What’ll get you interrogated these days

Nervous Nellies got a LA-to-London flight grounded earlier this week over suspicious-looking furriners. People on the flight had to spend the night in Boston:

A flight from Los Angeles to London was diverted to Boston early Tuesday after three Pakistani passengers were reported acting suspiciously, but nothing amiss was found and the three were released after questioning… the three passengers had been “acting suspiciously and making the passengers nervous.” [Link]

All 226 passengers aboard the flight were taken off the plane while it was searched… [Link]

… the FBI also interviewed the three passengers. [Link]

What’ll get you interrogated by the FBI these days:

  • Walking around the airplane to shoot the shit with your buddies
  • Talking about the news
  • Snapping a tourist photo
  • Taking carry-ons

Federal officials said the men had spent the flight walking back and forth between their seats, one in first class, another in business class, and the third in coach. Some passengers also said they overheard the men discussing the recent London transit bombings. Some said they had another passenger take a photo of them posing together in front of the Los Angeles International Airport boarding gate. Other passengers said the men checked no luggage.  [Link]

Apparently they were ‘doing much more than just walking around.’ Lemme guess: they weren’t speaking in English. Or they had free packets of peanuts stuffed in their pockets — très desi

A spokesman for United Air Lines said the men ”were doing much more than just walking around” and alarmed the crew enough to notify the captain, but declined to provide details ”because that’s considered sensitive information…” [Link]

Snark aside, we don’t really have much info here because nobody’s releasing it. I suppose there’s a chance they were putting together bomb diagrams in Morse code while hoofing it up the aisle: one tap for red wire, two taps for green; one if by land, two if by sea. But in the absence of additional information, it does seem to be the increasingly popular triumph of suspicion over common sense.

74 thoughts on “What’ll get you interrogated these days

  1. Ok my latest “brilliant” idea is to call it the “Freedom From Suspicion Ride.”

    It’s a reference to the Civil Rights era “Freedom Rides,” except much smaller and half of New York will think we’re crazy, while the other half will be offended that we’re appropriating a sacred civil rights phrase etc etc.

    If people like it, all t-shirts, buttons, etc. can simply say “Freedom From Suspicion.” That is (potentially) the brand, wear it out, wear it out, do.

    I personally don’t like “I am not a terrorist” or “I am not suspicious” — or anything with “I” or “We” on it, I can’t really explain why.

    We’ll iron out exact time and place early next week. I’ll call DRUM and AALDEF and some other folks to see if they have any interest.

  2. Or they had free packets of peanuts stuffed in their pockets — très desi

    I use a roll of quarters myself.

  3. That’s a point I’ve been trying to hammer home too SoG – that 50% of the London bombers, attempted and ‘successful’ were in fact black.

    It raises a sticky question for some Brits. Why AREN’T people looking at black people suspiciously on the Tube? It comes down to a two things in my mind:

    1 – Westerners think of Islam as an Asian religion. Most Brits probably have a Pakistani as their Muslim stereotype, not an Arab or an African. There are more Pakistanis here and the first Muslim an English person interacts with is likely to be South Asian. This point is fair enough.

    2 – The black community is better integrated into British society. Personally, I think this is beyond doubt. Of course it’s artificial to treat the South Asian community as homogeneous, but the average white Joe in England will be more suspicious of a brown face than a black one – when it comes to terrorism. I don’t think it’s JUST because of associating brown skin with Islam, I think it’s because on the whole, white people have more black friends and more interaction with black people than brown. It’s the same reason that people have treated Jews so shabbily all over the world. Any community that has strong bonds and sticks together arouses suspicion in others. Religion is a big factor. Most black people in the UK are Christian. Most brown people aren’t, ergo – foreign.

    So the question is, if Asians were better integrated into society, would we get less shifty looks? Probably not.

