Cancer activist claims racial profiling prevented him from boarding flight

Sustainability graduate student Arijit Guha, a colon cancer patient whose Poop Strong campaign convinced ASU’s insurance carrier to continue covering him, is claiming he was racially profiled when he was not allowed on a Delta Airlines Inc. flight last month.

Guha was returning to Phoenix on Aug. 18 after a trip to visit his wife’s family near Buffalo, N.Y. He said he was approached by a Delta manager and security agents before boarding the plane because he was wearing a controversial T-shirt.

“I was wearing a T-shirt that apparently made people uncomfortable, supposedly worried some folks that I was making a bomb threat,” he said.

Guha said the T-shirt, designed by journalist and author Cory Doctorow, has a modified Transportation Security Administration logo to signify the farce of the “security theater.”

“I was interviewed by a couple of TSA agents about my shirt, what it meant,” Guha said. “The Delta manager told me that so long as I agreed to change my shirt and consent to a search of my baggage, I would be allowed on the flight.”

Heather Ehlers, Guha’s wife, said he agreed to wear a different T-shirt because they wanted to be able to fly.

“We found it extremely silly, but whatever,” Ehlers said. “We just wanted to go home.”

After TSA agents searched their bags and found nothing that would pose a security risk, a Delta manager approached Guha and said he would be booked in another flight.

“They still were not going to allow me to board the flight because passengers were uncomfortable,” Guha said.

Betsy Talton, a Delta spokeswoman, said via email that the decision was based solely on security reasons.

“Safety and security will always be our first priority and most fundamental obligation,” Talton said. “Delta doesn’t discriminate or condone discrimination of any kind against our employees or customers.”

Guha and Ehlers were questioned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

“They were very aggressive, very brusque, very accusatory,” Guha said. “One of the agents said, and I quote, that I ‘looked foreign, which made me suspicious.’”

Ehlers said NFTA questioned them for over 30 minutes.

“We were not being the politest people. We responded with the same level of respect we were treated,” she said.

After this questioning, Guha and Ehlers rented a car and drove to Ehlers’s parents home. They returned to the airport the following morning to take a different Delta flight.

Guha said he wears satirical T-shirts like the one he wore Aug. 18 to avoid additional security screenings. Another shirt he flies with says, “I am not a terrorist.”

“People who look like me, for instance, are always being selected for supposed random secondary screenings,” Guha said. “Wearing this shirt in some way combats that. It says, ‘Oh, you might want to think twice about selecting me.’”

He said he does not think Delta was being racist, but they caved into the demands of racist customers.

“People like me are pulled out and given extra screenings in wide view of everyone else because that makes other people feel safer,” Guha said. “I was accusing Delta of acquiescing to racist, irrational passengers.”

Ehlers said she supported Guha’s decision to wear the T-shirt.

“Before the flight, we were joking about how it seemed to make people less likely to confront him,” she said. “The T-shirt is mocking the very situation for which he got in trouble.”

Guha said some people have told him he should not have worn the T-shirt.

“That is in no way different than calling out the woman who is scantily clad and gets sexually assaulted,” he said. “The victim of an injustice is not the person to blame. The perpetrator of the injustice is the one to blame.”

Ehlers said Guha was able to publicly denounce the incident because of the platform Poop Strong, his website, provided.

“He’s always fought injustice,” Ehlers said. “Since the cancer began and Poop Strong took off, he has a larger audience to disseminate the word.”

 

Reach the reporter at dpbaltaz@asu.edu

 

Read all about Guha’s Poop Strong story here.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Heather Ehlers’s name. It has been updated to reflect this.