Did you know that reading a book about vintage aircraft now falls under the umbrella of suspicious activity for airline passengers? Actually, it’s safe to say you can probably get away with it if you look like me: white, female, not visibly Muslim (my suspicious skirt notwithstanding).
If you’re male and black? Well, you can expect to be hauled off the airplane and interrogated.
Earlier this month, singer Vance Gilbert was waiting for take-off at Logan when he was asked by a United flight attendant to move his fanny pack from behind his ankles to the upper bin. He suggested shifting it in front of his feet, to keep his wallet at hand. She agreed.
No one is claiming that any conflict occurred. If you read the comments at the link, Lisa Simeone (frequent commenter on this blog) vouches for Gilbert’s character. So does Robyn Ochs, who I “know” through her work on sexuality. Both Lisa and Robyn have known Gilbert personally for years. They and others describe him as a calm, kind man who wouldn’t overreact. We are talking about a graying 50something guy who sports Hawaiian shirts who’s a doggie-dad to two standard poodles.
But moments later, evidently alarmed by the fact that Gilbert was perusing a book about airplanes – we’re talking cutting-edge machines made in Poland circa 1946! – flight personnel diverted the plane from the take-off queue and had a group of state police and TSA officers remove Gilbert from the plane. He was whisked back into a breezeway where he was questioned by police. Here’s how Gilbert describes it on his blog:
Policeman: “Did you have a problem with your bag earlier?”
Me: “No sir, not at all. The flight attendant wanted it secured elsewhere other than behind my feet, and I opted to put it under the seat in front of me. It’s my wallet, even though there’s only 30 bucks in it…And all that was done without belligerence, or words for that matter…it was all good.
A few beats…
Policeman: “Sir, were you looking at a book of airplanes?”
Me: “Yes sir I was. I am a musician for money, but for fun I study old aircraft and build models of them, and the book I was reading was of Polish Aircraft from 1946.”
Policeman: “Would you please go get that book so that i can see it?”
I go back onto the plane – all eyes are on me like I was a common criminal. Total humiliation part 2.
After a couple of minutes he says, “Why, this is all Snoopy Red Baron stuff…”
Me: “Yes sir, actually the triplane you see is Italian, from 1921 a little after World War 1…”
Policeman: “No problem here then, you can go on back on to the plane, sorry to inconvenience you…and have a nice flight”.
“Inconvenience” is hardly the word. The flight was delayed and Gilbert missed his connection. He was out money and time, as were numerous other passengers. But far worse, he was shamed in public. He was frightened. He was reminded that in all the blather about keeping “us” safe, “we” and “us” are always construed as white. (The title of this post isn’t original; it comes from Gilbert’s realization that he was singled out – racially profiled – for flying while black.)
And the persecution of “flying while black,” like “driving/walking/BREATHING while black,” is only intensifying in the post-9/11 era. This isn’t coincidental. It’s built right into our society, from the cult of “Homeland Security” to the concentration of MP-style police ops in non-white neighborhoods. In her book Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the ‘War on the Terror’, Gargi Bhattacharyya details how the WOT isn’t just demonizing and victimizing brown men abroad. It’s also heightening and militarizing the oppression of brown and black men here in the United States.
Gilbert’s ugly experience is just one quotidian example of how the WOT is being brought home to men who aren’t protected by Whiteness. (Brown women are singled out, too, but mostly for the perceived infraction of “flying while Muslim”). It’s also a classic instance of covert racism; every white person involved can point to the manifestly DANGEROUS sketches of Snoopy’s dream plane. No racism here, no-sirree, moving right along …
Gilbert is fighting back. He has contacted the ACLU. United is making apologetic noises (though not yet issuing the abject apology Gilbert deserves). I think they might have messed with the wrong Snoopy/Red Baron aircraft geek, judging from his music:
A change is gonna come. A change has gotta come. The alternative is a racist dictatorship of the Tea Party-military complex.
On a wholly different plane (ahem), I think one good thing may have come out of Gilbert’s ordeal: wider awareness of his music. It was new to this humble blogger, anyway. So here’s one more … “Some Great Thing.”
Vance Gilbert, I hope you will get your measure of justice. I hope you can take your story to a national audience. Now, could you just add Athens, Ohio, to your tour schedule, pretty please? You truly are Some Great Thing.
(Hat tip to Lisa Simeone for alerting my to Gilbert’s ordeal, and kudos to her and his other friends for jumping to his defense.)