An as-yet-unidentified 69-year-old Asian man was physically assaulted by three Chicago-area police officers after he allegedly refused to give up his seat on an overbooked United flight scheduled to depart Sunday evening from Chicago to Louisville.
In several eyewitness cellphone videos (after the jump), the man — who was seated in a window seat — is approached by the three officers. Within moments, they physically grab him and throw him from his seat. His head can be seen slamming into a nearby armrest, bloodying his face as one of the officers grabs his arms and drags his stunned form up the aisle of the plane.
Although the man has not officially been identified, several eyewitnesses say he is a doctor who was anxious to return to Louisville to see patients scheduled for appointments Monday morning. Other videos recorded moments after these events show that the obviously traumatized man somehow made his way back on the plane and ran to the back of the plane. His face still bloodied, the man can be seen clutching the back cabin curtain and repeating, “just kill me,” and “I need to go home.” He was reportedly again removed from the plane — this time by medical first-responders — and several passengers were asked to temporarily disembark so that blood could be cleaned from the seats. And then, I guess, off to Louisville?
What the fuck.
The events on Sunday were precipitated by a common — if ethically questionable — practice by commercial airlines wherein flights are routinely oversold with carriers betting that several passengers will not show up and therefore forfeit the price of their ticket. When passengers — sort of inevitably — do actually check-in for the seats promised by the expensive price of their tickets, carriers scramble to bump passengers to later flights, which can include offering vouchers or other incentives; or, as in the case Sunday night, brutally manhandling and ejecting passengers from airplanes. At best, this is a practice that profoundly disrespects passengers’ time and money; at worst, it is a practice that violates our very physical safety, as evidenced by the events of Sunday night.
On Sunday, United reportedly wanted to seat four standby passengers (who were also United employees) and began by offering four hundred dollar vouchers and a free hotel stay to anyone willing to take a flight the following afternoon. When no one volunteered, staff increased the offer to eight hundred dollars. When still no one was willing or able to miss a day of work to help United out, staff said they would “randomly” select passengers to be removed from the plane. When the man — one of four selected to “voluntarily” leave — non-violently refused to comply, police were summoned to forcibly remove him.
It’s hard to deny the troubling optics: three police officers striding past row-upon-row of (mostly white) passengers to target a senior Asian man, brutally accost him, and drag him from the plane.
As an Asian American, I cannot help but feel heartache as the theater of our community’s Perpetual Foreigner status plays out in real-time. An Asian man, who — like each and every one of his fellow passengers — wanted nothing more than to go home after a presumably grueling and aggravating day of travel, is nonetheless singled out, labeled as “not belonging”, and dragged from his seat as white onlookers look on in horror but do nothing to stop the unwarranted violent police assault.
Again, we can have no other reaction but outrage. Like far too many men of colour (and in particular Black men), this man was peacefully non-compliant to orders he deemed unfair. He was an unarmed civilian whose peaceful protest against an unjust system threatened no one. And yet, like in too many prior incidents, police rush to escalate a confrontation towards unnecessary violence, and it is men and women of colour who too often pay the heaviest of prices. Police officers’ decision to attack a senior Asian man on a Sunday evening and humiliatingly drag him from an airplane so that United Airlines could reclaim the seat for a more valued passenger is indefensible and inexcusable. I can’t help but hear in this incident echoes of the beating of 84-year-old Kang Wong who was bloodied by a New York City police officer for jaywalking in 2014. In both cases, an older Asian man is senselessly brutalized by cops who use violence as a response that far outweighs the severity of the ‘crimes’ of their victims; and, as with Kang Wong, I fear that in this case, too, justice will be hard to come by.
The Chicago Police Department’s later efforts to spin what occurred is all the more damning. In a statement, the Department described the senior passenger as “irate”, saying that he had been “yelling to voice his displeasure” immediately prior to the incident. They further blamed his injuries on an accidental fall, a tale that is clearly proven to be false by eyewitness video. These bold-faced lies call into question the trustworthiness of police accounts of events following other questionable incidents of violence. Clearly, the Chicago Police Department was not interested in a faithful accounting of events in this case.
The incident is made all the more damning by questions regarding how the passenger was singled out for removal. One can’t help but wonder: How random is United Airlines’ “random” selection of the unnamed man and his (also Asian) wife for ejection from the plane remains unclear? Indeed, mainstream news outlets have reported that the process typically involves a mixture of computer selection and gate staff discretion: presumably to minimize passenger inconvenience and to avoid breaking up families.
But, in this case, did United Airlines staff target this man because he was deemed to be less important a passenger? Did staff see the color of his skin as marking him to be a more suitable passenger to undervalue and inconvenience? Did they perhaps assume him an easy target? Did they believe — swayed perhaps by model minority stereotypes — that this man might be more meek, more mild-mannered, and less facile with the local language or culture, and therefore less likely to put up a meaningful resistance to the eviction?
To demand an answer to these questions is to demand greater oversight of air carriers’ corporate practices, and to thus apply a closer scrutiny to the lack of meaningful federal regulation of airlines. Throughout history, we have seen how federal oversight is often necessary to help end discriminatory practices against non-white consumers that are otherwise allowed by an unregulated market to persist unchallenged. And yet, since the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which removed most federal regulations from airlines, carriers have largely been able to dictate their own prices, routes, and customer service practices. What results is a “Wild West” where carriers are free to subject airline passengers to increasingly arbitrary and unfair — and sometimes racially discriminatory — mistreatment.
In addition to the overall degradation of passenger rights and services, stories abound of presumed or overt racial discrimination committed by airlines against passengers of color. Over the past year, several incidents involving Muslim passengers who were arbitrarily ejected from their planes have been reported. In February of last year, Sikh American actor Waris Ahluwalia was reportedly denied boarding on an Aeromexico flight because he refused to comply to airline security demands that he remove his turban, an article of his Sikh faith.
Sunday’s events strike particularly close to home today because on the same night that the unidentified man was assaulted on a United flight out of Chicago, I was aboard a different cross-country United flight, headed home after several days on the West Coast. I am still recovering from the aftereffects of the hell that air travel has become in modern America.
Airline deregulation has encouraged carriers to treat passengers less and less like people, and more and more like human cargo. Apparently, for people of color, the industry’s progressive dehumanization of its paying customers is fast becoming all the more dire. If a 69-year-old man of colour can be physically assuaged under the urging of United Airlines staff, how can any of us trust this airline — or any airline — to value us, our civil rights, or our basic humanity?
Earlier this evening, the CEO of United Airlines Oscar Munoz issued a statement on the incident. In it, he apologized not for the violence but for “having to re-accommodate… customers” on Sunday evening’s flight. So, Munoz is apologizing not for his staff sending police to strong arm and remove a senior from his seat; he is sorry that the man who fell victim to police violence on one of his aircraft was sitting in the plane in the first place? I call foul on this non-apology; I certainly hope and expect that the community advocate for more and better for the victim of this senseless police violence.
Flying totally sucks. When some people have to worry about being beaten up by cops for sitting in an airplane seat that they paid for, it’s time for us to demand both more police accountability as well as a change to an industry that has progressively stripped its customers of our dignity and our humanity.
I’m a United MileagePlus member who flies frequently with United, more out of necessity than any loyalty to the company. But I am looking to you today, United, to make this right. I’ve flown with you more than half a dozen times in the last year, but I am more than happy to move my business elsewhere over this.
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Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!