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When Airlines and Security Validate American Passengers’ Fear of Brown People

One week after the Paris attacks, any American Muslim or U.S. citizen with brown skin lives in fear of what might happen if they go out in public. It is particularly awful for those brown-skinned Americans who decide to travel by plane because airlines, police, and security agents are legitimizing the racism of passengers.

Thirty-eight year-old Yaniv Abotbul, who is a U.S. citizen from Aventura, Florida, was on board a Spirit Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Minneapolis on November 19. Media reported two passengers were arrested after they were heard mentioning the word “bomb” about twenty minutes before takeoff. Later, Abotbul spoke to press and detailed how he was racially profiled.

Abotbul took a sleeping pill and was asleep on the plane. It returned to the gate, and police boarded and jumped on Abotbul. Officers dragged him off the airplane like he was a terrorist. He was handcuffed and interrogated for five hours, however, Spirit Airlines refused to let him book another flight. He was escorted off the plane because, as Abotbul suggested, he had a “different appearance” than most passengers.

“While we never want to divert a flight, concerns for the safety and security of our all of our passengers and crew sometimes call for immediate action,” Spirit Airlines declared in a statement. “The consequences of not acting or responding to a potential threat can be catastrophic. Our crew followed the appropriate protocol to ensure the safety of everyone onboard. Passengers should still report any suspicious activity and justify that, while this may have been the result of a misunderstanding, it’s crucial to act out of an abundance of caution.”

The FBI also insisted what happened to Abotbul was the result of “miscommunication,” where a passenger had mistook a conversation for a bomb threat. However, what the FBI and the representatives of one of the shittiest airlines in the history of humankind would not admit is this would have never happened if the passengers had not been racist.

If a brown-skinned American had not been treated as a suspect because of the color of his skin, there never would have been any need to remove anybody from the plane.

Here’s another example of xenophobic hysteria: Philadelphia pizza shop owner Maher Khalil and his friend, Anas Ayyad, were boarding a flight at Midway airport in Chicago on November 18. The two were told by a Southwest Airlines gate agent they would not be allowed to fly because a passenger, who overheard them speaking in Arabic, was afraid to be on the plane with them.

No news reports name the person, whose fear of brown people convinced Southwest Airlines to stop two customers who had bought tickets for a flight from boarding.

As Khalil righteously said to the gate agent, “If that person doesn’t feel safe, let them take the bus. We’re American citizens just like everybody else.” (Both Khalil and Ayyad have lived in America for fifteen years and immigrated from Palestine.)

In order to finally board the plane, Khalil decided to call the cops on Southwest Airlines. They were able to board but had to be questioned by airport security and police, as if they were the ones who had done something wrong. And Southwest Airlines issued a statement, which later referred to this racist incident as a “brief disagreement with two customers.”

The flight home was not comfortable for Khalil or Ayyad either. According to Khalil, as they walked down the aisle and smiled like nothing was wrong, more hysterical passengers started yelling, “What’s in that box?!” because he was carrying a small white box. A xenophobic mob basically made Khalil open this box, which had baklava in it. He ended up sharing the baklava with the passengers so they would chill the fuck out and leave him alone.

There was another incident of racist hysteria on November 18 when six Muslims were removed from a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Houston. The airline claimed they were removed because they “refused to follow crew members’ instructions.” But what really happened is the six individuals, who were perceived as “being of Middle Eastern descent,” were taken off the plane because they had asked people to move so they could sit together. This freaked out passengers.

According to Ahmed Rehab of the Center for American-Islamic Relations, “These are incidents that target individuals that have nothing to do with what happened in Paris. They’re Muslim or dark-skinned and so they’re targeted for abuse or harassment.”

One of the passengers on board the plane had the decency to tell a local news station, “There are a lot more terrorist acts in America that are actually committed by people who are white Christians, so I think it’s important to really keep things in perspective.”

White Christian right-wing extremists pose a much greater threat to Americans and, since the September 11th attacks, they have killed more Americans than any Islamic extremist. But good luck having anyone who reminds you of a Branch Davidian removed from your plane because he makes you feel afraid. You’ll probably be arrested yourself for making a scene, which is what should be happening to any xenophobic fuck who sees a brown person watching the news on their phone and automatically assume they’re watching Islamic State propaganda. (This really happened, and, again, Spirit Airlines defended the racism of passengers.)

To be clear, this prevailing sentiment of Islamophobia in America would not be so sharp if media did more to tamp it down by clarifying situations. For example, there have been multiple instances where individuals have been removed from flights since the Paris attacks. No one has actually been arrested or charged. Anchors, correspondents, and journalists should make it clear that these perceived threats were imagined.

CNN is on the television screens in every American airport, and the network could do a lot to calm people. However, CNN has had multiple current and former Republican members of Congress appear on the network since the attacks to hype the fear of individuals slipping through TSA screenings. Guests—like Rep. Martha McSally, Rep. Will Hurd, and former Rep. Bob Baer—made sweeping statements instead of offering specifics to substantiate fearing that airport security will fail to detect threats. And anchors like Anderson Cooper pathetically responded with statements like it’s always great to have you on the show.

The network has a history of discussing Islam as if it is conventional wisdom that the religion “promotes violence,” which only fuels hysteria. When one of CNN’s correspondents, Elise Labott, reacted like a human should and suggested the Statue of Liberty had bowed her head in anguish after the House of Representatives passed a bill prohibiting Syrian refugees, the network suspended her for two weeks. Yet, this is the kind of rhetoric Americans need to hear from the news media.

Leading presidential candidates are talking about escalating surveillance against American Muslims and putting them in a database. They are talking about refugees as if they are “rabid dogs”, shutting down mosques, and close Muslim cafes, diners and internet sites, where anyone could be “inspired.” Plus, the governors of 31 states opposed the settlement of Syrian refugees in their states.

Unfortunately, there is a security apparatus, which is reinforced by this creeping fascism. It is not in any U.S. security agency’s interest to caution Americans to relax and not see every brown-skinned person as a threat. Agencies want citizens to be “vigilant” and, “If you see something, say something.” The same people who are afraid to fly with people of “Middle Eastern descent” may have jobs in America’s security state, and most of these troglodytes are just trying to be Good Americans.

One of the few institutions with the power to disrupt this escalating trend is the U.S. press. All people in media should appropriately condemn what is unfolding in this dangerous climate, which has made numerous American Muslims afraid they will be attacked if they leave their home (as some have been attacked already). Every American should be righteously indignant toward any airline representative, security agent, or American, who engages in racism against people because their brown skin makes them scared.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."