The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Held Suspect: Flying While Brown

This story brings back some memories. [Via Daily Kos.]

Police temporarily detained and questioned three passengers at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport on Sunday after the crew of the Frontier Airlines flight from Denver reported suspicious activity on board, and NORAD sent two F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it landed safely, airline and federal officials said.

The three passengers who were taken off the plane in handcuffs were released Sunday night, and no charges were filed against them, airport spokesman Scott Wintner said.

Frontier Flight 623, with 116 passengers on board, landed without incident in Detroit at 3:30 p.m. EDT after the crew reported that two people were spending "an extraordinarily long time" in a bathroom, Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuck said.

FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said ultimately authorities determined there was no real threat.

It’s not that my experiences have been as intense that what these people experience, but I’ve known for a long time how easily it could have been me, and still could be.

The "Move on, folks. Nothing to see here," tone of the AP article doesn’t give you quite the full story about what exactly went down and why. The crew had concerns about two of the three passengers spending "an extraordinarily long time" in the bathroom.

OK. I’ve known people people to spend forever in the bathroom. Or it seemed like forever, because I really had to go and was waiting for them to come out already. And while I might have considered taking extreme measures to get them out of the bathroom, none of them involved a SWAT team, K-9 units, and two F-16 fighters like the ones that were scrambled to escort the plane from Denver to Detroit.

So what spooked the crew so much that these people had to be escorted off the plane in handcuffs? What could warrant two fighter planes, a SWAT team with machine guns, K-9 units, handcuffs, and several hours of being detained and interrogated?

You have to read the account of Shoshana Hebshi, who was one of the passengers and who also happens to be a blogger.

Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen–bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations.

My last tweet:

Majorly armed cops coming aboard

Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. “Can I bring my phone?” I asked, of course. What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers! No, one of the cops said, grabbing my arm a little harder than I would have liked. He slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.

The cops brought us to a parked squad car next to the plane, had us spread  our legs and arms. Mine asked me if I was wearing any explosives. “No,” I said, holding my tongue to not let out a snarky response. I wasn’t sure what I could and could not say, and all that came out was “What’s going on?”

No one would answer me. They  put me in the back of the car. It’s a plastic seat, for all you out there who have never been tossed into the back of a police car. It’s hard, it’s hot, and it’s humiliating. The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat. I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on. I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away.

Go and read the rest of the account, including the strip search.Then imagine it happening to you.

Imagine being taken away in handcuffs.

  • Imagine the looks from other passengers whose only image of you is now as the "suspected terrorist" or "suspicious person" taken off their flight in handcuffs.
  • Imagine them telling their family and friends about it. Imagine them not knowing the reason why, but assuming that "there had to be a good reason" for all the hubbub. 
  • Imagine being detained and questioned for hours, without ever being told why.
  • Imagine sitting and waiting, all the while listening to the others being questioned and strip searched, knowing that your turn will come soon.
  • Imagine hearing officers discussing your strip search.
  • Imagine being told to turn and take off your clothes while facing the wall.
  • Imagine being asked to understand this.
  • Imagine being told by the people in control of the situation that they have to do this — make sure your orifices are clear —  "for our own protection."
  • Imagine then being questioned about where you were and why, about your family, your education, your job, your address, your Social Security number, you Twitter and Facebook accounts, and whether there was anything suspicious about the people detained with you.
  • Imagine being told they’ve already done a background check on you.
  • Imagine then being fingerprinted, your personal information (height, weight, place of birth, etc.) recorded.
  • Imagine that at this point you still haven’t been allowed to call your family and let them know where or how you are. In fact, you don’t have your phone or any of your other possessions. You haven’t even been allowed to go to the bathroom.
  • Imagine getting your phone back being asked to show officers your Facebook and Twitter posts.

Then imagine it happening to you because of how you look, who you happened to be sitting next to, and because you went to the bathroom.

Again, I asked what was going on, and the man said judging from their line of questioning that I could probably guess, but that someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity. What is the likelihood that two Indian men who didn’t know each other and a dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage would be on the same flight from Denver to Detroit? Was that suspicion enough? Even considering that we didn’t say a word to each other until it became clear there were cops following our plane? Perhaps it was two Indian man going to the bathroom in succession?

You’ve never been in trouble before. This is your first run-in with the law, and just for those reasons listed above you are "held suspect." You are treated like a criminal, until proven otherwise.

I don’t remember how old I was the first time it happened. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old. We were in Philadelphia — my mother, my younger sister, and I — visiting my great grandfather on my mother’s side of the family. For my sister and me, it was our first time traveling that far from home, and our first time in a city like Philadelphia. Everything amazed us, from the size of the buildings, downtown to the narrow little houses on my great great-grandfather’s street, with no yards to speak of and no space between them; so different from our suburban home back in Augusta, GA.

