Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Racial Profiling & Surveillance

Frank Pasquale

You may have heard about "multiple passengers holed up in the bathroom" of a plane flying on Sunday, which "led to F-16s shadowing . . . it [as it] neared Detroit." Turns out that the false alarm was sparked by a "half-Arab and half-Jewish" woman who sat between two South Asian passengers:

[O]n this flight she was sitting by chance in a row with two Indian-looking passengers, neither of whom knew the other or knew her. But collectively they aroused the suspicion of other passengers or crew, and when the plane landed, heavily armed troops stormed aboard, handcuffed the three of them, and took them off for extensive questioning. After which they were eventually released with "no charges filed." Which is fair enough, considering that like everyone else on the plane they were simply trying to travel from Denver to Detroit and had done absolutely nothing wrong except to have "suspicious" looks.

Here is her first-hand account:

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?". . . .

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?

Combine this with Vance Gilbert's "flying while black" story, and any number of others, and you do have to wonder about how easily the racialized paranoia of a few can be given the full backing of the government (if only for a few hours of fright for the victim while he or she is cleared). Having recently looked into some aspects of the surveillance state, I have to wonder: do these incidents generate secret "Suspcious Activity Reports" for the publicly vindicated victims? Are they a mark against them in some undisclosed TSA or fusion center databases? The FBI justified its Detroit action by stating "The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not." Is there any way for targeted minorities to assure that the public's irrational discrimination is not empowered and advanced by law enforcers who are willing to "see something" when anyone "says something?"

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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