Now It's Personal
April 11, 2005 12:59 PM   Subscribe

If you had any doubt, "homeland security" is not being used as an excuse to silence dissent in today's America, I submit to you the case of Willie Fontenot. A personal hero of mine and others, Willie has worked for decades, gently and with integrity, from inside Louisiana's state corporate government for the cause of environmental justice. But no more, he has been forced to resign from the state Attorney General's office for refusing to capitulate to corporate goons (literally!) harassing a group of students taking pictures of an oil refinery. [via BoingBoing]
posted by If I Had An Anus (34 comments total)
I apologize if my post has a perspective you (yeah you) find unseemly. I am seething.
posted by If I Had An Anus at 1:00 PM on April 11, 2005

Being allowed to document potential pollution may just as well be terrorism. Don't you know how much I'm spending to fill up my SUV? Those kids should be packed off to Gitmo Summer Camp.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:02 PM on April 11, 2005

I have no comment, except to say that the poster has a rocking handle. Please resume your current outrage.
posted by RakDaddy at 1:05 PM on April 11, 2005

There's a difference between levels of government in the US and private corporations now?
posted by clevershark at 1:14 PM on April 11, 2005

We're all a little nervious in this post 9/11 world.
posted by delmoi at 1:17 PM on April 11, 2005

I guess it's just a matter of time before they start indefintely detaining U.S. Citizens without charging them and/or giving them access to an attorney.

oops! never mind.....that's already started.
posted by The Infamous Jay at 1:30 PM on April 11, 2005

Awful story, but good to see folks starting a fund to help him continue his work. The "you can't photograph industrial facilities" thing is such a crock of shit. I had it thrown at me once when I was videotaping graffiti on trains near my house. These goons don't even know the law they're supposed to be defending.
posted by mediareport at 1:31 PM on April 11, 2005

I think from now on security guards should unconditionally accept anything anyone tells them.

Also, we should refuse to identify ourselves to guards and police people and heck! state officials so that they don't know who we are and what our business is - even if they feel uncomfortable about our activities related to things like oil refineries or any other potential security vulnerability!

Wow! Citizenship doesn't have any inherent obligations! &%$# the government and/or state and/or the man! Yeah! Rock and Roll!
posted by ewkpates at 1:32 PM on April 11, 2005

If you're going to work for the police, you wear a police uniform. If you're going to work for ExxonMobil, you wear ExxonMobil's uniform. Is this not exactly the same thing as impersonating a police officer? If I get stopped by rent-a-cops, I'd feel fine leaving the area without fear of being charged with evading an officer or some such, but if I'm stopped by a uniformed officer, I'm not nearly as likely to hop in my car and drive off no matter how insane the circumstance might be.

No, this isn't impersonating a police officer. If you are a police officer, you are one when you're on duty and you are still one when you're not. In addition, it's common for police officers to moonlight as security, and to wear their uniforms while doing so. There are plenty of problems that arise from this, of course, and this particular case sounds like one more.
posted by me & my monkey at 1:32 PM on April 11, 2005

Wow! Citizenship doesn't have any inherent obligations!

ewkpates, you seem to have missed this part:

Mr. Fontenot explained, however, that while the police had every right to stop and ask people who they were, standing on public property and photographing facilities was perfectly legal.

And this:

"We were less than impressed," said co-instructor Abigail Abrash Walton, "when one of the officers falsely stated that three of the students had gone on company property and then falsely claimed that we were refusing to turn over our IDs."

You don't seem to have a point here. Beyond being a jerk, that is.
posted by mediareport at 1:56 PM on April 11, 2005

I think from now on security guards should unconditionally accept anything anyone tells them.

If the person they're confronting is on public property, posing no threat and breaking no laws, then yeah, this is pretty much their only option.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:59 PM on April 11, 2005

Citizenship doesn't have any inherent obligations! &%$# the government and/or state and/or the man! Yeah! Rock and Roll!

Here is a pretty good definition of a "straw man" argument. Please read, if of course it's not past your bedtime already.
posted by clevershark at 2:07 PM on April 11, 2005

To get dios right ewkpates, you should have questioned the credibility of the source and asserted that we're probably not getting the whole story much less the real story, that in fact, these people most likely behaved is a disturbing manner that warranted such attention.

Try again.

