Coming through TSA can be a hassle, but it is meant to protect everyone involved. Security measures changed drastically after 9/11 and continue to change each time there is a new threat. While most people understand that the slight bit of inconvenience makes overall travel safer, there will always be those who try to fight the system. In Portland, OR one traveler pushed TSA too far as he stripped naked to protest.
The naked protest occurred five years ago as John Brennan became frustrated when he set off alarms at the airport. He had made a personal choice not to do any electronic scan but instead asked for a physical pat down. This refusal was very much a sign of fighting the system. Brennan stated:
“I choose to opt out of the body scan — one, because it is optional, and two, to allow TSA to understand that not everybody wants to comply with their technology. When this was happening, there were machines in place that were reported to be able to show a pretty accurate naked picture of someone through their clothes. I believe that if everyone chose to opt out, it would break the system and we would find a better solution to airport security.”
After his attempt to “break the system,” a skin swab alerted TSA agents to the possibility of chemicals being present. Next thing the officer knew, Brennan was naked in the airport. Just as his opting out of the screening was a protest, him getting naked was argued to be the same. TSA agents did not see this odd behavior as being an acceptable form of protest at all.
Brennan argued in court for five years that he had the legal right to express himself by getting naked in the airport. A judge finally put that idea to rest as he ruled against this “right.” The judge made it very clear that this type of protesting was not legal or necessary. The entire five years of court proceeding was to fight a $500 fine from the airport. According to the ruling:
“Brennan’s core contention is that stripping naked in the middle of a TSA checkpoint is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. But Brennan fails to carry his burden of showing that a viewer would have understood his stripping naked to be communicative. Therefore, his conduct is not protected by the First Amendment.”
During the last five years, Brennan has gained a lot of media attention for his antics. To be fair, it seemed from the beginning he was pushing for some confrontation with TSA. He refused to follow the standard TSA procedures as they usually use machines to perform the screening. During a manual search, he was tested for chemicals and set off alarms.
According to Brennan:
“I was traveling for work, heading to the San Jose Airport. I traveled regularly and as usual I opted out of the electronic screening and chose a manual pat down. I received the pat down and the TSA officer checked residual on his gloves for chemical residual and they’re testing for explosives. I was cooperative, I waited, I heard the machine go off. I sensed something was taking longer. I asked the officer what was going on and he informed me I tested positive for explosives. That concerned me because I can’t remember when, if ever, that happened before. I asked him what kind of explosives and he said he could not tell me but his supervisor could. His supervisor walked over to me and I asked and he said I tested positive for nitrates.”
At this point, Brennan had already opted out of the regular screening and forced the issue of a pat down. He also had somehow tested positive for explosives, and this put security on high alert. Instead of then trying to cooperate further, the traveler took things an entirely different direction. Brennan explains:
“I was somewhat in shock but still very calm and I decided the easiest way to address this and to protest this likely false positive of me carrying explosives was to remove my clothing. So in a very calm state I removed my clothing. They asked me to stop and I knew I was within my rights in Oregon to protest naked. I disrobed and waited for my screening to continue.
TSA again asked me to put on my clothes. I said, ‘I believe I’m within my rights to be here.’ And at some point they called the Port of Portland Authority police and I explained to them that I was protesting and that it was my right to be here disrobed in a form of protest. They disagreed. They had me arrested, they handcuffed me, they shielded me, they draped me – they found something to wrap around my waist to hide my protest — and take me through the airport to the jail cells that are waiting in the back of the airport.”
Even though Brennan seemed to be surprised by the efforts of TSA to follow up on the positive test for explosives, he did not appear to understand his behavior was far more shocking. As the court stated, this was not an obvious protest but just a mix of spontaneous and odd behavior.
As Brennan gained public attention, he described his airport strip down as a religious moment. In his words:
“I was not scared. I was maybe nervous. It was a new experience. I’ll say that the half a minute of taking off my clothes was the closest that I’ve ever come to being in touch with a higher power. It was just the most serene, empowered, easy moment I probably have ever had, because it was the right thing to do.”
Equating his out of line behavior to a religious awakening of a sort is oddly enough not the strangest thing Brennan has said about this short tantrum. In a recent interview, he compared his protest to the works of groups like Black Lives Matter. Even though this group was not around at the time this event occurred, Brennan explained his behavior as a tribute to their cause. A 50-year-old white male naked at the airport seems to be a sign of the greater good.
In a recent interview after losing his court case, Brennan attempted to keep his actions relevant by making the connection between him stripping down and Black Lives Matters. In a closing statement, he said:
“Black Lives Matter has really been in the news lately. I want to say my protest was an example of me using my white privilege, my male white privilege, to take on a force greater than myself. And I encourage men out there, and white people out there, to use some of your privilege. Because I can’t imagine what would have happened if a person of color had done what I did. I don’t think it would have had as good of an outcome. As a person who acknowledges his privileges, I was able to take a stand and be heard. I encourage other people to stand up for their rights.”