Sunday, April 22, 2007

Recycling While Brown

Given what happened last week in Virginia, the events described in this post might seem trivial, but I feel quite strongly that they are not. What's at issue is a fundamental question of civil rights -- the right to live one's life without being harrassed, investigated, or needlessly spied on.

The Indian-American poet Kazim Ali teaches at Shippensburg University, which is a little west of Harrisburg, PA.

On his website (and at Inside Higher Ed), Ali recently posted an account of being detained for "suspicious" behavior. The behavior in question? Recycling. He was doing nothing other than dropping off a stack of printouts of poems to be recycled when someone from the campus ROTC called the police:

A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a threat by my very existence, a threat just living in the world as a Muslim body.

Upon my departure, he called the local police department and told them a man of Middle Eastern descent driving a heavily decaled white Beetle with out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has New York plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty parking sticker and the other, which I just don't have the heart to take off these days, says "Kerry/Edwards: For a Stronger America."

Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us safe. [...]

One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description--a Middle Eastern man driving a white beetle with out of state plates--and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She approached them and told them I was a professor on the faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer said, "What country is he from?"

"What country is he from?!" she yelled, indignant. (link)

I've had just about enough of these incidents. Don't the campus police at Shippensburg U. have a minimum criterion for "suspicious"? Was it necessary to call the state police and the bomb squad? A faculty member dropping off a box of papers by a recycling bin at a semi-rural university simply ought not to have to deal with this kind of nonsense. It's just insane.

It must have been a harrowing experience, but fortunately it ended without further incident, and Ali was released.

The University wrote a statement to Ali following this incident, but Kazim Ali isn't at all satisfied with it, presumably because the university wouldn't want to acknowledge that Ali's race was a factor in an incident where his civil rights may have been violated:

The university's bizarrely minimal statement lets everyone know that the "suspicious package" beside the trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to say, "We appreciate your cooperation during the incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint effort by all members of the campus community."

What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall--who was watched, noted, and reported, all in a days work? Today we gave in willingly and whole-heartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed and undemocratic and fascist societies.

The university report does not mention the root cause of the alarm. That package became "suspicious" because of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove away. Me.

It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled. (link)

"Fascism" is a strong word, but sometimes you need to go there. Perhaps the key difference is, at least here the police have to adhere to basic concepts of due process. In a truly fascist society, none of that would apply. (We could, of course, debate matters such as Guantanamo Bay, CIA secret detention facilities, the practice of "rendition," and the currently blurry line between "interrogation techniques" and torture. None of those practices by themselves make the U.S. a "fascist" society, but they do call into question the nature of American democracy.)

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Suvendra Nath said...

Of course I empathize with Prof. Ali, but to some extent I empathize with the campus and state police officers. Being in the transition state between academic and administrative staff, I completely understand the constraints within which the campus police function. You try to make some system work, but everyone wants an exception. And everyone, other than a staff member, is important. The student is important, nothing must be done make the student feel diminished, humiliated. The faculty are important too, they must be given a wide berth. And of course the high administration is your boss, naturally they have to be paid attention to. Navigating around this can be complicated. And then you make some mistake, and you can't just let it pass, because it injured someone important. And you don't know what you should do. If you apologize, it might mean some punishment because you admit guilt. If you ignore it, you won't be allowed to. In addition to race, class is a strong driver in these sort of situations.

11:58 AM  
HL said...

Remember this campus is just a sample of a electorate that let GWB steal two elections and start a war based on lies and we still haven't done anything about it. Don't think for a minute this is anything unique.

Beside what could be more dangerous than poetry. Someone might read it and not understand.

10:25 PM  
abhishek said...

We talk as if suspicion, hatred,blind belief had never existed before. We have been doing it for so long. It is just that it has taken a new avtaar. The genesis of the described mistreatment does not lie with the US, we the rest of the world are stroking the fire as well.
Kazim Ali in the US, and the disadvantaged lot in the world are mooted out the same treatment. I wish that we could treat the ever gnawing thought process through the wonderful blogs. Alas! it will never happen. The world at large will never let it happen.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous said...

It is perfectly acceptable for the professor to question the nature of American democracy, but since we live in an imperfect world it doesn’t seem unreasonable for him to list countries he thinks are closer to his ideal.

12:08 AM  
WCB said...

From the St. Petersburg Times on the Fort Dix foiled terror attack, May 9, 2007: Since Sept. 11, U.S. officials have asked the public to be vigilant, urging, "If you see something, say something."

That sure has worked....(Sarcasm!)

2:12 AM  

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