On November 28, Yusuf Shah, New Haven’s Ward 23 alderman, was rushing to fly to his seriously ill mother in Atlanta. Shah arrived at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport at 7:00 a.m. but did not board a plane to Atlanta until nearly five hours later, at 11:50 a.m. During that time, Shah claims he was repeatedly singled out, searched and made to miss his original flight. Shah does not believe his experience to be the typical airport delay but rather a case of racial profiling.
Since that time, Shah has written letters to several influential political figures, including Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Conn. Senator Joseph Lieberman, to protest the way in which he was treated.
“These instances of bias will not stop until people begin to speak,” Shah said. “Civil liberty is part of the American fabric. I am not willing to give up any of my civil liberties.”
Prior to Nov. 28, Shah had purchased an electronic ticket online. Upon arrival at the airport, Shah was informed at the check-in counter that he did not have a ticket reservation. Shah then called to verify his electronic ticket and was told that he did have a reservation.
When Shah told the US Airways representative he had just confirmed his reservation, he was again told he did not have a reservation. Shah then asked if he could purchase a ticket on the flight and was told he could only do so if he paid in cash.
“I knew right then and there that I was being [racially] profiled,” Shah said. “I didn’t want to make any trouble.”
Soon after his intended flight departed, Shah was called to the check-in desk and told there had been a mistake and that he would be put on the 11:50 a.m. flight to Atlanta.
But at the screening checkpoint, security personnel stopped Shah and asked to see his identification. At the same time, Shah noticed other passengers were not asked for their identification. Shah presented his ticket and identification, but the security personnel insisted on searching him and his carry-on bag. Shah, who is diabetic and carries a syringe for his insulin injection, was told he would not be allowed to bring the syringe on board without a physician’s verification that he was diabetic.
“It was dehumanizing to have someone tell you not to bring your medication,” Shah said. “They are telling you to die.”
Shah was eventually allowed to bring his medication aboard. When he finally reached the gate, he said he was again singled out and searched because there was an Arab name on his ticket.
“The key is to be fair and equitable,” Shah said. “If you’re going to search people three, four, five times, search everybody. Don’t just search everyone and then the ones with Muslim names, search them two or three more times.”
Shah does not think his case was an isolated incident of racial profiling. His sister, Maryum Shah, was flying out of New York’s La Guardia Airport on the same day and had a nearly identical experience. She also missed her flight due to a problem with her reservation and was also asked to pay for her ticket in cash when she attempted to purchase a ticket. After she missed her original flight, she was told the airline had made a mistake.
Before she boarded her plane, she was patted down three times. Furthermore, just when the plane was about to leave the gate, security personnel stopped the plane, called out five Muslim names from the passenger lists and searched them in front of everyone. Meanwhile, Yusuf Shah’s uncle, who does not have an Arab name, did not have any problems while boarding his flight that day.
“We can’t takes chances with anybody after Sept. 11, but profiling is not the way to do it,” Shah said. “A Tim McVeigh and a Terry Nichols can walk onto the plane and not be scrutinized because they are white males and don’t have Muslim names.”
So far, Shah’s decision to go public with his experience has received the support and approval of his peers.
“I applaud his decision to make it a public issue and [feel] that it is very important to keep abreast of issues of racial profiling since Sept. 11,” Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 said.
Although he has received a letter of apology from US Airways, Shah wants to bring about physical changes to the status quo.
“After Sept. 11 we have to clean house,” Shah said. “We not only have terrorism abroad, we have many internal problems that have to be addressed.”