By Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah
If I should disappear
Please let my loved ones know
I did wudu before I left the house
I read my wird, too
And I wore a little eyeliner and lip-gloss
For the interview I never made it to.
I’m going to try to tell this again.
Around 3:30 PM on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, I walk into my neighborhood subway station. It is not a major tourist or train hub like Times Square or Penn Station or Grand Central or Columbus Circle or Borough Hall or Barclays or Fulton or Herald Square or Jamaica Station. Only one train passes through. It is rarely packed with one newsstand that is often closed. The station gets busy during usual weekday hours. Other hours, you can count on one hand how many people are waiting for the train with you. It is located in a black and brown neighborhood that is slowly gentrifying.
As I walk down the stairs, a tall male officer stops me and announces, “You have been randomly selected for a bag check.”
It takes me a moment to register what I actually heard. I look ahead; I see two other officers standing at a table and very few passengers waiting for the train on the other side of the turnstiles. The officer who stops me says, as if this information would comfort me, that they will not be intrusive and open my bag. He wears an apologetic smile but as I try to pay attention to his uniform and notice that all three officers are black and brown, I hear him tell me they will just rub my bag with a cloth and run it through a machine. I don’t think to say no because I’m scared. I hand him my bag.
I know the technology they are using. It’s the same used by TSA in airports to check for gunpowder residue. I know the tech because I have to rub my hands on my hijab and then have my hands rubbed with a small fabric that is then run through a small machine every time I go through airport security – whether I fly domestically or internationally. I think it’s strange that I have rehearsed many times for this moment.
I ask the officer if something is wrong. If anything is going on in the neighborhood. He says no. He keeps making an effort to smile, but I can feel my face frown and it cannot smile back. He says every now and then they do random bag checks in order to assure me this is a thing. He says he just picks a number, counts up to it – and I happened to walk in when he got to that number. As I watch them hold my bag, I hear a train approaching and see others quickly walk by me to catch the train.
The officer then tells me I can go. I am flustered and upset. I look at him and shake my head. I can’t go because I have to refill my metro card. I’ll have to wait for the next train. The officer opens the emergency door and says to go ahead. I don’t have time to think. I just follow his lead and walk through the open doors, sit in an empty seat, and begin to text “I was just selected for a ‘random bag check’ in a train station” wondering if that is even a thing.
I am shaking. My head feels like it’s spinning. I tell myself that it’s a good thing I gave myself extra time that accounted for any MTA mishaps before getting to where I needed to be, especially since I have an interview.
And I wonder about the very familiar TSA language the officer used. I wonder whether my black and brown neighbors – especially the men – have experienced this before in the same station. After all, black and brown neighborhoods are the first locations for testing new security and surveillance tech.
I ask myself why this has rattled me.
I’m not a noob to airport profiling – but airports are constructed separate and distant from our homes, increasingly organized as private spaces that accommodate class hierarchy and buying power in the forms of special lines, airlines clubs, and opportunities for expedited security services (for a fee). In that way, they are still unlike the public transportation we rely on daily in the city.
The language and structure of the “random bag check” in a subway stop that is a five minute walk from my home – where I see familiar faces, where I am a familiar face, regardless of my bag being opened or not – is intrusive.
I didn’t see them stop anyone else – nor did I get a chance to.
For almost two decades, I’ve received “special” treatment whether flying internationally or domestically. I’ve been rubbed down for gunpowder residue. I’ve travelled with minors in my family who have been unfairly flagged for additional processing, including a five-year old boy. I’ve been escorted with my family from a plane along with other Muslim families on that plane to that special processing room in JFK and then released a couple hours later with an unconvincing explanation of a “name match” and a private apology. I’ve pulled out my phone camera and recorded my partner getting escorted to a private room for a more “intimate” pat down when all he was wearing was jeans and a t-shirt and there was no one else in line. I regularly get that message in my checked baggage that TSA looked through it. I intentionally wear light, plain fabrics without buttons or embroidery, remove my bangles, never wear belts, and yet something on my wrist or ankle will flash as I walk through the full body scanner. I’m pulled aside regularly after walking though the full body scanner to have someone examine my headscarf. That someone is trained to ask, “Would you like to go somewhere private or is it okay if I examine your scarf here?” I always prefer being in public.
I’ve heard for years that TSA language about being randomly selected always aware that it was never random.
I remind myself it’s not normal and it should anger every one of us because it is not only for security – but I’ve learned to expect it for my own well-being so when it does happen, I can continue with my life and get back to my work.
I’m writing this not to participate in some gross oppression Olympics – but because I want to remember a first experience. First experiences have a way of clarifying past emotions. They have a way of making transparent unprocessed thoughts that undergo a self-preserving process of desensitization in the face of repetitive behaviors.
And being a noob to subway profiling, this first experience clarified for me that the testing of TSA security tech through racial profiling in public spaces and residential areas signals all kinds of things already in place and to come.
Also, I made it to the interview.