    On a related note, we’re justifiably upset that we’re getting stopped and searched because of some terrorists. But if you change the crime in question to theft or mugging, black people have had to shoulder that stereotype for decades. They get stopped and searched just because of some hoods who happen to be their race. Yeah we’re pissed off about getting stopped – me more than anyone – but if you talk to the black lawyer who drives a BMW, he’s probably been going through it for years.

    (cica – I was just saying it in jest! I take your point about giving off the wrong impression, but when I say I’m a tight-fisted layabout, I’m only talking about myself!)

  4. I use a roll of quarters myself.

    A roll has more than two quarters, shorty :-)

  5. It raises a sticky question for some Brits. Why AREN’T people looking at black people suspiciously on the Tube? It comes down to a two things in my mind:

    At least in the stories I’ve been reading, the fact that they’re black has not been highlighted. When I think of the London bombers, I think “Pakistani Londoners” because that’s what I’ve been reading in the media.

    I think that if the second wave of bombers had instead struck first, there would have more scrutiny towards people who looked black. Of course, we’ll never be able to test that out. Instead, the first wave of bombers were mostly Pakistani, and the media had a field day highlighting this. Perception == reality for many.

  6. Black men still suffer dirty looks and discrimination in the UK – depends on the situation and stereotype – that black men are criminals, drug dealers, muggers etc – that stereotype exists.

  7. checking in from boston. peace, y’all.

    (btw, cicatrix, just wanna make sure you distinguish me from the other siddharth who posted earlier in this thread. wasn’t me.)

    anyway, this is re: amardeep’s comment #51 and practical/slogan issues:

    “freedom from suspicion” is good

    i think “SUSPICIOUS” would be even better — one word, provocative, and call dem on dey bluff…

    or even… “AFRAID ?”

    in a lil’ dig at the culture of fear… though this might be a tad too abstract.

    fwiw, i agree with you that “I” and “WE” slogans are problematic, clumsy and potentially counterproductive.

    whatever you do, make sure there is a press release.

    one last thing from the peanut gallery, will you make sure this thing is class-conscious by somehow involving working-class desis in nyc? seems essential.

    that’s all from up here.

    peace & respects

  8. I don’t agree with “I’d rather be inconvenienced than dead” but I also feel this could be taken too far. I’ve seen a lot of posts on this website belittling the nervous “westerners.” Calm yourselves, folks. I think a “Freedom from Suspicion” ride is a terrific idea, and should definitely encompass a broader population than perky college/grad/yuppie types. (I’m not hating, I’m one of those myself.) Beautiful points have been made that many “terrorists” have been black and the public (and police, in the case of Menezes) are trigger-happy. Someone above posted a rather hostile comment stating that a quick bag-check before the “ride” sort of defeats the purpose. People, I love it when you have a great cause, but please remember that THERE ARE CRAZIES OUT THERE, I think a bag-check (or no bags at all) is a bright idea. Anyway, my real point is that I get sort of the rude sense from these comments that this “ignorant hysteria” is being pinned on whites. For instance, the bag-check objector seemed stunned by this element of “brown-on-brown” paranoia. It’s EVERYONE-on-brown paranoia. I will admit that when I get on a plane and I see a young brown man in line as well, I DO size him up and down a little bit. “Oh… that top’s from Banana. He’s got a laptop. I think we’re in the clear.” or “Hmm… looks a little fobby.” No, I don’t agree in freaking out and demanding a strip search, because my brain knows that the chances of a tragedy are miniscule. But I mean, c’mon, if you saw a couple of fobby-looking (Not hating on the fobs, just trying to provide a quick visual) brown guys wandering around an airplane to frequently converse in low voices with each other, YOU WOULD NOTICE. And if a part of your mind was still dwelling on 9/11, Air India, or now London, you would be nervous. I don’t care who or what color you are. The difference is that in these few incidents we’ve heard about, somebody REALLY overreacted.

