“Would you just shut the fuck up and listen?”
This is not going to be easy, I thought to myself. We’ve just landed on the tarmac and this obnoxious college kid, with the bad acne, sitting in front of me is yelling into his cell phone. I could just ignore him, or brush past him. But instead, I’m fixated on him. Why? Because in that moment, I wasn’t just deciding if I want to be BBQ Becky, or Permit Patty—I was deciding if this obnoxious kid should go to jail.
Cue the record scratch, freeze frame and the “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” voiceover. This was a few months ago. I was on a flight from Washington D.C. to Atlanta, a routine two-hour hop I make all the time. I put on my neck-roll, settled into my in-flight movie and the ship’s captain will announce our descent into Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport about thirty seconds before the end credits scene of my fifth viewing of Thor: Ragnarok.
I always pay attention to the people sitting around me when I fly, not out of paranoia, but because I have a vivid imagination. I’m always wondering who the air marshal is or who might help me out if I end up in some sort of Liam Neeson/Passenger 57 situation. We were only a few minutes into the air on an evening flight, the lights were dimmed, and the kid in front of me opens up his laptop. I see him using some sort of Photoshop program to make what appears to be a fake ID.
I don’t usually pay attention to what’s on anybody else’s laptop, but the screen glow was obvious and he was clackity clacking pretty loud.
My first thought was, “Wow, is this guy really making fake IDs on a PLANE?”
My second thought was, “What an idiot.”
I’m no lawyer, but I’m fairly confident you’re violating half a dozen laws by making false IDs, on a laptop, during a flight which is crossing several state lines. That’s got to be some type of Defcon 4 FAA violation, too. I wasn’t witnessing a passive crime, like a joint dropping out of somebody’s pocket in the check-out line. Fake IDs can be used for identity theft, scams, and yes, terrorism. I started taking pictures with my phone. I needed to tell the stewardess or alert an air marshal or something. Then it hit me: this kid is South Asian. I heard his heavy accent when we got on the flight. If I call the cops on him, this might not just be a slap on wrist, it might go much worse.
It was just this past April that the “Calling the Cops on Black People in Starbucks” story broke into mainstream conversation. I wrote a story about it for The Root. I wrote at the time :
In each and every single one of these instances, a white person used the cops as his or her personal racism valets, and I was the one getting served. In each of these instances, I could have been arrested, beaten up or worse based on nothing more than the word of a white person whom I made uncomfortable.
We’ve all spent months scowling and laughing about Permit Patty, BBQ Becky, and Coupon Carl: white folks who endanger black people by calling the cops for no reason at all, or for minor crimes, or for what appear to be minor crimes. How much of my concern about this kid and his fake ID side hustle was based on the fact that he was South East Asian with an accent? Was I sure he was making fake IDs and didn’t just have a really creative wallpaper for his Macbook? He was way too sloppy and obvious to be some sort of criminal mastermind, and it looked like he was making IDs for his underage friends to get beer and get into clubs. He was clearly more McLovin than Bin Laden.
Then I started thinking about the consequences. Did I really want to see this kid go to jail? What if he wasn’t a citizen and got deported? This is the Trump era; what if he got thrown into Gitmo? (It’s still there you know.) Or ICE grabs him off the plane and he just disappears? As a black man, I was wrestling with the moral and racial quandaries of calling the police that never occur to the thousands of white Americans who make calls like this every day. I felt like Dre on that episode of Black-ish when he told his son it was okay to call the cops on white folks for petty crimes but to never do that to black folks (and in this case brown folks) because it’s dangerous.
I’m an educated adult black man with a Ph.D. This was a skinny brown Asian kid with an accent. My story was going to stick with whatever authority was brought to bear. It was almost amusing to me that only at 30,000 feet in the sky, traveling 600 mph in post 9/11 Trump’s America could a black man be in a position of privilege against anybody when it comes to the cops.
*DING* Please fasten your seat belts as we will be descending to the airport in about 20 minutes.
Soon we were on the tarmac and I was running out of time to make a decision. This kid was telling somebody to “Shut the fuck up” on his phone. He seemed like a jerk. Maybe he deserved to get the cops called on him. Maybe it’d just be a scared straight moment. I only had a few seconds to decide if I was going to alert the stewardess with my pictures, ignore the whole situation, or do something else.
I did something else.
“Hey, I don’t know what you were doing on your laptop. But you know there are air marshals on this plane right?” I said as I leaned into the kid so only he could hear me as we pulled our luggage out of the overhead bins. His eyes got really wide and he had a shocked look on his face.
“You might want to be less obvious about whatever it is you’re doing,” I told him.
He gave me a sheepish grin and said, “Yeah” and nodded vigorously before getting his bag. He turned around and thanked me with a second head nod then scurried off the plane.
In the end, I wasn’t a Baggage Claim Becky or a Pool Patrol Paula. I opted to talk to the guy before bringing the full force of the unreliable law, which is what everybody should do. It wasn’t my job to decide if he was breaking the law. If he was white would I have alerted the authorities? Probably. A woman? Possibly. If he was black? Absolutely not. Strangely, in the end, it wasn’t as much race that drove my decision as the fact that I’m a college professor, he looked like a student, and I didn’t want to potentially ruin his life over a petty side-hustle.
Also, as a black man who knows how this criminal justice system operates, I didn’t trust that if this kid was in fact committing a crime, the punishment would be commensurate or just. In the months since, I have no regrets about not reporting “Fake ID Fareed.” I just hope that should he ever find himself in my position he wrestles with the same concerns and makes the right decision. However, even if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t change a thing I did.