I'd say that these people are a great example of citizenship taking their obligations as citizens very seriously.
posted by juiceCake at 2:07 PM on April 11, 2005

I'm so tired of reading stories like this. But please keep posting them. It's important.
posted by grouse at 2:13 PM on April 11, 2005

Wow! If the government uses homeland security as an excuse to quash civilian oversight of corporate malpractice then they're effectively removing the primary organs of democratic dialog and national self-awareness. It's hard to blame the local police. I'm sure they don't understand the big picture and the conflict of interest. But this does point out just how closely big business and the government are allied. Apparently it's a thin line between national security and protection of corporate profits, or have they now become the same thing? Judging from the number of PACs and their influence in Washington I would say the latter.
posted by gallois at 2:16 PM on April 11, 2005

Since when has it become illegal to take pictures of large inanimate objects that are in full public view. Like oil refineries, or bridges or...
posted by scheptech at 2:23 PM on April 11, 2005

subways, or . . .
posted by hackly_fracture at 2:27 PM on April 11, 2005

To get dios right ewkpates...

Stop giving lessons! We have enough of these as-is. Heh.
posted by davejay at 2:28 PM on April 11, 2005

It's really important that we don't make pictures of Exxon's Baton Rouge Chemical Plant available.
posted by donovan at 2:37 PM on April 11, 2005

You mean you can't take photos of a giant facility in plain view to anyone in a five mile radius? Crap like this makes me hate law enforcement, and I shouldn't ever feel like that.

Donovan : It is indeed very important.
posted by Vaska at 2:46 PM on April 11, 2005

Giant Corporations + Homeland Security = HolyFuggingSheeet!

Thanks for posting this.
posted by Outlawyr at 3:05 PM on April 11, 2005

Yeah, this isn't good.

I don't see it as a problem with Homeland Security per se, but instead as a conflict of interest between the duty of a cop and the duty of a security guard for a major corporation. What disturbs me is not the excuse the guard gave, but how much power Exxon apparently has with the AG office of Louisiana.

And yes, it would be nice to here another side of the story.
posted by sbutler at 3:11 PM on April 11, 2005

You could see this as corporate vs individual power as well. The individuals weren't doing anything illegal apparently but somehow that doesn't matter since there's a corporate entity involved.
posted by scheptech at 3:36 PM on April 11, 2005

The private pay. This is all over the place in Louisiana. The cops are allowed "private details" where they make a lot of money and the city, town, whatever pays them meagre wages. A cop doing a private detail in a bourbon street strip bar can make 200K / year if he puts in a lot of hours there. Obivously ungood.

Arguing with cops. Don't ever do it. Tell your story to the judge after. Your parents told you this when your were around twelve, right? Unless you are determined to be a social activist civil disobedient hero. Many cops are assholes.

That has nothing to do with bad homeland security law. None. Apples & Oranges there.
posted by bukvich at 3:45 PM on April 11, 2005

Exxon Mobil - Fuck Yeah!
posted by pieisexactlythree at 4:28 PM on April 11, 2005

In all seriousness though, the power dynamic in this situation does raise some questions about corporate personhood (among other things). Afterall, what we have is the apparatus of the state (cops) acting on behalf of a legal entity (Exxon-Mobil) in a way that is unthinkable for actual individuals, save perhaps the very rich.

A dude standing outside my house with a camera might raise some legitimate fears that he wants to come back later and rob me or worse, but I'd have a hell of a time trying to get cops to go and hassle him over it. It all reeks of a very smarmy alliance between the interests of the state and the economic powers that be in that community.
posted by pieisexactlythree at 5:33 PM on April 11, 2005

That has nothing to do with bad homeland security law. None. Apples & Oranges there

I know the post was rather jumbly, but there's no mention of homeland security "law" in it. Rather, If Had an Anus postulated (I think) that homeland security is being used as an excuse for some very unacceptable behavior by law enforcement at every level (see that Best Buy counterfeiting story).

When asked by the course instructor about what actions he would be taking in filing a report about the group, the off-duty sheriff's department officer refused to answer, and instead responded aggressively that he was going to call in "homeland security" people who would detain the group into the night.

Like other law enforcement officials, they're using the boogeyman of "homeland insecurity" to scare people who have not committed nor been charged with a crime. Are they using "homeland security" as an excuse? Well, we are all a little nervous in this post 9/11 world...

