TSA Watch: Why underwear protests really embarrass you

TSA Watch: Why underwear protests really embarrass you

I‘ve been covering the TSA for more than a decade, and as you can imagine, I’ve seen the agency do some strange things. I wrote about a few recent incidents last week.

But that’s nothing compared with the behavior of the TSA protesters.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the only way to stand up to outrageous behavior that violates your constitutional rights is to be outrageous. And truth be told, I agree with these protesters more often than not.

It’s just that their tactics are, um, a little odd.

Exhibit A: last week’s demonstration at the Manchester, N.H., airport. The characters in this video (above) who call themselves Kelly Voluntaryist and Derrick J. Freeman (their real names? Who knows!).

It’s not that they’re handing out leaflets to protest the TSA’s scans, pat-downs and other procedures that “strip” us of our rights. It’s not even that they’re doing it in their underwear. No, it’s that they’re here in February.

Have you ever taken a walk in your underwear during a New England winter? (I haven’t, but it must be c-o-l-d.)

Briefs and bikinis have a long tradition, when it comes to TSA protests.

Corinne Theile, a.k.a. Bikini Girl, made headlines in 2010 when she stripped down to a bikini to protest the TSA’s invasive new searches. Last Thanksgiving, she returned to the skies.

Theile says she refuses to use the TSA’s body scanners, which she believes are dangerous. And she’s reluctant to undergo the alternative, which is a pat-down, because they are often performed incorrectly by TSA officers. She prefers to reduce the amount of clothing she wears through a checkpoint — ergo the bikini.

Late last year, when she resumed her scantily-clad demonstration, she had worn her swimsuit on 7 flights over the past 12 months to protest the TSA’s screening methods.

If you’re wondering — does anyone get into trouble for this? — then meet Morris Malakoff, who showed up in his tightly whities for a flight from Seattle last fall.

“It got me a $500 fine plus the cost of an attorney and eating the ticket,” he told me. “I now fly from Vancouver or take train to Portland and fly out.”

How about Aaron Tobey, a University of Cincinnati student who removed his shirt before walking through an airport checkpoint a few years ago? He had an abbreviated version of the Fourth Amendment written on his chest. He was briefly detained and later sued the TSA.

When TSA began installing the full-body scanners and forcing travelers to choose between a pat-down and a scan (ah, Thanksgiving 2010 — who can forget that?) it brought out quite a few underwear protesters, actually.

Jason Rockwood showed up at the security checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport in New York dressed only in undershirt, boxer shorts, and slip-on shoes. Not as impressive as the ladies of late, but he had intended to dress only in plastic, and that would have been something.

“At the end of the day I don’t think it’s a very dignified process to go through the procedures that [the TSA is] using,” Rockwood told a New York FOX affiliate, “and so I’m dressing this way to be undignified on behalf of all the people that are submitting to these rules.”

One blog even suggested that men wear kilts through the screening area. But then, who owns a kilt?

Tammy Banovac had a few issues, too. She was briefly stopped from flying when TSA agents discovered an unspecified problem near her, uh, bottom.

I know what you’re thinking: Has anyone taken all their clothes off to protest the TSA? I haven’t heard of any such action, although it was briefly being contemplated.

Most of the passengers reacting to these protests seem embarrassed. They smile awkwardly and they look away. Many of them, I’m sure, have nightmares about showing up to the airport in their underwear (“Oops, I knew I forgot something!”) so these actions hit a nerve.

But I think they’re really embarrassed that these demonstrations are necessary in the first place. If the TSA wasn’t microwaving and massaging air travelers, then none of this would be necessary. At some level, maybe they feel responsible.

Maybe they should. After all, many of them voted for the Congress that created the TSA 10 years ago, and few of them now are willing to stand up to the agency and its police-state tactics. It’s the passengers who do nothing that should be most upset about the protesters who bare almost everything to show that airport security has gone too far.

That’s certainly how I feel when I see someone standing on their principles in their underwear. I cringe.

I wonder: Is this the only way to get the TSA’s attention? Could the more modestly-dressed passengers who agree with the protests have done anything in the last decade to keep this from happening?

What could I have done?

And then I remember that there was, and there still is, something I can do. We have a presidential election in a few months. And I can take action that’s more effective than any underwear protest: I can vote.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Jonathan Potter

    The Republicans created the TSA and the Democrats sustained it.
    Who are you voting for exactly?

  • TonyA_says

    Ron Paul?

