Strange customs

Jérémie Bédard-Wien is a Montreal-based activist who participated in the mass student strike that rocked Quebec in the spring of 2012. He was a co-spokesperson for the student union Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) that played the leading role in the struggle, and he now works for the Association of McGill University Research Employees. Earlier this month, on a trip to the U.S. to speak at the Left Forum conference in New York City, he was detained and interrogated. In an article written for Rabble.ca, he describes what happened.

Quebec students on the march during student strike in 2012Quebec students on the march during student strike in 2012

"DID YOU know the Bolsheviks murdered Rosa Luxemburg?"

Until a recent trip to the United States, I never expected this question to play a role in border security.

June 6, 2013. I head to New York City to speak on a panel about student struggles and debt at the Left Forum, a gathering of progressives from across North America. Waved over to U.S. officials at the Pierre-Elliot Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, I expect the usual questions and prepare myself for the usual answers. If "Socialism 2012" didn't raise an eyebrow, why should the "Left Forum 2013" get me into trouble?

"A political conference, you say? The Left Forum? What will you be speaking about? Were you part of the student movement? Why would Americans be interested in that?" asks the grey-haired officer we will call Customs Officer 1. He escorts me to secondary inspection.

The room is divided in two. On one side, an empty row of chairs and a clock; on the other, Customs Officer 2, and the luggage I checked in half an hour earlier. I am to wait until my name is called. At this point, I am nervously thinking back to the morning packing. Could some innocuous item incriminate me? The clock indicates my flight would depart in less than 30 minutes.

My name is finally called. With little ceremony, Customs Officer 2 empties my carry-on, revealing an old copy of Harper's Magazine, a computer and a few documents. He hands Harper's over to Customs Officer 1, and starts asking questions.

"What is the Left Forum about? Are you one of the leaders of the 'red square' movement? Where do you go to school? Were you ever arrested?"

Then he finds the jackpot. A good friend has taken up the habit of giving plane letters to fellow travelers, not to be opened until the flight reaches cruising altitude. She has written this one drunk, and indeed, it makes little sense for Officer 2, until he reaches the last page.

"I hope you won't sleep," he reads aloud, "as there are much better things to do than sleeping when going to a socialist conference."

My mind races. What if the officers picture nefarious plots instead of innocuous nightlife?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

CUSTOMS OFFICER 2 raises an eyebrow and moves to the next document. The logo of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation adorns the description of my panel, "Fighting Tuition, Fighting Debt." Officer 2 is alarmed by the content. His colleague is alarmed by the logo.

"Did you know the Bolsheviks murdered Rosa Luxemburg?"

Officer 2 leaves the desk for the photocopy machine, letters and documents in hand. I am left with Customs Officer 1, the history buff. A surreal exchange ensues. Here I am, wondering if I am going to be granted access to the United States, and Officer 1 wants to discuss early 20th century Russian history. He wonders which Left I identify with, describing the different factions vying for control in 1917. Is it polite conversation, or a new line of questioning, straight out of a McCarthy-era training manual? I go with the safer option and fake disinterest.

After more back and forth, Officer 1's curiosity is piqued by the migration patterns of American Loyalists --he warmly recommends the writings of Victor Serge, provided "it's just history" and writes down the name on a sticky note. Serge, ironically, wrote another book called What Everyone Should Know about State Repression.

Customs Officer 2 comes back and opens my luggage, to check if I "didn't bring any riot gear." With a little over 10 minutes before departure, I am let in through the gates.

The luggage doesn't follow. I miss my flight.

Damn you, Rosa Luxemburg.

First published at Rabble.ca.