John Brennan walked into Portland International Airport Tuesday evening with every intention of boarding his Alaska Airlines flight to San Jose. But when he got hassled at a TSA security checkpoint, something snapped -- or rather unsnapped. He stripped all the way down to his birthday suit because, as he puts it, "my civil liberties had already been violated."
"Our civil rights are being eroded slowly, and TSA is one of the ways that's happening," Brennan says. "I knew that I could use the power of being naked to bring visibility to that issue."
Brennan's hefty nude form has certainly been made visible. Since his arrest was first reported by The Oregonian Tuesday evening, he says he has been "bombarded" by media requests, and he has already appeared on CNN and every local Portland TV news station. The audacity of his protest -- coupled with amusing details from the police report like: "Some passengers covered their eyes and their children's eyes and moved away from the screening area, others stepped out of the screening lanes to look, laugh and take photos" -- turned him into an instant Internet celebrity.
Brennan works in the Web industry, and he says he flies about once a month for business. He routinely refuses the full-body scanners, meaning he often is subjected to a frisking. Such was the case this time around, only with one key wrinkle: the TSA thought he might have been carrying a bomb.
Brennan says after he was patted down, a TSA agent swabbed his hands with a small piece of fabric. This was likely an Explosives Trace Detection, a relatively new procedure that tests for bomb-making chemicals. For some reason -- he's not sure why -- his test came back positive.
"There was this sort of growing number of people around me and mumbling in the background," he says. "They were starting to gather my stuff up and I'm like 'What's going on?' I found out I tested positive for explosives. I said, 'I don't have any explosives, here you go,' and started taking off my clothes."
Brennan says he has only disrobed in public once before, to participate in the World Naked Bike Ride in Portland, but shedding his clothes he felt like he "was entering a serene state." He recounts trying to keep his cool, and being oblivious to the gawking bystanders until he was in cuffs and being escorted through the terminal.
All told, Brennan estimates he was naked for no more than 10 minutes. The arresting officers brought a drape to cover him up, and he got most of his clothes back after he was placed in a holding cell in the bowels of the airport. "For some reason they seemed to not be interested in giving me my socks," he says.
Other than occasionally grumbling about invasive TSA searches on his Twitter feed, Brennan says he's not affiliated with any of the larger civil liberties groups or anti-TSA groups such as The Identity Project (the folks that supported Seattle's Phil Mocek in his fight against the TSA last year), and he doesn't plan on staging another full monty demonstration. He needs to continue flying (there is a very real possibility he could be added to the no-fly list) for work, but says he is proud to have raised awareness about airport security overkill.
"I have a right to be treated decently," Brennan says. "I don't want to make things disorderly at airports, but if our legislators aren't going to do anything, and our government agencies aren't going to do anything, it's up to us. This is what democracy looks like. I'm fighting for my rights. Especially with the advent of corporate personhood, I don't have millions of dollars to influence the process. This is what I can do. Well, this and vote."
Perhaps come November, Brennan will decide to cast his ballot in the buff.