Five government agencies spent six hours interrogating and searching a man and his possessions because he set off the explosives detector at the airport…and he has brown skin. Aditya Mukerjee is a data scientist and a Hindu. As a brown person, Mukerjee is used to getting extra scrutiny at the airport, but until his recent experience at JetBlue security in JFK airport, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Mukerjee’s experience, recounted in detail on his Tumblr, shows that being brown still sets off extra scrutiny from security agents, and being brown and tripping some kind of security scan means you are about to have a very bad day.
Mukerjee’s full story is worth a read, but here are a few excerpts to give you an idea of what he went through:
After the pat-down, the TSA agent swabbed his hands with some cotton-like material and put the swab in the machine that supposedly checks for explosive residue. The machine beeped. “We’re going to need to pat you down again, this time in private,” the agent said.
Having been selected before for so-called “random” checks, I assumed that this was another such check.
"What do you mean, ‘in private’? Can’t we just do this out here?"
"No, this is a different kind of pat-down, and we can’t do that in public." When I asked him why this pat-down was different, he wouldn’t tell me. When I asked him specifically why he couldn’t do it in public, he said "Because it would be obscene."
Anyone who has elected for a pat down instead of a scanner knows what Mukerjee is referring to: the final part of the security process is for the TSA agent to swab their gloves and put the swab in a scanner which tests for explosives. For some reason—he later speculates that it could have been a bed bug spray—Mukerjee set off the scanner. That’s when things started to go south:
At this point, I didn’t mind having to leave the secure area and go back through security again (this time not opting out of the machines), but I didn’t particularly want to get the cops involved. I told him, “Okay, fine, I’ll leave”.
"You can’t leave here."
"Are you detaining me, then?" I’ve been through enough "know your rights" training to know how to handle police searches; however, TSA agents are not law enforcement officials. Technically, they don’t even have the right to detain you against your will.
"We’re not detaining you. You just can’t leave." My jaw dropped.
"Either you’re detaining me, or I’m free to go. Which one is it?" I asked.
He glanced for a moment at my backpack, then snatched it out of the conveyor belt. “Okay,” he said. “You can leave, but I’m keeping your bag.”
While it’s very understandable that someone setting off an explosives scanner would get further investigation, this is bordering on Orwellian double-talk: “We’re not detaining you. You just can’t leave.”
Mukerjee was on the security line—having not eaten anything because he was going to get breakfast at the terminal—at 10:40a.m. He was released from security nearly 4 hours later at 2:20p.m. In that time he was questioned by numerous agents and denied food and drink. Security agents indicated at various points that they thought he was Muslim, and when Mukerjee said he was Hindu, at least one security agent revealed that he didn’t really know the difference between Hindu and Islam:
"What will you be doing?"
Mentally, I sighed. There wasn’t any other way I could answer this next question.
"We’ll be visiting some temples." He raised his eyebrow, and I explained that the next week was a religious holiday, and that I was traveling to LA to observe it with my family.
Later on, when dealing with JetBlue, treatment became even worse, for the crew assumed him to be Muslim after the interrogation:
"Will you have any trouble following the instructions of the crew and flight attendants on board the flight?"
"No." I had no idea why this would even be in doubt.
"We have some female flight attendants. Would you be able to follow their instructions?"
I was almost insulted by the question, but I answered calmly, “Yes, I can do that.”
"Okay," she continued, "and will you need any special treatment during your flight? Do you need a special place to pray on board the aircraft?"
Only here did it hit me.
"No," I said with a light-hearted chuckle, trying to conceal any sign of how offensive her questions were. "Thank you for asking, but I don’t need any special treatment."
Unfortunately, following quasi-interrogation which reeked of disrespect in the guise of political correctness, JetBlue ultimately denied Mukerjee the chance to board his flight, or to rebook his flight to a later flight that day (though he was allowed to rebook the next day). The only real explanation Mukerjee got came at the end of the ordeal from an FBI agent (yes the FBI got involved, as did the NYPD and JetBlue’s staff):
"You’ll have to understand, when a person of your… background walks into here, travelling alone, and sets off our alarms, people start to get a bit nervous. I’m sure you’ve been following what’s been going on in the news recently. You’ve got people from five different branches of government all in here - we don’t do this just for fun."
So, there you have it. The FBI admits to racial profiling. As for JetBlue, the best they had to offer was this non-apology:
@mherdeg The govt agencies can speak for themselves. We stand by our crewmember's decision, and regret the inconvenience this caused.— JetBlue Airways (@JetBlue) August 22, 2013