There is a sense of helplessness that victims of crime experience, when someone with overwhelming force does something to them that they can’t stop, they can’t prevent, they can’t fight. We live our lives in the belief that we have control over our physical integrity, and when that’s violated despite our most strenuous desire that it not happen, and there is nothing we can do about it, we realize that our sense of autonomy is a delusion. We are helpless.
We can’t eliminate the existence of bad people. Criminals who beat, rape, murder. All the wonderful expressions of love and joy are crap. They exist. And their existence doesn’t cease because we want to pretend they don’t, or rationalize why they do. When someone hits you over the head from behind with a club, your first thought isn’t their impoverished upbringing.
But when the violent predator isn’t some bad dude on the street, but a person wearing the uniform of your country, when his weapon isn’t blunt force from behind but the authority your government gives him to act upon you, against your will, or suffer the consequences, it’s different. This isn’t the criminal who exists despite your best wishes. This is your government at work.
Tameika Lovell was retrieving luggage at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport when Customs and Border Protection officers detained her for a random search. It was Nov. 27, 2016, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the school counselor from Long Island had just returned from a short Jamaica vacation. Lovell, who is black, had been stopped before, but this time a CBP supervisor began asking questions she hadn’t heard previously.
“Don’t you think you’re spending too much money traveling?” Lovell, 34, recalls a CBP supervisor asking.
A few points, not that they should matter but they do. This was no immigrant entering the United States from some country on anybody’s terrorist list. This was an American, a school counselor from Long Island. Like your kid’s teacher. She took a vacation to Jamaica. A lot of people from Long Island do so, as they offer some great vacation packages and it’s a short flight to a lovely time at a Jamaican resort. I’ve been there numerous times, and always enjoyed myself.
Unlike Lovell, I’ve never been stopped entering the country. CBP has always been courteous to me and my family. We barely get a look, and usually get a “welcome home” and a wave. Lovell did not get a smile and a wave.
Inside a secure room, Lovell’s litigation alleges, a female CBP officer searched Lovell’s belongings, presumably for illegal drugs, and asked if she was using a tampon or sanitary pad. The question upset her, but Lovell replied “no” and complied when told to remove her shoes, lift her arms and spread her legs.
Drugs seems the most likely reason, but they didn’t specifically ask the “do you have any drugs on you” question. Why drugs, anyway? Because she was coming from Jamaica and might have scored some ganga? Because she didn’t have a couple of kids in tow on her vacation? Because she was black? One wouldn’t think being a school counselor on Long Island would make the alarm bells go off, so why would anyone suspect Lovell of anything?
As a second female officer observed, hand on her firearm, the lawsuit says, the first officer touched Lovell “from head to toe” before ordering her to squat. Lovell was clothed, but the lawsuit claims that the officer squeezed Lovell’s breasts, and, “placed her right hand into [Lovell’s] pants ‘forcibly’ inserting four gloved fingers into plaintiff’s vagina” before parting Lovell’s buttocks “for viewing.”
This was an American citizen, on American soil, confronted by American law enforcement officers with a gun paid for by American taxes. And without even the benefit of a neutral magistrate deciding that whatever cause might exist, a violation of her body could be conceivably warranted, a woman in a Customs and Border Patrol uniform digitally raped Tameika Lovell.
Lovell isn’t the first, or the only, person violated by CBP. It’s not just adults, but also children who suffer the indignity of CBP’s enjoyment of force. They even have a policy about it.
The CBP handbook says officers should “weigh all factors” before an officer, who should be of the same gender, searches a minor. Officers are told to seek parental consent for a strip-search and refrain from touching or inspecting a minor’s body cavities. If a parent refuses consent, officers should seek advice from CBP legal counsel.
Except they don’t seek advice. They just do it, because how are you going to stop them from raping your child? And when they come up empty, because the drug dog is a joke that gets a good laugh from puppy-loving judges, the woman, the girl, get to go home and it’s as if they were never raped at all.
I’m well aware of the reasons why authority is conferred on CBP agents to search. After all, who wants demon weed to be introduced into our pristine, drug-free America, right? And it’s their job to stop it, at all costs.
But do you repose such absolute faith in the intelligence, the “weighing all the factors,” the sensibilities of government agents to decide on their own whether today is a good day to insert four fingers into the vagina of your wife, your mother, your daugher? Your granddaughter? By what strained rationalization is the rape of a woman, the rape of your innocent grandchild, the lesser offense against a person?
You can’t prevent a bad dude from being a criminal, but then we have laws against it and punishment when it happens. Yet, we rationalize why rape performed at the whim of a government agent is somehow different, clothed in our righteous authority in the name of law. The only thing missing is the club to the back of the head right after they say “welcome home.”