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Voting is completely meaningless, on this issue and most others.  No candidate is going to do anything about the TSA or the entire rights-trampling National Security State.  Even Ron Paul, who, yes, has been outspoken against these abuses, wouldn’t be able to dismantle the system.  He would still have to deal with the clueless Congress and a huge rigid bureaucracy that is now well entrenched.

    Hats off to these protesters.  (And yes, Chris, there was an all-nude protest — in Germany, November 2010.)  They’re doing great work. But it’s going to take a lot more people, doing a lot more things, resisting in many different ways, to get these abusive procedures changed — if they ever change.  

    At this point, so many millions of people have demonstrated they’re willing to put up with anything, no matter how degrading, as long as it offers the fantasy of security.  Why would our overlords ever scale it back?

  • http://www.pipdigital.com Nancy Dickinson

    With Obama being so fond of executive orders, why doesn’t he do something the people REALLY want and dismantle to completely revamp the TSA to become an agency that doesn’t assume guilt before innocence, trampling the rights of the people flying AND the Constitution.

    Oh, wait…

  • Kotch11

    I’m really not sure these are protests, but just a way to get their 15 minutes of fame.  Really accomplishes nothing

  • TouchyFeely

     Voted No, but it is entertaining.  I’d rather catch these folks at LAX than ORD.

  • ClareClare

    I hear what you’re saying, Lisa, but have you forgotten about Rand Paul?  Just take a sec to imagine him as a member of the MAJORITY in the Senate…

    It is probably quite true that the TSA wouldn’t be dismantled overnight, but if there were enough Constitutionalists in the right political positions, it WOULD lead to changes.  Sure, we might not be able to completely dial it back to reasonable, but wouldn’t it be nice to return to at least “halfway reasonable”?

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Clare, Rand Paul and Ron Paul — and Dennis Kucinich — are a teeny-tiny minority.  It doesn’t matter whether Repubs or Dems control either chamber or the White House.  They’re all, with rare exceptions, cut from the same cloth.  None of them are going to do anything to rein in this agency. They’re all getting enormous contributions from military and so-called security contractors.  

    Maybe when enough of them or their family members get groped or otherwise abused, they’ll finally get it through their thick skulls, but not until then.  And that’ll take a long time.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    There are many ways to protest, not just one.  And this particular form is very creative.  It’s non-linear, non-literal, which may be why it doesn’t appeal to everyone.

  • naoma

    How did she get that dog through without it being in a cage?  

  • cjr001

    “Just take a sec to imagine him as a member of the MAJORITY in the Senate…”

    I’m trying not to, as I got nightmares last time I did.

  • cjr001

    Voting will do nothing at this point. None of the candidates truly cares about the rights of citizens – no, not even the poster-child for dismantling half the government, Ron Paul, who simply speaks out both sides of his mouth.

  • $16635417

    You have to take your pet out of the carrier and carry it through yourself. TSA regs!

  • Susan J. Barretta

    Getting strip searched and being touched against my wishes would be infinitely more embarrassing than watching a few people parading around in their undewear.  Honestly, people are weird.  People run around all the time wearing cropped tank tops and speedos. They get offended at underwear but not the beach and sportswear?  What is the difference?

    As for expecting the Pauls to do anything about TSA, I gave up on expecting any politicians to come riding in on a big white horse to save us.  Ron breathes fire on the subject;  Rand strikes me as mealy-mouthed.  They both strike me as ineffective.

    Even in the unlikely event Ron were to win the presidency, and he actually succeeded in dismantling TSA, he will then be blamed for throwing all the scanners and gropers out of work. 

    Americans, save yourselves.

  • Jerry Constant

    Your government , in usual fashion, rushed to “protect” you from terrorists. Now you have another layer of beaurocratic nonsense that no rep. in congress or senate is going to revoke.
    This is not only happening in the U.S. but in Europe as well.
    And recently returned from Shiphol (Amsterdam) and we were treated quite rudely & roughly there as well
    We are both seniors

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BB44NLQTK72Z46U7NLLJZBAGRY Natural born woman on the Land

    Whomever in NOT protesting..and refusing to go through this absurd, unneeded humiliation and road to a dystopic Orwellian future..DESERVES FEMA CAMPS and whatever they get!! End of story….

