First of all – let’s make “-A-Lago” the new default scandal suffix, instead of “-gate.” I mean, it’s only a matter of time before a generation-defining scandal takes place there, right? With that out of the way, let’s get to it. All day, the thing that has bummed me out the most isn’t anything to do with United, but rather the fact that violence like what happened on the plane is tolerated in the first place.
Okay, “tolerated” might be overstating it, given the shitstorm that has ensued. People are angry, but what’s pissing me off is how people love to jump on these airline-hating bandwagons, no matter what the context around it. Guy gets the shit beat out of him – #Boycott! Girl can’t wear leggings – #Boycott! Frequent flyer program devalues – #Boycott! There’s no trendier thing to hate than an airline, and because these companies are so visible, airlines have become a dry forest one spark away from a conflagration at all times. It’s very clear that United did not handle things well, and their responses today have shown a startling lack of humanity toward the fact that a guy got beaten to a pulp on one of their planes. I mean, for fuck’s sake, they had to clear the entire plane to clean up the blood. However, while United may have pulled the trigger, the gun was the overzealous security detail that ripped the guy out of his seat and curb-stomped him into submission. I can’t believe anyone from United imagined that happening when they called security, and while United could have defused the situation in myriad ways before resorting to bringing in the cops, the almost immediate reaction of violence on the part of the police is fucking scary.
I also don’t think this is unique to United. If any airline had needed a passenger removed at O’Hare last night, a variation on this theme would have transpired. Other carriers are lucky that they weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, since they all overbook, and they have all needed to remove passengers at times. I’ve read some articles today trying to tie this into a corporate problem at United, using leggings-a-lago and even Smisek’s corruption as supporting evidence that United is rotten to the core. I disagree, although maybe that’s me being naive or overly deferential to United. When you only pay attention to an airline when they do something wrong, it’s easy to get the sense that that airline is terrible. Delta was in the same situation a few months ago when a flight crew refused to acknowledge that a black woman was a doctor able to assist, and once again people grabbed their pitchforks and called for a boycott. Social media feeds bloomed with other peoples’ horror stories, and Delta was pilloried as the heart of all evil. Yesterday I even wrote that it was American’s turn to fuck up next, although United went ahead and proved me wrong on that one.
Still, people’s hunger for hating on airlines – and doing it performatively – is obscuring the much more worrisome aspect of this shitshow, which is that police legally brutalized a passenger in the name of security. Ostensibly, you have at least cursory protections against a law enforcement officer beating you senseless, although more and more that’s no longer true, especially if you aren’t white. In broad strokes, people think “security” is important, but when they see the violent, bloody result of a security theater that treats every person as a potential plane-blower-upper, they get uncomfortable. It has led us to a place where almost all rights are suspended when you get on a plane, and you just have to deal with it. Trudging through a normal flight, that resignation isn’t all that bad, but when the consequences of disobedience are made this clear, it’s only natural to become angry. It’s a waste of energy to be angry at United, though.
A few years ago, Oakland was the site of a prolonged Occupy protest, and eventually the police decided they were going to clear it out no matter what they had to do. They proceeded to treat the protestors in ways that would be considered war crimes if they had happened during a war. Things like shooting a rubber bullet at the face of a protestor and then throwing flash bang grenades at others who went to tend to that person’s medical needs. Or, perhaps, shooting an unarmed person in the face with projectiles in the first place.
Of course, the discussion wasn’t about whether what the police did was right or wrong, it was about whether the Occupy protestors were right or wrong. DID YOU KNOW THAT OCCUPY PROTESTORS DEPOSITED DONATIONS TO THEIR CAUSE IN BANKS LIKE A BUNCH OF HYPOCRITES!?!?! Police brutality is always framed in terms of how people feel about the brutalized; if you disagree with Black Lives Matter protestors, then you support police brutality. If you aren’t a fucking idiot and understand that Black Lives Matter protestors have very legitimate concerns, you’re probably outraged by the police brutality.
Today, the battle lines have been drawn based on whether you think the passenger was wrong for disobeying crewmember instructions, or whether United was wrong for being horrible and terrible. Some people have come at this with a “what did he expect” attitude, which strikes me as being disconcertingly okay with brutal policing tactics. Others have jumped on the boycott bandwagon, trading stories of how terrible United is and predicting that they’ll go out of business soon enough. I kind of see both of those points here, since, like I said, United could have done more in the moment, and they could definitely have done more today to address the situation. And on the flipside, I’ve been involuntarily bumped before, and I was pissed, but I took my voucher and shut up, because I didn’t want to get arrested. However, the fact that I acted differently in this situation certainly doesn’t excuse police brutality or suggest that the victim here had it coming.
I’m not going to boycott United over this, because it wouldn’t do anything to address the root cause of violence here. I’d need to boycott air travel in general, but unfortunately the security state in which we live is much larger than that. Back in France, soldiers with automatic weapons patrol the streets and do random bag inspections – as if that will prevent a guy from renting a truck and ramming a crowd of people. It’s no secret that none of this shit makes us safer. I just wish we could use these reminders of the actual human consequences of the security state as a springboard to rethink our reliance on security theater to feel safe, rather than an opportunity for some hashtag activism.