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MBTA Begins Searching Passengers: Act Now!

Guest post by Michael Coy

The MBTA is, once again, taking the liberty of saving us from ourselves. Three weeks ago, T police began searching passengers for…anything suspicious. According to the policy, drafted in 2005 (which, notably, was not instituted until now—only a matter of weeks before a very contentious gubernatorial race comes to pass), the searches are designed to “prevent potential attacks while honoring the spirit and the letter of the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Having stated such intent in its introductory paragraph, one might think that the policy was created with some respect for the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which addresses privacy rights) in mind. One would be very wrong, however: Nowhere in this policy is it stated that MBTA police are prohibited from either reading or inspecting any printed or written materials you may have with you, demanding personal information to prove your identity or citizenship status, or arresting you for carrying personal items other than explosives.

I note the latter because a recent ruling in the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals (whose jurisdiction includes New York City), in short, allowed that police could search for explosives in the New York City transit system. New York City’s search policy was based on Boston’s search policy, which was originally conceived prior to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. New York’s policy, however, is quite narrow in its scope. Boston’s current policy (the content of which the public has no access, incidentally) is not narrow. For instance, if a scanning machine is not available to the T police in these searches, then trained dogs will be used. If neither scanning machines nor trained dogs are available, then the T police may detain you and search through your belongings. You do, of course, have the right to refuse a search, but then you must leave the station (or exit the train at the next stop, if the search is conducted on the train itself). Also, some T police have also been trained in what have been termed “behavioral assessment techniques”—also known as profiling. What kind of behavior they are the looking for? This is a very good question, but no answer is really forthcoming. They are on the lookout for “suspicious” behavior.

As with most issues of import in our society, this is by no means a cut-and-dry affair. There is much debate, even among those in Boston who do not support infringements upon our civil rights (including strongly leftist civil rights lawyers), concerning the pros and cons of random searches when there is no imminent threat. I will not discuss the finer points here—both because I am not an attorney and because this post is meant to be somewhat brief—but the current response is to educate the public about their rights in this oft-celebrated democracy. Thus begins my current involvement with this issue.

The National Lawyers Guild is a progressive collective of activist attorneys, law students, and interested others (myself included). The Guild is most well known for representing individuals stained by the Red Scare. They are quick to respond when threats to civil liberties arise. We are challenging the policy because of the great potential for both abuse of power toward and oppression of already marginalized peoples in the United States. This political action begins this Wednesday, October 25, 2006, and continues (during business days only) through Tuesday, October 31, 2006, from both 6:30a to 9:00a and 4:30p to 7:00p—the heaviest travel periods on the T.

If threats to civil liberties issues resonate with you, then I highly encourage you to participate in this education project. I speak as a queer man who does not think that oppression begins and ends at the wedding chapel, and as one of many who participated as a foot soldier, passing out flyers and “I DO NOT CONSENT TO A SEARCH” buttons, two years ago. This also serves as a great opportunity both to meet more of your fellow humans and to talk to some of them about their concerns, hopes, and fears. As with all volunteer work of this kind, it can be a bit heartbreaking to realize that many people turn a blind eye to, or ever scorn, the civil liberties-informed side of T searches. However, the beacons of hope do peek out from the murk periodically. The point of such work, in my estimation, is to illuminate rather than to indoctrinate. We are targeting T stations that see larger populations of non-White and/or lower income passengers—those who are more at risk for profiling and detainment for no other reason than their appearance, etc.

We are in great need of volunteers. More information, including locations, dates, and times, may be obtained by sending an email to

D. Michael Coy, who is currently coordinating the MBTA Education Project for the National Lawyers Guild, has been a queer activist in both Chicago and Boston. He is currently in the process of obtaining his social work licensure and resides in Arlington, Massachusetts.


Anonymous said...

I heard dildos were illegal to carry in Boston due to some obscure law. Is this true? Could a person seriously be arrested now if they are caught with one?

Anonymous said...

Related but not directly addressed in the post - can people be forced to show an ID or leave the T?

Just wondering how this would affect the trans folks and undocumented folks who do not have ID.

D. Michael Coy said...

1) Regarding the sex toy question: It is my understanding, based on a discussion with the director of the Guild in Massachusetts, that if it is not illegal to sell sex toys, then it is not illegal to carry them. Of course, police do all sorts of things based on what they "think" rather than what the law actually states.

2) Regarding the forced ID presentation, etc., according to both the law and the T search policy of 2005 (again, they won't give us a copy of a possibly revised 2006 policy) the police cannot ask you for ID. HOWEVER, if you refuse a request made by an officer, they will most likely ask you to leave. If you refuse to leave, you can be arrested for trespassing. This is what we call "f*cked up". This is a HUGE problem for immigrants and trans- people, which is part of why this is such an important issue, in my estimation.

D. Michael Coy said...

CORRECTION: In the T search policy of 2005, ID presentation is not even MENTIONED. Technically, they are not allowed to do so by law, but the policy does not expressly prevent them from it. Sorry for the confusion!

Trevor said...

Hey Michael!
Thanks for clearing up the ID question! My question is what would/ should i say if I wanted to decline a bag search?

D. Michael Coy said...

"I do not consent to a search." They may not listen to you and do it anyway. If that happens, call the NLG at 617.227.7335.

Sandouri Dean Bey said...

what a pleasant surprise to find you on queer today. great post.

D. Michael Coy said...

And what a pleasant surprise to see that you've read it, Dean!

It's nice to "see" you.


Anonymous said...

FYI--the Westboro Baptist Church (the God Hates Fags people) are coming to Boston for a memorial service for Congressman Studds.