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Idling while brown
While the DNC was in town, federal authorities detained people in three separate incidents in what look to be cases of racial profiling
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI

FEDERAL AND LOCAL authorities have received much praise for their smooth handling of the Democratic National Convention. The weeklong political gathering, held in Boston from July 25 through 29, was uneventful. No violence erupted, and only six protesters were arrested, half of them on the final day. Thatís a far cry from dire pre-convention predictions that 2500 arrests would be made at the DNC, and a tiny fraction of the 1000-plus arrests made only halfway through the Republicansí confab, in New York City, this week.

There were so few arrests for DNC-protest-related activities, we now know, because there were so few demonstrations to begin with; everyone, apparently, was waiting for the Republican National Convention to make their voices heard. As for the massive security efforts orchestrated for the DNC, well, how safe should we feel now that itís become clear that, with federal authorities at least, "suspicious" individuals were targeted not based on what they do, but on how they look?

Itís impossible to know just how many people deemed suspicious by law-enforcement officials were held in custody for questioning. The Secret Service, which called the shots during the DNC, does not make such statistics public. But since the convention ended, three men of South Asian descent have come forward to complain that they were falsely detained; specifically, they believe they were singled out by federal authorities for their appearance. Each of the men are dark-skinned and bearded; one of them wears a turban.

Law-enforcement officials dismiss implications that the three cases reflect a pattern of racial profiling employed by federal and local authorities during the DNC. Beverly Ford, the spokesperson for the Boston Police Department (BPD), suggests that Boston police, who were involved in at least one detention, were simply taking orders from their federal counterparts: "It wasnít us that detained these people; it was Secret Service."

The Secret Service declined to comment on the cases. In response to questions from the Phoenix about the three detentions, Tom Azure, an agency spokesperson, read a prepared three-sentence statement: "During the course of the DNC, law enforcement was in a heightened state of awareness and we responded to suspicious activity. We donít interview individuals based on their appearance. We interview them based on their behavior." Asked whether the detentions of similar-looking South Asian men speaks to a pattern of racial profiling, he replies simply, "Needless to say, we dispute that."

Itís possible that the detentions of the three South Asian men during the Democratsí convention were isolated incidents, illustrating nothing more than a series of freak coincidences. Itís possible that the Secret Service had reasons beyond what is known for detaining these men. But itís not very likely. As Barbara Dougan, a staff attorney at the Boston Lawyersí Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sarcastically remarks, "Please. Donít insult my intelligence."

ITíS HARD FOR me to believe that my looks had nothing to do with it," says Vijay Shah, a slight, exceedingly polite Cleveland, Ohio, native who now lives in Cambridge. Specifically, the 33-year-old son of Indian immigrants finds it hard to believe that his mocha-brown skin and full beard didnít play a role in his detention by federal and local authorities on July 25, the Sunday before the DNC started. After all, Shah and other eyewitnesses say he behaved like any of the 1000-plus protesters in the ANSWER Coalitionís march against the DNC ó walking the designated route, watching passers-by. But only he, a dark-skinned man in what he calls "a sea of white people," ended up tagged as "suspicious" by police. He wonders, "If I was a pale albino, would I have been lifted from the march?"

Itís a question that consumes Shah today, as he replays the chain of events leading up to what he regards as his "false detention." On July 25, around 1 p.m., Shah made his way to Boston Common, where protesters were convening for the march. But he couldnít find the event. "I figured it had kicked off," he says, "and Iíd catch up with it." He walked through downtown and toward the FleetCenter, the site of the DNC. There, Shah says, he took in the scene. He observed the hordes of delegates, reporters, and law-enforcement officers milling about the perimeter. He observed the security checkpoints and the so-called free-speech zone. "I was absorbing it all," he recalls. "It seemed like a new environment."

Eventually, he got bored. Making his way back to the Common, Shah stumbled on a throng of protesters participating in the march, which had already gotten under way. The scene, he says, had a "festive" air; people were carrying signs and wearing costumes. Shah fell in line and began to "make my voice heard."

He wound up within feet of Alissa Johnson, a 25-year-old Dorchester resident who had attended the march "for the heck of it" that day. It was after 3 p.m., and Johnson and her roommate had recently homed in on two conspicuous people in the crowd ó a white man, dressed in a navy sports coat, and a black woman, dressed in a white blazer. Both of them wore an earpiece, with wires tucked behind their collars. Johnson nudged her roommate. "Hey, Sarah. Itís the feds," she recalls saying, while pointing out two agents later identified as Secret Service. Then, she spotted another man, donning the same type of earpiece. Johnson and her roommate watched as one of the three fingered a protester, who happened to be Shah.

From behind, Shah appeared "familiar," Johnson says, as if he were "in my English class or something." He wore a gray T-shirt, khaki pants, and a backpack. Johnson found it "weird" that the Secret Service would be tracking him, since, she says, "he wasnít doing anything." But then, she got a good look at Shah. "We were like, ĎOh, of course,í" she adds. "Of all people to be pulled out of the mainly white crowd, itís the person who looks Arab."

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Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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