Even going shopping was different. Instead of driving to the store, my mom pushed her grandfather’s folding cart a few blocks to a store a few blocks away, and we followed her. The store was a wonder unto itself; on the outside a rowhouse like the one my great grandfather lived in, but on the inside there were long, narrow shelves holding food, toys, and other items we’d never seen before.

Our mother had told us time and time again not to touch anything whenever we went shopping, but we couldn’t help it this time. We picked up toys and candy and other items, exclaiming to each other to “come look at this.” Until it happened.

I heard the shopkeeper before I saw her.

“Put that back!” a female voice shouted. “What are you doing in here?! You better not take anything, ’cause I’m watching you.” I looked up and into the anger-twisted face of a large, angry white woman.

We too much in shock and too frightened to say anything. I don’t remember what else she said, but I’m pretty sure she called us theives and threatened to call the police. I looked around for out mother, who hadn’t realized that we were no longer behind her. I didn’t see her for a moment, and then she appeared, no doubt drawn back to the front of the store by the commotion. She flashed us a look, and apologized to the shopkeeper (who was still giving us an angry look as we left the store with our purchases). It wasn’t until we ere out of the store that our mother explained.

The shopkeeper thought that we were stealing from her store. We didn’t understand until mom made it clear: the shopkeeper assumed because we were two black children we were going to steal from her store, and that’s why she treated us like criminals.

It was a lesson I never forgot, and one that’s been repeated throughout my life. I thought about that first time when I read this article from CNN’s Black in America series, about how being black automatically means being suspect.

Apparently, there are some new rules for "Flying While Brown" since the phenomenon took off after 9/11.

  1. Go to the bathroom before you get on the plane.
  2. Whatever you do, don’t go to the bathroom on the plane. Just to be safe, don’t eat or drink for 24 hours before takeoff.
  3. Pray you are seated next to at least one white person or, better yet, seated between two white people. (Since this may be beyond your control, all you can do is pray.)
  4. Don’t fly on the anniversary of September 11th. You’ll just make people nervous and put yourself at risk of having a really bad day.

I didn’t experience anything like the above, but there was a period after 9/11 during which I was selected for "random search" nearly every time I flew. There was only one time I can think of that there was good reason. (I’d arrived late at the airport, missed my flight, bought a one-way ticket home on my cell phone while standing in line at the ticket counter, which I then picked up minutes later. As for the other times, given the frequency of those "random searches," I can only think of three reasons why I kept getting pulled. (1) It was after 9/11. (2) While not Arab, I am African-American; that is, brown-skinned. (3) I stood out even more because at that time I sported shoulder-length dreadlocks.

Maybe it was also because I was traveling alone. I wasn’t, really, because I was usually traveling on business and with at least one or two colleagues. These days, I have a much more low-maintenance, kid-friendly ‘do, and I’m more likely to be traveling with my family. I’d like to think that might exempt me from "person of interest" status for the reasons above.(Not if Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern happens to be on the plane. She thinks gays are a bigger threat than terrorists. Given what Sally Kern thinks about black people, I’m sure she’d have Homeland Security on my black, gay ass in a minute, because she assume I was there to bring down the plane just like she said people like me brought down the economy.)

But experience tells me otherwise. I know better than to assume that.

I understand people being anxious around 9/11, but a SWAT team, K-9 units, and two jet fighters because some dark-skinned people who didn’t know each other sat next to each other on plane (in the seats the airline assigned to them) without speaking to each other the entire time, and a couple of them stayed too long  in the bathroom? (How long is too long anyway?)

Mark Sumner said it best in his post at DKos,.

This is not precaution, it’s paranoia. It’s not safety, it’s cowardice. It shouldn’t be America 10 years after 9/11, but it is.

And it’s not an isolated incident, as Shoshana made clear in her post.

I hung up the phone and followed the officer out of the cell and into another small room where the male FBI agent was waiting accompanied by another FBI agent–possibly the head honcho on duty. He said the three of us were being released and there was nothing suspicious found on the plane. He apologized for what had happened and thanked me for understanding and cooperating. He said, “It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.” He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like.

He said there had been 50 other similar incidents across the country that day.

In post-9/11 America this still how we roll. Remember that. Those of us who will eventually, inevitably be guilty of "Flying While Brown" can’t forget it. We will be reminded.

One Comment

  1. I hope Shoshana has the best lawyers in the country throwing themselves at her, and that this goes to trial and she gets an award that keeps her comfortable for the rest of her days. Remember: had this been done to her by anyone else, the police would be searching for the perpetrator and booking that person on charges of sexual assault.