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Everyday Activism: Why You Should Push Back Against the Norms You Face

Recently everybody’s been talking about change. From Yes! Magazine’snew piece on ‘radical’ being the new normal to the implications of the global Monsanto protest, much of this discussion has been a debate about what it means to ‘push back.’ People are asking: Is activism pushing back? Is activism the means for change?

This all makes me think of a rather inspiring (and disappointing) video montage of what I thought exemplified authentic ‘inner activism’ (considered here as a more instinctional, less organized form of activism) and ‘push back.’ The montage includes a series of automoblie drivers stopped at Department of Homeland Security immigration checkpoints that are not along the domestic border. Each driver stops and greets an officer, but soon refuses to answer questions about citizenship. Though the officers threaten to detain the drivers and subsequently search their vehicles, the drivers assert their right to continue on their way. In a matter of minutes each driver is allowed to continue driving despite having refused to submit to questioning.

Feeling enlightened by this new display of power and agency, I continued to search for similar videos.

I came across another video titled “Abusive Border Patrol Agents NM Checkpoint” that was particularly striking in that it showed that this kind of activism isn’t easy. Here's what happens to one driver after he refuses to answer questions:

  • The officer tells the driver that within 100 miles from the border and at immigration checkpoints, all constitutional rights are officially suspended and do not apply. He says: “Just to let you know, in a border patrol check point a person’s rights do not matter here, they don’t apply here. You do not have rights. I can print that out for you.”
  • The officers explicitly say that anyone who does not follow the norms is therefore suspicious, and therefore they have legal probable cause to detain and search him.
  • The head officer tells the driver he suspects him of being a terrorist.

Nearly 30 minutes of coercive threats and no results, the officers become exhausted. They eventually dismiss the driver after having realized they cannot in fact detain or search him (or convince him to waive his rights).

This is a rather remarkable moment of the kind of everyday activism each of us can take. But what it also reveals is that those who ‘resist’ will always be confronted with a different kind of push back – a voice that tries to remind us of ‘our place.’ What’s important, though, is that we don’t let this deter us.

A friend of mine who refuses to go through airport security scanners because they remind her of the stop and frisk stance told me that she had asked an airport security officer how many people ask to be patted down instead of going through the ‘normalized’ stop and frisk body scanner. She was told that on any given day only about three individuals ask to be patted down - a relatively quick (2-4 minutes) procedure. Apparently, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of those choosing to opt out of the scanner is growing.

In resisting the scanner ‘norm’ these individuals and my friend, in my opinion, are pushing back. They are, in fact, discovering their ‘inner activism.’

It’s also important that we look at how those who choose to opt out of normalized procedures are treated and what this might mean when looking at the state of the union:

While all the drivers in the immigration checkpoint videos are eventually told they can continue driving (though they were also previously told they would detained and punished), all the drivers undergo harassment. One agent even pulls out his baton to threaten a driver, though quickly puts it away after the driver says, “Did you just pull out a weapon because I won’t answer your questions? Why are you brandishing a weapon at me when I just want to go on my way?”

What's significant here is that while all persons in the U.S. have the right to assert their rights, the officers in these videos find it rather abnormal and suspicious that they are doing so. What does this say about U.S. police force? 

Perhaps a more telling example of the state of our union is another immigration check point video where the officer allows a stopped driver to continue driving after the driver answers the officer's question about citizenship with: "Actually what's an even more important question than that, it's asked one time in the Bible, is: What must I do to be saved? If you've got about 10 minutes I can walk you through that..." The officer tells the driver he doesn't have 10 minutes and then bids him farewell with, "Have a nice day sir."

The idea here is that this particular driver, though he has not answered the officer's question, is not suspicious because, well, he's a good (probably Rebublican) devoted Christian. Therefore he (ah ha!) must not be a terrorist! 

What does this say about U.S. police force, norms, and treatment?

Christopher Elliot wrote an interesting blog back in January titled, “Three Troubling Ways the TSA Punishes Passengers Who Opt Out.” According to his experience, TSA officers will intimidate, harass and humiliate passengers choosing the pat down, as well as making them wait long periods of time – so long sometimes that passengers miss their flight. He referred to this behavior as the treatment of second-class citizens.

What these moments exhibit is the retaliating voice that attempts to put everyday activists ‘back in their place.’ But this is also the voice of a steadily growing police state with creeping militarization taking place in unconstitutionally coercive inland checkpoints, airport security, schools and more. We cannot let such a voice defeat our everyday activism choices. 

So, get to the airport early so you can take the pat down and not have to worry about missing your flight. In fact, miss your flight! And then file a complaint! Carry a copy of the Constitution with you so you can read it aloud to those Nazi style border patrol agents.

I think it’s time, then, that we come to think of small day-to-day acts like the ones mentioned above as authentic activism. Perhaps it’s these minor acts that propel our larger protests and initiatives into the activism limelight. 

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