The Austin Chronicle

Border Security Expo

High tech gizmos, low tech protesters

By Andrea Grimes, May 30, 2008, News

Last week, technology geeks, security experts, politicians, and protesters convened Downtown for the second annual Global Border Security Conference & Expo. The powwow at the Austin Convention Center featured border-minded speakers and demonstrations of the latest technology available to anyone with serious spying needs.

The conference's tagline: "Billions to be spent this year on border security. Are you securing YOUR share of this market?" Exhibitors came from all over the U.S. to show off their wares, ingenious and occasionally terrifying gadgets. There was the little computer that could detect radioactive activity, the periscope that could thermally sweep a vast desert, and the unmanned camera that could sit in sand for months until seismic activity triggered its recording device.

There was little doubt about precisely which border the conference was predominantly concerned with; few exhibitors showed gadgetry tailored to track humans in the snowy forests of the Pacific Northwest. A sprawling "CANADA!" display with tall cardboard signs – in French and English, bien sur – looked like nothing if not a tourist information booth. It was this implied bias, as well as the emphasis on profiting from a political situation as controversial as illegal immigration, that brought out Austin's Immigrant Rights Coalition in protest at noon on the conference's second day.

Chanting, "Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! The border wall has got to go!" a group of about 50 protesters of all ages, some pushing strollers with toddlers, held signs outside the Convention Center entrance. One poster read "5000 DEAD," which is the number of people organizer Caroline Keating-Guerra said had been killed crossing the southern border of the U.S. Others carried white crosses showing the names of deceased illegal immigrants who died crossing over from Mexico; still others passed out fliers rebuking anyone who sought to profit off the increased militarization of the border.

When the mayor of Eagle Pass, Chad Foster, walked into the protesting crowd, there was a tense moment as he asked what they were doing there. Foster had been at the conference to speak on "virtual" fencing. "We don't want a wall!" shouted enthusiastic Lisa Fithian, a gray-haired, sandal-clad woman who was one of the first to arrive. "We don't want one either," said Foster, tipping his cowboy hat and walking away with a small entourage. The protesters continued their chants.

"Do we really want to profit off death?" mused Jose Orta, president of the Taylor chapter of the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens, whose members journeyed to Austin for the protest. "These are people who want to work," said Orta of the border-crossers. Orta said he believed that America had "other fish to fry" and that concentrating on a militarized border was shameful, asking again, "Can we profit off blood?" It was a sentiment shared by many of the protesters, including Fithian, who led a charge of protesters into the Exhibition Hall, breezing past a miffed geriatric security guard. Some silent, others chanting, the protesters looped around every walkway, between exhibitors hawking surveillance cameras and data-analyzing technologies. Apparently excited to be able to actually use the stuff for a change, many of the exhibitors took digital photos of the procession. If the protesters were united in their indignation, conference attendees seemed to be united in bemusement. Smiling and shaking their heads, the guys manning a Textron booth with information on their radioactivity-screening technology said they thought their own goals were no different from those of the protesters.

"This isn't about money," said Textron representative Brian Adlawan. "This is about protecting their right to protest." If borders aren't secure, he said, increased militarization and denial of civil rights will be the next step. If there was to be a terrorist attack on America because of a lax border, "then you're going to get all kinds of military responses."

Other conference attendees were less kind. Watching the protest outside through the Convention Center's glass doors, a pretty blond woman in her business casual best remarked, "Protests are on the ignorant side," before retreating into the Exhibition Hall. By the end of the lunch hour, however, the protesters headed home, and some exhibitors were starting to pack up, ready to get back to business as usual, peddling rock-climbing desert vehicles and cameras concealed in Coca-Cola cans.

Taking home the award for best in show was SRATS Inc. That stands for Stealth Reconnaissance/Assault Transport System, and the hulking Hummer-like vehicle was indeed a major attraction. Able to climb 80-degree inclines, with an optional thermal camera periscope, the SRATS is cheaper than a military-grade Hummer and goes twice as fast, able to hit speeds of up to 110 mph. "In Afghanistan, terrorists are driving little Toyota pickups," explained Paul Roundy, a SRATS spokesman, and Hummers and tanks can't keep up. But the SRATS can keep up and overtake a target, Roundy said. Thrilled about his award, he huddled together with his fellow SRATS guys for a good-natured, thumbs-up photo-op with their best in show.

Outside, the few lingering protesters were anxious to know if they'd had any impact on the conference attendees inside. This reporter relayed what one of the exhibitors had said as the protest procession passed by his booth: "That's the most people I've had come by here all day."

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