    I mean, obviously, searching Sikh tourists on one of those big red buses is insulting and more than a little stupid, but give the public a break. They’re just nervous. I know I am. Talk to your male black friends, they will definitely sympathize with you. The Ride is a good place to start. As part of the public and the minority community, we need to do our part to show that we care about public safety but we don’t like being subject to humiliation either. There’s got to be a way for out community to work with law enforcement to enable a better “screening” (for lack of a better word) ..or something. Again, the ride is a great idea, but we can get up on rooftops and shout all we want to, but until we start collaborating with the police and with the public to educate them, it probably won’t make a difference.

  9. In the fall of 2003 I was chased off of the grounds of that really tall office building that’s across the street from Madison Square Garden. I was taking portraits of some homeless people I was profiling for a photography class, and being a kind of hideously experimental photographer, I would get down on the ground and do these really weird angled shots that had the office building in the shot. The private security chased me away and told me I needed police permission before photographing office buildings in New York. Since it technically was private property, they were within their rights, I think, but I noted that plenty of mostly white tourists were wandering around and photographing willy-nilly, and a small bit of me wondered what about me, exactly, had bothered them. Note that it might have been the homeless people who were my subjects as much as anything else.

    I had too many projects on my plate to press the issue and never looked into it, but some classmates of mine and I always wanted to do an experiment where, say, 10 or twenty different looking and differently dressed people (young, middle aged, white, asian, black, brown, office wear, tourist wear, shaggy) and have them go, individually, with just a camera and see how they get each get treated.

    BTW, I think the organized tour group idea is lousy for exactly one reason: you’ve prepublicized it here on the blog. I too am a pessimiist, and if anyone joined in with bad motives, it would be a very sorry loss indeed. Organize these things via email with people whose real identity you know; only you can decide whom to trust. That goes for any kind of performance/protest art—infiltrators can come in all flavors. We sometimes forget the art of having conversations “offline” and one at a time. With those caveats in mind, good luck.

  10. count me in. I’d like to come with my little touristy looking video camera, perhaps with the words, “filming in a public space” or “filming while brown.” in front of the shirt along with the freedom from suspicion thing, its become impossible to do anything these days.

  11. This publication is a must read before any public protest where one might be questioned by the police. Actually it is a good reference in general regarding one’s legal rights these days.

  12. protest/demonstration/flash-mob/performance art

    In the late-eighties/early-nineties a number of activist groups in Los Angeles sent their members into East L.A. and South Central to videotape the LAPD in action in order to acquire evidence of racial profiling, police brutality and unlawful arrest.

    The “set-up” was simple: depending on the neighborhood, one or two men of Latino or African-American ethnicity would dress, walk and talk (but not commit any crime or engage in suspicious activity) like a “cholo” or “gangster” and see if they’d catch the attention of the LAPD.

    The result was compelling: approximately 45 hours of footage that caught LAPD stopping, harassing, abusing and arresting men for no apparent reason and, increasing the severity of their behavior when each man tried to assert knowledge of his civil rights; also caught on tape was the “suspect’s” behavior before, during and after each incident to prove that he was doing nothing to warrant the treatment.

    Subsequently, public and private groups dropped the hammer on the LAPD and most importantly, it proved to non-believers that many complaints from the African-American and Latino community regarding the LAPD were true. Of course, the LAPD still does what it does, but the effect of that “check” on their actions did get wide press-coverage, cause policy-shifts in the LAPD and provide enough solid evidence for more than a few civil suits.

    My point is this: wearing T-shirts and getting on a bus, train, plain or boat is a good protest, but for the most part, the people who need to understand the situation aren’t going to “get it.” Rather, the small but in-your-face mob is going to either make them jittery; cause them to note that none of the people protesting are doing any of the “suspicious” things that terrorists do; or simply go over their heads.

    I’m all for the protest, but I also think going on mission to get evidence is a good idea–the picture of the five guys handcuffed outside the bus in New York had a profound effect, even on Bloomberg, so imagine what video or some other kind of physical evidence could do.