  • TonyA_says

    Save ourselves from WHAT? Maybe:

    (a) Stupidity
    (b) Banksters and Wall Street greed 
    (c) American Exceptionalism
    (d) Crooked Politicians
    (e) Lobbyists
    (f) The Mainstream Media 
    (g) SOPA, PIPA, and anything against free IP
    (h) Newt and his casino owning friends
    (i) whatever the Huffington Post says
    (j) Google doing evil

    Whew, I’m tired already. Need a 5 guys burger now.
    Maybe the TSA is the least of my worries…

  • TonyA_says

    non-linear, non-literal protest ?
    What does this mean?
    Is this new speak for Gandhi’s “non-violence”?
    How is this effective?

  • http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/ Oussama

    This is a catch 22 the Republicans created it and will not dismantle it and no Democrat will do it because he will be accused by Republicans of jeopardizing national security. Go figure

  • http://twitter.com/NSResponder John C. Randolph

    Want this to end?  Ron Paul 2012.

  • naoma

    Thanks, I did not know that.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    No, it has nothing to do with Gandhi (although the protest was obviously non-violent).  Some people are more literal minded and they respond to more literal expressions.  Some people have a more abstract, off-center, oblique way of looking at the world, and they can respond to more oblique expressions.  It’s like the difference between a straight representational painting and more abstract, some might say incomprehensible, expressionist painting.  Or a straight-ahead narrative in a novel and a more experimental, time-shifting narrative.  Not everyone likes every style.

    So a more literal-minded person might not perceive any protest in an action such as this.  He/she might prefer a letter to a Congressional rep as the only appropriate form of protest.  

    A long way of saying different strokes for different folks.  Again, there are many ways to resist, not just one.  There’s no magic bullet.

    This action got people’s attention.  The flyer Kelly and her compatriot were handing out further educated people.  You can’t change anything without educating people about the issue first.  They also used lightheartedness and humor, another great tool.

    For tons of other ways to resist, see Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, used by activists all over the world, including in Egypt:

  • TonyA_says

    Lisa, are you old enough to have been around during the Drexel scandal?
    How much do you know about the Albert Einstein Institution and its major financial contributor – Peter Ackerman? Here’s a good article on him:

    Do you really think we can trust someone who was Michael Milken’s right hand man in Drexel Burnham Lambert? Also isn’t he a hedge-fund/private equity guy? What’s his agenda?

    He is the chairman of Americans Elect 2012.
    The group is advocating VOTING.
    This is not exactly the same as you suggested – “Voting is meaningless”.

    The Albert Einstein Institution [not formed by Einstein himself] has always sought to topple dictatorships. The problem is which one? Certainly not the ones friendly to us?

    Many Americans would rather go through those TSA scanners because they perceive that the alternative is worse. They also would rather vote because the alternative is worse.

    Those who travel all over the world know that the TSA is just like any other country’s airport security. Last December I took a seven minute (small) ferry ride to a beach in Southeast Asia. My luggage was x-rayed and I went through a magnetometer. It’s everywhere, not just the TSA. In some “free” countries, your bags are checked before you can go in hotels and shopping malls. I don’t hear their citizens calling for a revolution.

    I know we hate being patted down or going through those scanners. I’m sure the TSA agents hate patting us down, too. But it seems the whole world has painted itself in a corner since no authority would want to be perceived as being weak against terrorism. I hope it doesn’t take another Albert Einstein to figure out how we can unwind this.

    In the meantime, I follow my mother-in-law’s advice. Take a Valium and wait your turn in the security line.

  • Travelerboy

    Please read edited version.

  • Travelerboy

    I have a button-down shirt made from material that wicks moisture from the skin (excellent attire for traveling in summer heat).  The shirt has metal snaps.  In Dallas, Milwaukee and Los Angeles, the metal detector detected metal (metal snaps): When questioned by TSA, I ripped the shirt open to reveal a not-too-bad-and-perfectly-harmless physique.  By the time I reached TSA in Palm Springs (in August), I knew the drill; so I took off the shirt and tossed it in the bin going through x-ray and walked shirtless through the detector–a SILENT detector.  Each TSA officer stated, “you didn’t have to do that.”  Maybe not, but it saved time for both of us.

  • $16635417

    Yep….try doing it with two cats! ;)

  • MarkieA

    Honest question, because I really don’t know. How many of these other countries you refer to have a Constitutional phrase forbidding unreasonable search and seizure? From the reading I have done, the US is quite unique in the rights its Constitution promises its citizens. THAT is why we complain when these rights are violated.

  • TonyA_says

    Funny you asked that. 
    But I went to Boracay beach which is in the Philippines. As a former US colony, the Constitution of that country resembles ours.

