HBLR railfanning => police action. Personal impressions (700096)

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Posted by Stefan on Sat May 1 19:14:06 2004

To add to a recent thread on a railfan arrest in Albany, here, for a change, is a first-hand account of what actually happened to my friend and myself yesterday, 30 April, in Bayonne, as a result of our taking pictures of HBLR trains.

Executive summary: We were stopped by police for a polite conversation which lasted about an hour, involved the two of us and about ten people whose paychecks come from our money, and resulted in us being sent on our way after both of us agreed to delete (and, of course, were checked to respect the agreement) ALL pictures from our (digital) cameras.

It kind of started out wrong when an operator of the train a picture of which we were trying to take sounded a long "Booooooo!!" with his horn, and reached for his wireless. The next episode was at the Liberty State Park station, when an orange-vested security guard told us, "Your liberty just doesn't happen to extend to taking pictures here." (OK, OK, the actual phrase used was "you guys can't take pictures here.") By the time we arrived to 22nd St., I guess the system was on full alert and quite ready to deal with the obvious threat just mounting before their eyes.

The conversation started as usual, a Bayonne cop approaching, followed soon by a colleague, IDs, SSNs, occupation, status, calling Al Qaeda Directory Assistance (or so I believe) to see if we happened to be listed - then the fun gradually unfolded. First things first, let's state it here so there's no further misconception: We were stopped because we were taking pictures of SOFT TARGETS. So, from now on, if you are caught railfanning and asked what you are doing, you shall reply: "I am taking pictures of soft targets." Got that? Good.

Naturally, we were asked to hand over our cameras so our protectors could share in the railfan part. Here comes my Big Slip of the Day... Remember that big thing being completed on Hudson & Essex, by the waterfront? Well, LGA-bound planes yesterday were flying right behind that building - if you stay on the inland side of it. Pick the right moment, and you've got a picture with a plane flying right into the thing. You've guessed it - here we have a cop staring at such a picture that my faithful camera obediently showed him. You should've looked at his expression.

Did that turn them on, or they'd been thrilled enough irrespective of that - be that as it may, that's when reinforcements started to flow in. All in all, we had the pleasure of meeting: the two cops' boss, our friend the security guard from LSP, about three NJT cops (who were, incidentally, the least interested - stood there without speaking a word as far as I recall), a couple of fare inspectors, and The Plain-Clothes Guy on whom more later. That adds up to what?.. uhu, ten. I think it is generally believed that you should be mounting an offensive at no less than 3:1; here we were at 5:1. Nice to realize that these guys know a thing or two about tactics.

To give credit where it's due, the conversation was quite polite all the time through, and more than once were we told that we were not being accused of anything, and even that (believe it or not) they didn't believe that we were terrorists. (To give further credit where it's due, one of the cops did at one moment say, "You see, if you were being accused, you'd be in handcuffs by now.") Why the fuss, then? Quoting almost verbatim: "Four years ago, no one would have paid any attention to what you were doing. But *you know what the times are like right now*. Obviously, if someone is taking pictures of soft targets, we have to make sure there's nothing, you know, in the making. That's exactly what we are doing."

Well, here's one thing that they might not know. There used to be a country. A big country. Bigger than this country, as it happens. I was born there. In that country, since 1917, times were always or almost always we-knew-what. Specifically, that country was surrounded by a ring of enemies (the enemies weren't terrorists, but they were worse - for they actually exploited the working people, not to mention a number of other grave sins), and we in that country had to watch out - because the enemies didn't nap; they were constantly making plans to annihilate us, the leaders of the free world, the prophets of democra... excuse me, that was of course communism. And so we all had to be alert. Errmmm, by now I think I forgot why I recalled this.

Anyway, so we spent about an hour talking to these nice gentlemen, the gentlemen walking away and making calls to various undisclosed locations and engaging in some undisclosed conversations, until the crown jewel aka The Plain-Clothes Guy appeared on the scene. I think they announced him as the local antiterrorist expert or whatnot - to be honest, by that time I was somewhat lost in the panopticum and was not quite so alert (very, very bad of me! Well, I'm still considering turning myself in for the loss of alertness. My revolutiona... no, democratic consciousness does hurt me; can I build my defense around this, at least?). The Plain-Clothes Guy was sort of sharp and terse (I suspect he wouldn't be allowed to wear plain clothes otherwise), and presently came The Offer of the Day.

The terms of The Offer of the Day went as follows. Either
(i) you surrender your cameras (or just the CF cards), which we will take with us to the appropriate office, examine what's there, and return to you at some unspecified point in the future,
(ii) you erase all your images here and now, and that will end our conversation, with the two of you actually being allowed to set your own course.

At the end of the day, we agreed that we should have surrendered the cards had their capacity been 128M, we would have had the right to hesitate at 256M, but probably did the right thing with the 512M cards that we both had :-) We're not exactly millionaires after all. Still, somewhere in the back of my mind there's this uneasy feeling of having subjugated without being guilty of anything. Then again, I happen to be a busy person, and contacts with the FBI or whatever that could be, are not on my calendar for the next few months. What would you people do?

To top off a long story, a practical question. Does anyone know for sure, *with reference to sources*, whether it's legal to:
(i) take pictures of HBLR trains while standing on public property (I'm rather sure I know the answer! But still...);
(ii) do same while standing on publicly accessible NJT property, like station platforms (trespassing is a separate and clear matter, of course)?

Unfortunately, even if my friend and I had the time, it doesn't look like we have a case against our polite companions, with no property having been seized, and with us having erased those images voluntarily. Still, I'd love to know. For one thing I'm now certain about: Not overexcited as I used to be about that particular system, now I *will* come back there and take those pictures again. Probably not tomorrow, but I will.

I'm not a US citizen, but had I been one, here would come one vote against Mr Bush.

Well, perhaps one or a few will come anyway, if any of those who read or hear my story, get the message.


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