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Charlotte activist held on $10,000 bail for revoked license, told he is on “terror” watch list

A strange thing happened in Charlotte during the run-up to the Democratic National Convention. James Ian Tyson, a local activist, was on his way to a counter-DNC protest when he was arrested for driving with a revoked license. Police held him on a $10,000 cash bond, a highly unusual sum for such a minor crime.

The Charlotte Observer describes court documents showing the arresting officer "wanted Tyson to remain behind bars during the Democratic National Convention." The arresting officer also told the court that Tyson was on a terrorist watch list. 

Tyson told the newspaper: "I'm a local Charlottean, I'm a farmer, I'm a carpenter, I'm a family member and a community member. I am not a terrorist….I haven't done anything remotely criminal involving politics."

From the Observer:

Police pulled Tyson over Sunday while he was driving to a protest.
 
Tyson said he spent roughly 36 hours in jail, about 24 of which he spent alone in small cell.
 
“My jaw dropped,” said Tyson of learning about the $10,000 cash bond.
 
“I’m thinking ‘Oh my God. They’re going to keep me in here for 50 days.’ Who has $10,000 cash?”
 
Tyson was released from jail Monday night after a judge reduced his bond to $2,500. He had called a hotline set up by members of the Coalition to March on Wall Street South for legal help.
 
Tyson said he believes his arrest was intended to keep him from speaking out against climate change during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
 
“It scares me,” he said. “It’s not going to stop me from organizing.”
 
Asked if he was going to demonstrate during the DNC, he replied: “Not now.”
 
“I think they’re watching me and looking for a reason to arrest me,” Tyson said. “I’m not afraid of police, but I don’t want to be arrested again.”
While Tyson was shocked to learn that his name is on a DHS terror watch list, he told the newspaper that he recalled being surprised by a 45 minute interrogation he was subjected to at the border upon returning to the United States from a trip to the Carribbean in July 2012. 
 
The government's terrorist watch lists are notoriously inaccurate and shrouded in troubling secrecy, immune from meaningful accountability or oversight. In most cases the only way to get off the lists is to either be a famous person (like the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who was mistakenly put on the list, to DHS' great embarrassment; or like movie star Mark Ruffalo, who it appears was targeted for his anti-fracking organizing) or to hire a lawyer and go through a long, drawn out legal process. Even if you sue the government, however, there's no guarantee that you will be removed from the list. And in in cases in which it appears as if the US government has removed people from the list, it won't acknowledge that the plaintiff was ever on it in the first place — mysteriously, however, their airport problems subside.
 
The ACLU calls the lists — containing the names of over one million people — bloated, unfair and bad for security:
In May 2009, the Inspector General of the Justice Department found that 35% of the nominations to the lists were outdated, many people were not removed in a timely manner, and tens of thousands of names were placed on the list without predicate….
 
We can't have terrorist watch lists that affect people's rights without due process — the right of innocent people to challenge their inclusion through an adversarial proceeding and get off the lists.  But no such system has been created.  A September 2009 report by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security found that the process for clearing innocent travelers from the list is a complete mess. The consequences of being mistakenly added to a terror watch list can be more severe than simply missing a plane.  Law enforcement routinely run names against the watchlists for matters as mundane as traffic stops, and innocent individuals may be harassed even if they don’t attempt to fly….
 
Bloated watch lists waste screeners' time and divert their energies from looking for true terrorists. In a report from the Virginia Fusion Center leaked in April 2009, it was revealed that at least 414 encounters between suspected al-Qa’ida members and law enforcement officials were documented in the Commonwealth in 2007. Few believe there are actually more than 400 al-Qa’ida members in Virginia; more likely there were just 400+ false alarms related to bad watch list data — which wasted innocent Virginians’ time and distracted law enforcement from their mission.
James Tyson was harassed at the airport and held on extreme bail conditions for a minor charge, all because he is mistakenly listed as a terrorist on an opaque government list. Once he found out he was on a terror watch list he decided against participating in the counter-DNC protests, fearing interactions with the police.
 
That's bad news for free speech.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.