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"Racial Profiling First Hand"

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  August 25, 2011 03:06 PM

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ACLU of Massachusetts communications director Chris Ott wrote the following guest blog.

The ACLU is always concerned about ways in which ordinary Americans get inconvenienced by "security" measures that actually make us no safer, and less free. TSA's unpopular and invasive scanners and "pat-down" searches, which began frustrating travelers at Logan and nationwide last year, are a perfect example.

Recent reports of what happened to Arlington-based musician Vance Gilbert, who was questioned after reading a book about vintage airplanes on a flight out of Boston, seems to bear out that concern. Mr. Gilbert made it past TSA scanners and screeners, but then found himself being questioned after boarding his flight. We are reposting here Mr. Gilbert's open letter to the ACLU about what he experienced. He titled it "Racial Profiling First Hand".

My name is Vance Gilbert.

I live in Arlington, MA.

I am a homeowner, having been here 10+ years, I have a partner, and we have two 52lb Standard Poodles.

I am a 6 foot tall, bespectacled, slightly greying, 52 year old, 230 lb African-American male with a close hair cut.

On August 14, 2011, I boarded United Airlines Flight UA #3483 from Boston to Dulles on time and was seated in an aisle seat #9C on an Embraer 170. I was dressed in shorts, baseball hat, t-shirt, hiking boots, and unbuttoned Jimmy Buffett Hawaiian shirt (covered with airplanes). As the door was being closed, we were told it was a full flight, meaning 70 - 80 people. I had my backpack under the seat in front of me, and my fanny pack/wallet behind my heels.

After the doors were closed the flight attendant came down the aisle checking security buckling, bag clearance etc., and asked if she could put my fanny pack above me in the overhead bin. I replied to her that I'd be fine just stuffing it next to my back-pack under the seat in front of me as it contained my wallet etc and that I'd rather have it near. She seemed fine with that resolution. All that was done without consternation or belligerence, and I thought nothing of it.

Now, I am a musician by trade and an amateur aviation historian, studying mostly European transport aircraft between WW1 and WW2, and some after. I was on my way to two different music festivals. When I travel I delve into reading about this era of aviation. I had taken out and was reading a book of Polish Aircraft circa 1946 and I was also looking at views of an Italian aircraft from 1921.

I think you see where this is going...

The plane went all the way out to the take-off point, in the queue for take-off. All the while I noticed a lot of phone pinging back and forth between the flight attendants. The young woman flight attendant was also crouched next to and conversing seriously to a dead-heading pilot about 4 seats up on the other side. The plane then proceeded to turn around and head all the way back to the gate. Once at the gate, the jet bridge was positioned. The Captain announced, "We have a minor issue, and we will continue our departure once it's resolved." He left the aircraft.

After about 5 - 10 minutes, 2 Mass State Policemen, 1 or 2 TSA Agents, and the bursar for the flight come down the aisle and motion me to get off of the plane. I do not remember if they called me by name. We stepped out into the breezeway where one of the State policemen asked how I was doing that day.

I replied, "Sir, I think you're going to tell me I could be doing much better..."

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".

We were now at least, after re-queuing, over an hour late. No one looked me in the eye, flight attendants, passengers. I missed my next connection, and had to cancel that portion of the flight (fair $ value equaling ??) and rent a car ($270) plus fuel ($30) to my work (lost 1/2 wages = $100), and I was afraid to read for the next two flights.

I silently wept the whole flight to DC. I've never been so frightened or humiliated. I'm shaking even writing this.

How much money was lost between the airline, the other travelers? - I couldn't begin to calculate.

How damaged am I from this experience? I'm not feeling particularly American. I'm angry, dumbfounded, frightened.

Would this have happened to the 30-ish Caucasian woman sitting across the aisle from me (who left her seat, water bottle, and book, never to be seen for the rest of the "completely full" flight)? Is it now against the law to be dark and read a book about historic aircraft?

What's my take-away from this experience as a taxpayer, United Airlines patron, Black Man, teacher, mentor, American? I was broken hearted and speechless as I overheard my friend's wife try to explain to her kids what happened and what he and I were talking about over dinner. They never did get why.

What do I tell your children?

Enough.

Vance Gilbert
Arlington, MA

AKA

Flying While Black & Reading Antique Aviation Books

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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