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The Poster Police 

A Durham student activist gets a visit from the Secret Service

A.J. Brown, a 19-year-old freshman at Durham Tech, was thanking God it was Friday. It was 5 p.m., the school week was over, and in an hour she'd be meeting her boyfriend to unwind.

Then: Knock, knock ... unexpected guests at Brown's Duke Manor apartment. Opening the door, she found a casually dressed man, and a man and woman in what appeared to be business attire. Her first thought, she says, was, "Are these people going to sell me something?"

But then the man in the suit introduced himself and the woman as agents from the Raleigh office of the U.S. Secret Service. The other man was an investigator from the Durham Police Department.

"Ma'am, we've gotten a report that you have anti-American material," the male agent said, according to Brown. Could they come in to have a look around?

"Do you have a warrant?" Brown asked. They did not. "Then you're not coming in my apartment," she said. And indeed, they stayed outside her doorway. But they stayed a while--40 minutes, Brown estimates--and gave her a taste of how dissenters can come under scrutiny in wartime.

And all because of a poster on her wall.

Though she's still a teenager, Brown is already more informed about political repression than most Americans. She's been politically aware and involved since grade school. "In second grade, I saw the Gulf War on television, and seeing those bombs drop, it did something to me," she says. "I knew from some news reports that there were innocent people dying."

In middle school, Brown became interested in environmentalism and civil liberties. She made the shift to full-fledged activist at Jordan High School when she became involved with Youth Voice Radio, a media collective with a leftist bent. Most recently, she's been involved with the movement against the war in Afghanistan.

Brown and fellow activists often discuss government encroachments on free speech and political organizing, she says, as do some of her favorite hip-hop artists. She loves her music--and that may have been what sparked the turn of events that brought the Secret Service to her door.

Brown suspects it began with the noise complaints. On Oct. 22, a Monday evening, she stayed up late playing some new CDs for her boyfriend. By her own admission, she was playing them too loud. Around midnight, a Durham police officer came by to tell her to turn it down, and she obliged.

Two nights later, someone from Duke Manor called in another noise complaint, and again a police officer came to Brown's door. This time, she says, her music wasn't playing at an offensive volume. The police officer speculated that the call may have been about someone else's stereo. During this visit, and unlike the first, the officer had a full view of the wall that faces Brown's front doorway, a detail that would become relevant two days later: On that wall hung The Poster.

Brown got it at an "anti-inauguration" protest in Washington, D.C. Distributed to hundreds of activists, it depicts George W. Bush holding a length of rope against a backdrop of lynching victims, and reads: "We hang on your every word. George Bush: Wanted, 152 Dead"--a reference to the number of people executed by the state of Texas while Bush was governor. Brown believes that the message caused the Durham policeman who paid the second visit to her apartment to recommend a third.

On Friday, Oct. 26, two Secret Service agents, along with Durham police investigator Rex Godley, came to Brown's apartment. Special Agent Paul Lalley, who did most of the talking, spoke first. "Ma'am, we've gotten a report that you have anti-American material, or something like that, in your apartment," he said, according to Brown. Then the female agent asked if they could come inside.

When Brown pressed them for a warrant and refused to allow them in, she says, "They started to talk to me about how, 'We're not here to take you away or put you in jail.' They were like, 'We need to follow up on every report we get.' I said, 'That's understandable, but how would you even know what's in my apartment?'

"They just said they had gotten information from some place," she says. She speculates that it was from the police officer who visited for the second noise complaint.

Godley, the Durham police investigator, won't say where the authorities got their tip about Brown's poster. "The only thing I can tell you is that we were assisting the Secret Service on one of their cases," he says.

Lalley referred questions about the visit to Special Agent Craig Ulmer, who heads the Secret Service office in Raleigh.

"We went in the first place because we received a tip about a threat against the president," Ulmer says. He refuses to identify the source of the tip, except to say that it was a "concerned citizen" and not a law enforcement officer. It's Secret Service policy to keep such sources confidential.

"We can't discuss who gives us information like that, because we want people to bring us information," Ulmer says. "If we burn our bridges, so to speak, we're not going to get help from the public."

Ulmer added that the poster "was in plain view, even from the window, so anyone could have tipped us off."

The agents persisted in their effort to get a peek inside the apartment. "They were being friendly, trying to get me to let them in," Brown says. After a while, Brown called her mother, an IBM employee who is in the Army Reserve. "She said to absolutely not let them in," Brown says. Not sure what else to do, Brown passed the phone--with her mother still on the line--to one of the agents.

The standoff continued, and eventually the agents explained why they had come by: "We already know what it is; it's a target of Bush," one of them said, according to Brown--apparently a reference to the poster. She informed them it was no such thing. They then said, "Well, it's Bush hanging himself." Nope, she told them.

Finally, Brown relented a bit, agreeing to open the door and show them her poster wall. "They looked in, and the lady was like, 'Ohhhh, that's not that bad.'" The male agent added, "We've seen worse."

Still, Brown's brush with the authorities wasn't over. "Since they were just gawking at my wall, I decided to explain it."

The wall features Brown's favorite art and mementos: a high-school photo project showing the perils of smoking cigarettes; a Pink Floyd poster ("It has that phrase, 'Mother should I trust the government,' so I had to get it"); posters for two Japanese cartoon shows; several pictures she took at protests and rallies; and a headband with "Democracy" on it. And, of course, the Bush-as-hangman poster.

Having seen the poster, Brown says, the agents questioned her further, asking: "Do you have any Afghanistan stuff in your apartment, or anything pertaining to that? Any pro-Taliban stuff?"

"I kept saying no," Brown says, "and I was like, personally, I think the Taliban are a bunch of assholes." With that, the investigator and the agents bid her adieu.

Brown was temporarily rattled by the visit from the Secret Service, she says, but the poster's still up, and she's still committed to her activism. "I'm definitely going to be vocal," she says. "If things get really hairy and they decide to come after activists, then I'd have to just grit my teeth and go through it."

Ulmer rejects the notion that Brown was targeted because of her politics, and he insists that the Secret Service would have checked this tip out even if it had come in before the events of Sept. 11. "We were doing our job in this particular case," he says, "and I don't think we could have done it any better."

"The Secret Service takes all threats against the president seriously, and we go out to check on every one. A citizen thought that there was a threat, and we went and talked to Ms. Brown and we found that there was not a threat." The poster, he says, was "misconstrued" by the tipster. "So it's not a big issue. The issue is that someone misinterpreted some writing."

But when "some writing" on a poster is investigated by federal authorities, constitutional issues come into play. Some legal analysts are warning that the new national security vigilance, and new laws passed to counter terrorism, might impinge on free speech in big and small ways.

"A poster of Bush, even if he's in a noose, is protected speech during wartime or peacetime," notes Alex Charns, a Durham attorney who specializes in civil rights. Such speech is all the more protected, he points out, when it's displayed within a person's home.

"If a trained police officer doesn't know the difference between political speech and a threat to the president, then we're all in trouble," Charns says. "If the Secret Service has nothing better to do than check on political posters, that's a bad sign." EndBlock

The Web sites of the American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org) and the National Lawyers Guild (www.nlg.org) offer analysis of the changing legal climate and advice for what to do if local or federal authorities come knocking.

  • Why did Durham cops sic the Secret Service on a politically active teenager?

More by Jon Elliston

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