Shaun King is a controversial guy.
As an activist and journalist, he’s been prominent in the Black Lives Matter movement, defended the Palestinians and attacked the Republican Party. On Monday, apparently as a result of his politics, King was briefly detained at JFK Airport by an agent of U.S. Customs and Border Protection while returning home from Egypt.
In a series of tweets and a telephone interview, King described a “frustrating” and “weird” episode like something out of “The Twilight Zone.” He said he was approached by a customs official who pulled him out of line and took him down a white hall to a nondescript office. His wife, unwilling to be separated, came along, as did their children.
King said the agent first attempted to ply the children with small talk but that he, King, told his wife and kids “to not say a damn word.” According to King, the agent asked why they had visited Egypt – “traditional family vacation” was the reply – then inquired about King’s work with Black Lives Matter. He spoke in such a way, said King, that it became obvious he had “been reading my tweets and knew all about me.”
And King said the agent made reference to his “case,” indicating that whatever this was it was ongoing and longstanding.
Again, King might be controversial, but he’s no terrorist. Granted, some conservatives, citing uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson and random cop shootings in Baton Rouge, New York City and Dallas, are ever eager to conflate Black Lives Matter with violence. But that’s specious reasoning – like conflating the mainstream pro-life movement with violence because of deadly shootings and bombings by anti-abortion fanatics in Birmingham, Wichita, Colorado Springs, Brookline and Pensacola.
And anyway, CBP never accused King of terrorism. So, one is hard-pressed to explain what happened Monday as anything other than a clumsy attempt at political intimidation, the government’s unsubtle way of letting a critic know that Big Brother is watching. I asked a CPB spokesperson if the government is monitoring Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization and how that squares with the First Amendment.
In response, I received a written statement which said in part: “Each traveler must present themselves to CBP for inspection in order to be admitted to the United States of America. This was a routine inspection typical of daily operations at our ports of entry across the nation. CBP treats all international travelers with integrity, respect and professionalism while keeping the highest standards of security.”
Bad enough the statement did not address the questions I posed. But … “routine”?! Is this kind of thing really routine?
All I can say is that I’ve traveled to 13 countries and it’s never happened to me. A friend who’s journeyed to 25 countries said she’s never experienced anything like it. Another, who’s been to over a hundred countries, thought it outrageous. And King himself told me that he understands random and routine screenings, but “This was not that.”
It certainly doesn’t sound like it. Indeed, one feels the ragged breath of authoritarianism moving the hairs at the nape of the neck. One hears George Orwell whispering, “I told you so.”
Some people will think King’s politics justify what happened. But short of calling for or engaging in violence, nobody’s politics justify it. Sure, he’s a controversial guy, but guess what? In America, you have that right. What happened Monday should induce us to remember just how important our rights are.
And how fragile they can be.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.