    Their Constitution provides people with rights against unreasonable search and seizure. The Philippines is a democracy where a dictator (Ferdinand Marcos) was kicked out by people power. [Later, they also kicked out our military bases.]

    They (the Philippines) are a perfect example of a country that Gene Sharp is talking about. Gene Sharp is the author of the work Lisa Simeone is referring to.So even countries that have demonstrated PEOPLE POWER have TSA-like organizations not only in airports but also in hotels and shopping malls. I observed that people there just merrily go about their way and simply accept it as a fact of life. No big deal. BTW, the beach was wonderful.

  • Healthcare Labor


    Spot on as always.  If more people took the initiative to protest against TSA’s asinine and unconstitutional searches, we could put real pressure on the agency to back down.

    Unfortunately all I see when I make my weekly transcon commute is sheep following sheep into the naked scanners.

    In my mind these rights violations are far more important than protesting the 99%/1% divide.  Why is no one occupying airport checkpoints?

  • DavidYoung2

    Funny how the Crazies go in a frenzy when the TSA does something, but people strip down to their skivies and the Crazies ‘applaud’ them and blame the TSA for making them do this.  Really, the TSA makes people walk around in their Fruit of the Looms?

    It’s comical to watch the nutjobs protest the ‘indecency’ of the TSA and then blame the TSA when passengers clearly push the edge of decency.  Not sure I want my 6-year old daughter next in line behind the guy in nothing but his tidy whities. 

    But then the Crazies are a flexible bunch, bending their definition of ‘decency’ to whatever will bash the TSA.  Objectivity isn’t their strong suit.

  • cjr001

    I’d ask if you know the difference between voluntary and involuntary, but I suspect we all know the answer.

  • DavidYoung2

    When you buy a ticket and walk up to the security area, that’s voluntary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

     Ron Paul.

  • pauletteb

    Trying to base anti-TSA rants on Constitutional grounds is building an argument on sand.  The good of the many trumps the whining of a few (and whatever numbers you trot out, statistically, you are miniscule).

  • pauletteb

    So you support a man who is either a racist homophobe (based on articles in his organization’s newletters) or totally out of touch with what’s going on in his own organization (if he actually didn’t know what was in those articles).

  • Annapolis2

    Any form of resistance to the TSA, any form at all, is a worthwhile effort for freedom in the face of runaway police state tyranny.  Yes, strip to your underwear and pass out anti-TSA literature.  Yes, write letters to Congress and your airlines.  Yes, blog about the TSA’s incompetence and malice.  Yes, opt out of flying and take Amtrak or your car.  Yes, object loudly and make a scene at the checkpoint when these thugs humiliate and violate you.  Yes, tell your friends why you aren’t flying.  Yes, file complaints with the TSA, every time you encounter them.  Yes, write letters to the editor of your local paper.  Yes, attend rallies and pickets and engage in civil disobedience to whatever level you can. Yes, yes, yes. 

    These acts of resistance are important!  Believe it or not, TSA is certainly feeling the heat of our anger and we can eventually triumph even though these bullies pretend to be impervious to our cries for help.

  • Annapolis2

    I’m voting for Ron Paul because he has taken a stand against the TSA.  You can vote for whomever you like.

  • Daisiemae

    Classy reply.

    I plan to vote for Senator Paul also even though I have been a lifelong Dem. Not because I think he has a chance of getting near the White House….all the hogs (congress, lobbyists, corporate puppet masters, etc) will make certain he never gets a chance to cut off the supply of slops to the hog trough.

    And not because I think Senator Paul is right on every issue. In fact, I disagree with many of his positions.

    I plan to vote for Senator Paul because I will NEVER support one of these other filthy, perverted traitors to the United States who is preying upon the innocent law abiding citizens of this country in order to line their pockets and/or cement their positions of power.

    As Lisa has pointed out, even if Senator Paul wins the election he will never be able to overcome the hogs in Congress…they’re all in on this money making machine, Dems and Reps both. But at least I will know that I did not assist these vultures in strip searching elderly women, abusing disabled people, molesting children, and forcing young women into pornography.

    From here on out, I will find the position of every candidate on TSA. I will vote for the candidate that opposes TSA and no other. If there is no candidate for that office who will oppose TSA, I will abstain from voting. I will not be a party to this sickening predation on innocent, helpless American citizens. TRAITORS TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WILL GET NO HELP FROM ME!