  13. Gaya, thats so sad that you would actually size someone up for being a brown male. it amazes me how much we parse things here; oh i’m a brown female, you’re an off white male, we feel sorry for those brown males, but its understandable.

    if you can’t rise above your own situation, imagine your brother having to think about his choice of clothes before he does simple things like go on public transportation. the sense of alienation is huge. this needs to stop. otherwise, life is going to get really hard for us “brown males”. i’m getting the sense some people will just shift their glance and be glad its not them

  14. Amardeep and Turbanhead – great idea. I think this would be a wonderful way to not only highlight the lopsided treatment of sepia folk, but also an even better way of underscoring the loss of civil liberties in the face of nervous nelly types. Too bad I’m not on the east coast or I would join you.

  15. sorry for the double post, but,

    i know someone, a brown male, who was looking at flight info when a man called out to him, you’re looking at that list a long time. you know what? who told the guy off? his sister. who ordinarily will take the piss out of him 24/7. i don’t think this situation is understandable if understanable means reasonable. there’s what, 1 billion brown males in the world. you think you’re actually being reasonable to suspect us because we look fobby? its understandable, in my opinion, if you think lazy stereotypes and gross generalizations are something to defend. sorry to get harsh, but this stuff is very not fun.

  16. But Raju, that’s exactly what I’m saying: it is NOT reasonable, and MOST people know it most of the time. But not all. And that’s why these things we’re discussing today, are fortunately rare. UNfortunately, stereotypes (I believe all stereotypes are “lazy”) and gross generalizations are passed ALL the time. I do have two brothers and I’m sure they had to put up with a lot of crap in the weeks after 9/11. I do happen to be female, and I’ve never actually discussed “fear of terrorists on airplances, specifically those of mocha-hued skin” with my brothers, I know it makes them nervous too to see someone that might be perceived as a “terrorist.” I don’t see how it makes a difference — I could easily have been a brown male and posted that while I am doing that to brown males, others are doing it to me. I will always be suspicious and suspected. Help me, my friends — what can we do about it? How can we relate to the police, the public, and our own communities? It makes us ALL jittery — let’s all work together. Unfortunately, while we can very easily accept the nervousness of the general public at large, we can’t seem to admit our own nervousness? Why? It doesn’t delegitimize unjustified persecution and humiliations. Your friend had an encounter with a rude, unreasonable person. UNREASONABLE being the key word.

    Everyone was able to pick up and get back on the tube to go to work the day after the explosions. I know I didn’t have any particular fears, except a small one that someone might associate me with “terrorism” and be mean, among other things. I wasn’t nervous about another explosion, but I didn’t see anything on the tube that made me nervous. Who knows. If there was a scruffy looking South Asian male on board, I might have experienced just a notch more relief when I arrived at my destination safe and sound, just as I would have expected.

    I understand the frustration this brings about to many young men. (Er..not being a brown male, I’ll never understand. Just as you will never understand what it means to be a minority female — but that’s a whole different conversation :) But I appreciate your frustration and I’m glad you responded to me.)

  17. Now I’m double posting…

    But you are right. It is sad that I size up the folks I board a plane with. But “rise above your situation,” as you say, and put yourself in the shoes of a female for a day. I admit that I do a face-value assessment of those around me all the time. When I walk home alone late at night and I hear footsteps behind me, you bet your ass I turn around and size that individual up. And you know what? It IS sad that I have to do that. The logical part of my brain says, “Hm, G. 80% of sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances, and y’know, the logical part of you KNOWS that you’re more likely to get attacked by one of your male friends, then, say, this stranger who is probably just looking for his car. It’s OK. I could probably outrun him anyway. I’m wearing sneakers.” Trust me, that is NOT a comforting thought in that situation. Unfortunately, violent crimes against women are a reality that all women are aware of and so yes, I admit it. I size people up. I do it all the time. I get scared sometimes. It ain’t all fun for us gals either. It is so, so sad.

