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Ankle-cuffed for 18 hours!
In the Land of the Free
Lesley Woodburn tells The Socialist about how her attempt to join the 15 February NYC demo turned into a nightmare
WHILE MILLIONS marched in the historic worldwide 15 February demos, I was being ankle-cuffed for nearly 18 hours at New York's JFK airport.
So how did I miss out on the world's biggest ever peace marches? On Valentines Day I traveled from Heathrow as a Virgin Vex Courier, a contractual arrangement where I take documentation on board my flight and hand it to a Virgin representative at JFK. I've done this before for various airlines.
Having lived in the US, I'd made life-long friends and meant to go on the march on the United Nations HQ in New York.
At JFK, the courier took me to immigration, where an official looked over my EU passport and sent me to the immigration office. There an immigration official called A Depaurde took my passport and asked if I could recall a three-day overstay on a USA visa some seven years ago.
I said yes, although I'd re-entered the country, with a run up to Canada and back to NY, paid the US officials my fine for my overstay (no receipt was given) and had returned several times since.
"I'm sending you back", Depaurde cut in. Stunned I asked why? "That's an improper way of re-entering the States lady", said Depaurde's sidekick, a guy I'll call Basin Cut as he didn't wear the obligatory name tag.
"So why did the US authorities let me in subsequently", I asked. "We don't care about that, I'm sending you back. Now I want you to swear a statement. Raise your right hand", Depaurde announced.
"Swear?" I asked. "To me and to God", said Depaurde. Even if I was religious I'd have a problem with that statement. "I want to phone a lawyer and doctor, if you are now questioning me," I said in an 'I know my rights' tone.
"What the fuck are you talking about lady", piped up Basin. "Do you have money for a lawyer or a doctor?" I said I was adequately insured for both and won't be swearing to anything without one. "You'll be waiting a long time then ma'am".
"You want me to swear to you and to God? I'm not a US national, I'm not in a US court of law, and I'm not religious. I want a phone call". "Not until you answer my questions". I answered some questions but wouldn't sign the statement.
Strangely, my parents became a topic of conversation. Depaurde insisted they were Jamaican residents in the UK. "Actually my dad's dead but both were and are British nationals".
Eventually I was allowed to give the Virgin rep the certificates and fulfil my contract but I was truly a Vexed Courier. The people in this room, Asian, African, US black nationals (and French!) were compulsorily fingerprinted and told "We don't want you here, we are sending you back home".
Meanwhile, Virgin did not have room for me on their outgoing flight. I told them: "I fulfilled my end of our contract, now you get me on any flight to the UK and get me out of here".
Depaurde smirked and said I was lucky if I got out tomorrow as Virgin flights get pretty full up. I spent a miserable night sitting bolt upright in a plastic chair with ankle-cuffs cutting into me.
Democracy and human rights
In the morning the room starting filling up again. Irene, a Lithuanian woman, had been wearing her cuffs since 4pm the preceding day. Abdul and Raheem behind me had been cuffed for two days.
Soon we were joined by Jeanette and Marsha from Ghana and Elizabeth from Gambia. They inquired about our cuffs - a female official dangled two shiny ankle-cuffs in front of them. They looked at each other and began crying.
Soon others joined us, overwhelmingly Hispanic, Asian, African, Caribbean, eastern European and US black nationals. Some were released, some detained, most were fingerprinted, and a healthy contingent joined us in our chain gang.
A British consulate official rang me - from New York's UN building, surrounded by tens of thousands of anti-war protesters. But he was no help. Another couple of calls then an immigration official said: "No more calls for you. You've had far too many". "So how many's too many?" I asked. "You've had it".
17 hours later I was deported on Virgin's 7.30pm flight to Heathrow. Virgin officials kept my passport saying "It's procedure". At Heathrow I met Rachel, a Heathrow immigration official, who was shocked by my treatment.
"How do you treat those detained at Heathrow?" I inquired. "Well our law doesn't let us handcuff or place leg restraints on anyone detained and we must offer them something to eat and drink hourly".
Traveling back from the airport, listening to radio reports of the peace marches I felt I'd missed out big time. And isn't the war supposed to be in defence of democracy and human rights?
In The Socialist 28 February 2003: