Racial Profiling and James Oddo

After the London bombings, the debate on racial profiling was everywhere, on television and in newspapers. As the film crew and I traveled around the country, interviewing victims of prejudice and profiling, two New York legislators announced an upcoming bill that “called for racial profiling” on subways. While this announcement was met with signs of protest (like that pictured), it still gave me chills. I saw the way that racial profiling – in airports and on the streets – had damaged entire communities. How could they fail to recognize these costs?

So I decided to ask.

We called New York City Councilmember JAMES ODDO and asked for a film interview, and he agreed.

I wish I could say that I wasn’t nervous. But I was a wreck. In the morning, I performed my ritual of preparing questions for that day’s interview, taking longer than usual. When I read the questions out loud to Sharat (director) and Tracy (communications), it was clear that my tone was combative:

“Should authorities have profiled white men who ‘looked like’ Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombings? How would authorities even distinguish Muslims and Arabs from all brown people? Have you thought about the impact of this policy on communities of color? Do you support the Japanese internment?”

I had to meet this man on his own terms, but how? I was not accustomed to interviewing people with radically different views, let alone views that would hurt the people I knew and cared about. Would it undermine my own position to engage and dignify his position?

But then I thought about the aim of this film: Between stories of people living in the shadow of 9/11, I want to weave in different positions on how best to respond to these stories. I want to set these positions in dialogue with each other and treat each one respectfully. I do not want to take a strong editorial voice in the tradition of Michael Moore (though there is a place for that kind of voice). Rather I want these stories and positions to speak for themselves and let the audience decide. In a time of polarized public discourse – talking heads yelling over each other – I want this film to run deeper than partisan differences, to be a possible medium for real exchange. As the interviewee, that meant that I had to take the risk of hearing and understanding views that oppose mine. For a person with deep convictions, this is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world.

And then a second thought seized me: The staff could have assumed from my name and accent on the phone that I was a white American. But when they would see my skin color and that of my director, would they still do the interview? Would they profile me and this film and worry that we intended to demonize the Councilmember (pictured)? Would they turn us away? When rang the bell, my stomach was knotted in fear.

I could not have been more wrong.

We were received with genuine warmth. The staff met us with wide smiles and hot tea and apologies for the wait. The Councilmember would be free in just a moment. I was a victim of my own assumptions.

Relaxing, I began to look around. The first thing I noticed was the 9/11 paraphernalia that covered the walls. There were photographs of Ground Zero, firefighters and families, Rudy Guliani standing tall, and recognition for the Councilmember’s leadership in the aftermath. I was beginning to find the language to speak in this man’s terms.

When we sat down for the interview, I did not ask JAMES ODDO (pictured) about the legislation he supported. I asked him about 9/11. His story brought the room to the verge of tears.

“When the second plane hit, like everyone else, I knew this wasn’t an accident. I was rushing out my apartment, fiddling with the lock, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a person in the hallway who screamed out. It was my neighbor Margaret. Her husband Adam worked in one of the towers. I ran down to her, and spent the next hour and a half with her trying to get in contact with Adam. Margaret was in the kitchen working the phone when the first tower fell. We saw this cloud of smoke on television. None of us had the courage to point it out to Margaret. It took her five minutes before she realized the building had collapsed. She started screaming, “James, what happened?!” I hopped in my car and met with police officials. Reports started coming in… We went to Staten Island Yankee Stadium in anticipation of an overwhelming number of injured people. No one came. That’s when we realized that you either got out or didn’t.

“After that, I went from wake to funeral to mass to wake. Sometimes we didn’t bury bodies, we just buried parts of bodies, and sometimes only pieces of their equipment or memorabilia. Staten Island was hit hard. We lost many firefighters, friends on the job, and people who worked in towers. The first thing you had to survive was your own anguish. As each day passed, you learned that another person you knew was gone. To this date, I pass the World Trade Center everyday on my way to city hall. I still look and can’t believe it actually happened.”