On preview: as soon as I saw the mention of off-duty officers in uniform, I knew it was Louisiana. I've heard stories about police getting in fights with off-duty police working security for clubs. Now I actually believe it.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:43 PM on April 11, 2005

Self-post, but a friend e-mailed me a tale of his experiences trying to take pictures of the railroad tracks around DC, despite the fact that he was a railroad employee, carrying documents from the railroad, explicitly stating that he had permission to photograph on railroad property. I posted it here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:19 PM on April 11, 2005

I suspect there's more to this story. If the Attorney General fired him after the security-slash-police filed a complaint, it certainly suggests that the security-slash-police might have had some legitimate basis for obstructing the photography.

As other posters observed, it's not as if there aren't all kinds of other vulnerable infrastructure in this country which it is now illegal to photograph, from any vantage point, including public rights of way.

Anyone who suggests that an oil refinery ought, solely on the basis of its private ownership, to be less well-protected from terrorist threats than other kinds big-explosion-large-toxic-plume infrastructure just isn't thinking straight.
posted by MattD at 6:22 PM on April 11, 2005

Odinsdream -- don't get me wrong. I'm as unconvinced as you of the merits of anti-photo-taking policies. However, their merits aside, these policies exist and are widespread, and there's no evidence of particularlized enforcement of them to defend private infrastructure (refineries) as opposed to public (bridges, etc.) or application of them against students. Indeed, policies like this hardly work if they're only enforced against suspicious looking characters.
posted by MattD at 6:51 PM on April 11, 2005

MattD, take a look again at the google map donovan posted. Better yet, try this satellite map: yes, those are homes literally across the street from the large-toxic-plume infrastructure. The students were taking pictures on the street outside the home of last woman in the community who hasn't been forced to relocate by their neighbors to the west, Exxon Chemical.

Chasing people off who are taking pictures is not protecting anything. It is hiding the reality of what has happened to this Cancer Alley community and dozens more like it. It is state-sponsored thuggery for corporate profit and it is ugly.

It is, of course, much worse than what they've done to Willie, who frankly I'm surprised lasted as long as he did. But is still stinks what they did to Willie.
posted by If I Had An Anus at 6:55 PM on April 11, 2005


I have met Willie Fontenot and he is an amazing person who has worked for many years to improve Louisiana's quality of life. I'll be contributing to the fund set up for him, pronto.

Eight years ago, my husband was harassed for taking photos (from a public road) of the Mississippi River intake pipe that supplies tap water to New Orleans. A uniformed guard demanded his film, my husband declined to give it, and we drove away.

My husband is a lawyer and knew there was no law against what he was doing. He did not argue. He simply followed the law.

But according to the security guard at the New Orleans water treatment plant in 1997, the citizens of N.O. weren't supposed to know that their water source is one of the most polluted rivers in our country. Why should this matter since the water is supposed to be treated to "drinkable" standards before it leaves the tap?

At the time, the answer for us was "it doesn't matter and the guard is a jackass." We also took photos of oil refineries in Cancer Alley and were not challenged.

Okay, sure, maybe the Homeland Security bullshit is just serving as extra justification for rogue cops. But that Homeland Security bullshit now ensures that rogue cops have a "legitimate" way to randomly detain passersby, get people fired for no reason, and so on.

If oil refineries think they are likely to be targets of terrorist attacks, and if they think such attacks are likely to be preceded by people openly taking photos from public sidewalks, well, then -- why the hell don't they simply build 30-foot solid walls around their facilities so we can't see inside?

It doesn't matter if Exxon Mobil has a "policy" on this or not. There is no local, state or federal law that protects these private facilities from public viewing.

The company has the right to shield their facility with walls, fences, mutant bougainvillea vines, et cetera. The company does NOT have the right to force neighbors and passersby to shield their eyes or shutter their cameras.
posted by naomi at 7:20 PM on April 11, 2005

As other posters observed, it's not as if there aren't all kinds of other vulnerable infrastructure in this country which it is now illegal to photograph, from any vantage point, including public rights of way.

I'm surprised at this, what's large, outdoors, and visible under nomal circumstances that's illegal to take pictures of? Is there a list someplace? How does a person ensure they remain law-abiding, leave the camera at home?
posted by scheptech at 8:09 PM on April 11, 2005

naomi sounds reasonable... but politics gets people fired all the time, and no special laws are required. Additionally, and I can't emphasize this enough, people who carry guns professionally are generally touchier about pretty much everything, then, say, your average irritable drive-thru employee.

They kinda have a right to be. Hand over your license. Say "thank you sir". Remember, improbable as it may seem, they might take a bullet for you sometime.
posted by ewkpates at 6:41 AM on April 12, 2005

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