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One man's fight to be left alone

York Daily Record/Mike Argento | April 12 2005

John Gilmore didn't set out to be what some have called the Rosa Parks of the post-9/11 era.

He's just a regular guy, albeit one who made a ton of money during the dot-com boom, who likes to question assumptions.

"It's not so much questioning authority, but questioning everything," said Gilmore, a York native who's lived in San Francisco for the past couple of decades.

It's a trait that he's honed over his 49 years, one that's caused him a fair amount of trouble, in addition to making him a bundle of money, and is now the stuff of a federal lawsuit.

He didn't start out to become a symbol.

He merely asked a question.

He was flying out of Oakland — the less expensive of the two major airports in the Bay Area — on the Fourth of July, 2002, when the clerk at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter asked to see his ID.

He asked why.

The clerk said it was required.

Again, Gilmore asked why.

They discussed the matter, and the clerk finally marked his boarding pass with several "S"s, which alerted security people down the line to search him.

He got to the gate without incident — passing the security check at the entrance to the concourse. When he got to the head of the line to board the airplane, the boarding crew pulled him from the line and asked for his ID. He asked why and asked to see the rule of law that requires him to show ID to board an airplane. Nobody there could say specifically what law required it, and so they called for a supervisor.

The supervisor came over and tried to straighten things out.

It didn't go well. The guy said Gilmore had to show his ID or he wasn't getting on the plane.

He refused to show his ID.

The plane left without him.

Later, the supervisor told Gilmore he wasn't allowed to board the plane because he had ID and refused to show it.

Gilmore asked whether he would have been allowed on the plane if he had said he had forgotten his ID.

The supervisor responded with some double-talk, saying he didn't say that, even though, in so many words, he had, according to Gilmore.

So to recap, since he had ID with him and refused to show it, he was barred from the plane. If he didn't have ID with him — "if I gave them a story, I forgot it at home, my dog ate it, or I left it in the taxicab," Gilmore said — he would have been permitted to board.

It's that kind of logic that bothers Gilmore.

What bothers him most, he said, is that the idea of asking for ID isn't to check your identity but to check your obedience to pointless authority.

"I went to public schools," Gilmore said via telephone from San Francisco. "And we were taught that the countries that made people show their papers to travel were evil, totalitarian states. I wanted to see if my country had turned into that."

One of those public schools was York City's Devers Elementary.

He attended Devers when he was young, and his father, William Gilmore, worked at Allis-Chalmers as a mechanical engineer. The family lived in the Fireside area of York before moving to Bradford, Pa., when John was 9.

Gilmore's mother, Pat, said, "He's always been different."

Even now, as a multi-millionaire, his mother says he wears jeans with holes in them. Money, Pat said, "doesn't mean anything to him."

Which is to be expected since he has a lot of it.

Gilmore dabbled in computers when he was in high school. When he got out of high school, he figured out people would pay him to dabble with computers. He worked for a few companies and then joined friends on the West Coast who were starting up a company called Sun Microsystems. Sun Microsystems is the company that essentially invented the software that makes the Internet run. He left Sun and started his own company. He sold that company and is now kind of retired, except for the various causes he's involved in.

"Every time I retire, it seems I find a way to be even busier than before," he said.

He's involved in a variety of causes — from civil rights to reforming drug laws to standardizing computer voting machines to freeing political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

A recent story about Gilmore in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made a reference to Rosa Parks, something that makes Gilmore chuckle.

All he's doing is questioning the assumptions. Why do you have to show ID to get on a plane? And why would you be permitted to get on the plane if you said you forgot your ID and not allowed on if you said you had ID and refused to show it? Is it really about ID? Or is it about something else?

He said he is fighting for the long-established right to be able to travel without restriction, the right of every American, as one Supreme Court Justice once wrote, "to be left alone."

It's that whittling away of rights that bothers him.

He remembers seeing a posting on an Internet site discussing the case written by a person from Eastern Europe, a person who lived under the Soviet regime, who claimed that showing ID was a sign of a police state. Others objected to the characterization, saying if we lived in a police state, we'd know it.

The person from Eastern Europe wrote, "A police state doesn't tell you it's a police state."

And the reason is always security.

Gilmore isn't buying it.

"In a country of 300 million people, there are what, 12 guys intent on doing harm," he said. "So the government makes the 300 million people show their papers to travel rather than doing something about the 12 guys."

And that logic bothers him.