We took a moment. It was a moment of silence and solidarity. And then I had to ask him: Four years have passed and we still face the threat of terrorism. Tell me about the piece of legislation you have pledged to support.

“We want to create an anti-terror exemption that would allow law enforcement to do its job without fearing that they will be accused of racial profiling. Unfortunately, the media has framed this as a call for racial profiling. It is not the same. If we are going to engage in the searches in the subway, let’s do so in a more honest and effective manner. We have to factor in history; we can’t hide or run away form history. If you look at international terrorism in Europe and America, t
he terrorists have been young Muslim men. We never said only stop Muslim men or don’t stop white men; we just don’t see the common sense of stopping people randomly. The law that bans racial profiling places a seed of doubt in minds of men and women engaged in these searches. They think: ‘If I stop three Muslim men in a row and I stop a fourth one, is the ACLU going to accuse me of breaking the law?’ Law enforcement is reluctant to do its job out of fear that they will be accused of violating the law. Let’s take away that fear and allow law enforcement to do what is best… At the end of the day, I don’t know who will be stopped. I do know that stopping 75-year old ladies is silly. Let’s allow the NYPD the discretion they have every day of the year.”

At this point, I could not help but challenge Councilmember Oddo. My calm interviewing turned into invested concern: What about the likelihood that law enforcement will abuse this power? What about the impact of this measure on people from targeted communities, people like… well… ME?

“I know there are good people out there who would be wronged in some way. But without taking steps like this, and putting people at risk, there’s likelihood that we would inevitably have another 9/11-like attack. I don’t want to alienate another generation of Muslims. And I can’t say it enough how horrible it is to feel compelled to come out and say this. I know that people will be unhappy.

“But when I balance this out – it started in my head, went through heart, and ended up in my gut – the risk not to do things like this is so great. The people I want to protect look lots of different ways. This is not a reaction of some right-wing Republican nut. This is a guy who saw his hometown bought to its knees, lost friends and neighbors, believes that this is the reality, the unwanted reality of the world we live in, that I wish we didn’t have.”

This was not the voice of a radical insensitive man. This was someone who was trying to protect his community, which included Sikhs and Muslims, who had weighed the benefits and harms of allowing profiling, and who concluded that it was worth the damage. This was difficult for me to hear, as someone deeply opposed to racial profiling, precisely because it was so heartfelt and genuine.

On our way out, Councilmember Oddo pointed us to ANGEL’S CIRCLE (pictured below), a grassy island divider at an intersection that neighbors had turned into a memorial for community members who had died on 9/11. As we wandered through the memorial, the photographs and candles and angel statues, I thought about the pain in James Oddo, the pressure he felt to protect his community, his family. And what he was willing to risk.

Then I remembered the words of DEAN HAROLD KOH, who we interviewed the day before: It may be easy for people in power to risk the rights of OTHER people. But it is always wrong.

I am worried about the inclination for our leaders to sacrifice OTHER people’s rights in the name of a greater security. Especially when they do not attempt to understand the psychological and social violence this ‘sacrifice’ entails. And I am worried about how it frames entire groups of people as naturally suspect, encouraging people on the street to do their own ‘profiling.’

Councilmember Oddo says that he is not supporting racial profiling. But I worry that removing safeguards that prevent the police from racial profiling leads to abuse of power. I say this as someone who has personally experienced abuse at the hands of NYPD officers. It is true that random security checks may not be incredibly effective. But neither is racial profiling. It is another way we choose to use FORCE, both at home and abroad, rather than address the root causes of terrorism.

At the same time, I am grateful for my meeting with James Oddo today. If we had never met, he would have never become human to me, and I would never have understood the terms of his worldview. Nor would I have ever understood how to SPEAK to him or the many people who agree with him. And if we are to make any progress in this deeply divided country, the first thing we have to learn is how to SPEAK to each other without yelling. Today I had my first lesson.

This concluded our New York adventure. We had to say goodbye to DALE SAINI, who came from Atlanta to be our production assistant in New York. Then we all boarded the vans and headed down to Washington, DC for the very last leg of film production

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