Mariam Jukaku is a 24-year-old graduate student in journalism at Syracuse University.
After her photography class on September 6, she started to do her homework, which was to take pictures around campus. She's a Muslim American, and was wearing brown pants, long sleeves, and a brown scarf.
As she walked on the sidewalk toward her car, she passed the VA hospital, so she tried out her camera, taking pictures of the VA entrance and the flags hanging above it.
"I was there for about five or ten minutes," says Jukaku, "and I was turning away to leave and a woman in a blue uniform came up to me really fast, and said, 'You can't take pictures here,' in an authoritative, demanding voice. Before I could even get another word in, she said, 'Give me your camera.'
"I must have said something like, 'What?' Because I didn't even process it, and she said, 'Give me your camera now!'
"So I gave her my camera, and she was kind of looking at it, and she didn't know how to work it, and so she said, 'Set this up so I can look at it.'
"I showed her the playback camera, it's a digital, and I showed her how to scroll them. She looked at all of them, and then said, 'Delete these in front of me right now.'
"They were the pictures of the flags and the entrance. At that point, I didn't think it was a big deal, so I deleted them.
"Then she was asking me why I was taking pictures, and I told her I was taking photographs for my class. So she asked me for my student ID, which I gave to her."
At that point, says Jukaku, another VA police officer arrived, this one a male.
"He asked for my driver's license, so I gave him my driver's license," she says. "Then they took me inside into a small little office, with a sign on it that said 'police,' and they questioned me about what I was doing there and why I was taking pictures.
They photocopied both my student ID and my driver's license. Then the male officer asked whether I was a U.S. citizen."
Jukaku said yes. She was born in Michigan.
"The male officer was telling me it was illegal to photograph federal property, and he also said I couldn't take pictures of veterans without permission," says Jukaku, adding that they objected to the fact that there were people in the background of her photos.
"While I was in the office, the female officer deleted more of my pictures, and she didn't tell me which ones," Jukaku says.
After about 15 or 20 minutes, they gave her camera back to her and let her go.
"When she took my camera, I was kind of shocked," Jukaku recalls. "And when they took me inside, I kind of got worried. Especially when they asked me if I was a U.S. citizen."
After they let her go, Jukaku was distraught. A Newhouse fellow (essentially, an intern) with the Syracuse Post-Standard, she called the editors to tell them that she would be late for the meeting they were having. When she arrived and clued them in as to what happened, they told her to contact her journalism professor.
She did. "I called him, and I got really upset," she says. "It was a traumatic incident."
"She's a very level-headed person, but at the end of the conversation, she was crying a little bit," says adjunct professor Doug Wonders, who manages the photography department facilities. "It was really sad." Wonders says the VA police had no right to delete her photos, and he calls it "extraordinary." In the 12 years he's been running the photo facilities, he's never heard of anything like this.
"Knowing that she wears a headscarf, I had to shake my head and think whether or not this had any bearing on them approaching her," he says.
In an e-mail to the South Asian Journalism Association forum, she wrote about that concern.
"When you're a South-Asian Muslim woman wearing long sleeves and a headscarf on a 90-degree day in early September, the thought that security guards are overreacting solely based on your appearance tends to creep around in the back of your mind," she wrote. "You tell yourself you're just being paranoid. But then you get asked if you're a U.S. citizen-and the creeping thought lands with a resounding thud."
When the Syracuse Post-Standard first reported on this story on September 7, the VA backed off a bit. "Removing the images that she shot was inappropriate, so we apologize," Gordon Sclar, the medical center's public affairs officer, told the paper. But then the medical center dug in.
"It is quite unfortunate that the actions of one SU student (i.e., taking unauthorized photographs while on VA property) who was not familiar with the longstanding policies/procedures became an issue (from the perspective of the student)," said James Cody, Syracuse VA medical center director, in a prepared statement e-mailed to me on September 17. "The verification of the student's identification (a procedure which requires photocopying the forms of identification) established the innocence of the student's intentions. The assessment of unauthorized photographs of patients' faces elicited the request to delete these images from the camera's memory card. The deletion of the remaining photographs was not requested, nor required. . . . The VA Medical Center's police officers handled the matter according to accepted federal practices."
The Syracuse Post-Standard saw things differently. "Note to VA: It's Still a Free Country" was the headline on its September 9 editorial. "Hospital security overreacted throughout the incident," the paper wrote, 'curbing a journalist's-or anyone's-right to take pictures in a public place." Calling their action "over the top," the paper wrote: "The hospital needs to give its security guards a crash course on the rights of citizens in a free country."
Don Cazentre, regional editor for the paper, says: "We don't believe that the authorities have the right to dictate what someone standing on the sidewalk, as she was, does with a camera."
Jukaku expressed her own beliefs in a column she wrote for the paper on September 16, entitled, "A question of guarding freedoms."
"I am only asking to be treated like an American who lives in a country where we are free to practice our religion, free to speak, free to publish our ideas, and certainly free to take pictures in a public place," she wrote. "This is the America I was raised in, the America I believe in, the America I challenge all of us to invest our hope in." Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.
© 2007 The Progressive