“More? Obama appoints some guy as ‘Ebola Czar” who has no medical experience. What, was Dr. Oz not taking calls? Yeppers, nothing inspires people to have faith in their leaders like choosing a bureaucrat they never heard of to save their very lives. And that bit about Secretary of State Kerry having to get involved in trying to get Belize to allow our ‘Ebola Cruise Ship’ permission to dock, and then failing? Right again, seeing old Mr. Muppet stumble makes our lives here in the Republican party easier and easier. That stuff screams incompetence. Heck, we should have carpet bombed Belize in retaliation.”

“Travel ban from Africa?” said the chairman. “Yeah, we talk a tough game but we’d be opposed to marshmallows and hot chocolate if the Democrats came out in favor. No, no, no, we don’t want a travel plan. Bring us a bunch of infected Liberians. If say a couple of thousand American get sick with the ebola, 99 percent of healthy America votes for us, fish in a barrel. Maybe we’ll get some redneck to hold a benefit concert or whatever.”

“Am I cynical? I don’t even know the meaning of that word. Fear is our best business tool, and friends, business is good. I’m seeing us ride this wave of paranoia and hysteria all the way!”


Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

Justice Department Rejects Key Reforms to FBI Whistleblower Regulations

By: Thursday October 23, 2014 5:06 pm

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is considering an array of new procedures that may modestly improve protections for whistleblowers, however, the Justice Department rejected a number of key reforms that “whistleblower advocates” have urged the agency to adopt. Under a presidential policy directive President Barack Obama issued in October 2012, which applied to whistleblowers with [...]

Looking for Firedoglake

By: Thursday October 23, 2014 4:16 pm

Firedoglake and I spent several years looking for each other. In my final months at the State Department, just before getting pushed out because of my whistleblowing, Firedoglake was one of the web sites firewalled from our desktop computers because of its Wikileaks content. Despite sites like FDL being available everywhere (it is called the [...]

Local Law Enforcement Chipping Away at the Fourth Amendment

By: Thursday October 23, 2014 8:23 am

The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the People from their government. That’s quite literally becoming history today as new challenges, now from local law enforcement, chip away at the Fourth Amendment’s protections of privacy. New laws and devices spread spying on Americans to the local level. A Brief Explanation of Post-Constitutional America The [...]

On Day of Action Against Police Brutality, Grassroots Group Presents Report on Chicago Police Violence

By: Wednesday October 22, 2014 7:11 pm

A grassroots organization set up to bring attention to the “voices and experiences” of young people of color most targeted by police violence in Chicago issued a “shadow report,” which has been submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The group, We Charge Genocide (WCG), was formed in June after a young African-American man [...]

Kobane May Be an Example, Just Not One That the US Intends

By: Wednesday October 22, 2014 7:47 am

Only last week, when Turkey refused to assist Kurdish fighters in the Syrian city of Kobane, even as those Kurds were losing ground to ISIS fighters, and the U.S. was directing its airstrikes against far-away targets in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said while the U.S. was deeply concerned about the tragedy in Kobane, [...]

CIA Agents Reportedly Impersonated Senate Staffers While Torture Report Was Being Produced

By: Tuesday October 21, 2014 5:39 pm

CIA agents “impersonated Senate staffers” while the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was producing its report on the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program, according to Huffington Post. “According to sources familiar with the CIA inspector general report that details the alleged abuses by agency officials,” journalists Ali Watkins and Ryan Grim reported, “CIA agents [...]

Judge Dismisses Lawsuit by Seattle Police Who Believe Restricting ‘Use of Force’ Violates Their Rights

By: Tuesday October 21, 2014 12:04 pm

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by nearly one hundred Seattle police officers, who claimed a “use of force” policy adopted in response to a Justice Department lawsuit violated their constitutional rights to defend themselves. The Justice Department found that the Seattle Police Department “engaged in a pattern or practice of using unlawful force [...]

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