    On a much lighter point, I think I’m saying that we all size people up all the time, and yes. It is sad that we do so. Most of the time, however, it’s lighter fare than “rapist” or “terrorist.” And most of the time, the reasonable part of our brain is able to hold things down for us, so we don’t freak out. Yeesh. Let’s get out of this conversation already.

  18. G,

    appreciate your commments. I think I understand a little sizing up a person when you’re walking home late at night. but I think that being on an airplane or using public transportation is different. I do understand someone having a fear cross their mind. but in these circumstances letting that fear germinate, I think, can be a concious decision. maybe thats just me, but I can have one hundred assumptions of who to fear in a given circumstance, but there seems to be a point when the fear switches from something uninvited in my mind to something else. I think that something else is the problem here, whats making life a bit harder.

  19. but there seems to be a point when the fear switches from something uninvited in my mind to something else. I think that something else is the problem here, whats making life a bit harder.

    raju, you are right on the money with this. the difference is the “culture of fear,” as it has been aptly termed. at the moment, people in the u.s. and britain are being acculturated, by government, media etc., to fear brown folk. just as in the past and in other places, other folk have been stigmatized.

    in the context of the u.s., this is part of a broader trend of cultivating anxiety that manifests itself in countless arenas from popular culture and television to architecture and real estate development. there’s political capital in instilling and catering to fear, and there’s even more revenue potential, as fearful people tend to want to buy products to make them feel more secure.

    the only way to liberate yourself is to decide not to fear. i don’t mean be stupid — of course bad things happen and one must be aware. but this is why i like your comment — it tries to situate where the line exists between common-sense awareness and consenting to a culture of fear.

    we must decide not to fear. it’s one way in which the solution lies within — part of the spiritual dimension.


  20. Tunku V. on profiling in the Opinion Journal: Suddenly we all feel like the cop, and some of us like the suspect. I am just as concerned about catching terrorists (who may look like me) as anyone else who looks different. I can ask that the searches and scrutiny be done in a professional manner, with no insults and nothing that offends my dignity. I, too, see the absurdity of subjecting Chinese grandmothers to the same level of scrutiny as people from the Indian subcontinent at the airport check-in counter.

  21. Great point Siddhartha M. I didn’t get you confused with the other Siddharth before. Just a typo;)

    Here’s the book Culture of Fear.

    Mike Davis wrote Ecology of Fear more to explain why fighting nature in LA is a bad idea. But the book explains succintly why and how certain architectural and urban planning decisions aren’t accidental, how they seperate the rich from the undesireables, and how it all contributes to a constant level of anxiety.

    William Upski Wimsatte has many detractors, and I for one think his “cool rich kids” idea is a joke. But the man does practice what he preaches. (I met him on the subway. He’d been riding the rails to New Lots and back, selling No More Prisons to passengers.) Some of his ideas might be a bit far-fetched and amatuer, but he does make a heartfelt, compelling case for how corporations, politicians, and advertisers prey upon our fears to get us to buy more stuff, elect without questioning, and buy even more stuff…all the while deepening racial and social divides.

  22. Sidharth m,

    I agree there’s something about holding on to your fear that allows you to turn that against the person you are afraid of. I think being fearful of african americans, african american males particularly, helps to make it more likely that african american males will be criminilized for behavior that others might not be

  23. I, too, see the absurdity of subjecting Chinese grandmothers to the same level of scrutiny as people from the Indian subcontinent at the airport check-in counter.

    Its not that absurd after all. (article about chinese separatists/terrorists). The real absurdity lies in racial profiling. First, because non-desis/arabs can be terrorists too (john walker lindh, jose padilla, richard reid, at least one of the london bombers) and second, because if screening procedures are as obtuse and inaccurate as focusing on race as a primary red-flag indicator, I’d feel DOUBLY unsafe.

    One because I’d be the (continued) target of undue scrutiny at the airport, and two, because all Al-qaeda would have to do is recruit a “chinese grandmother” and she’d get by with no problem.

    Intelligence should be intelligent.