Two Rows Over a T-Shirt with Arabic on It

Two Rows Over a T-Shirt with Arabic on It
By Matthew Rothschild

October 24, 2006

This is a story about one T-shirt that caused two rows.

The shirt has the phrase “We will not be silent,” written both in English and in Arabic.

This may seem innocuous enough, but not in today’s America, where the very sight of Arabic alarms some citizens, as well as Homeland Security.

On August 12, Raed Jarrar, who works for Global Exchange in Washington, DC, was wearing that T-shirt as he was trying to board a JetBlue flight from JFK to California.

While he was at the gate eating some cheese and grapes and drinking some orange juice, two men approached him and one flashed his badge, Jarrar writes on his blog raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com. They asked for his boarding pass and driver’s license.

“People are feeling offended because of your T-shirt,” said one of the men, whom Jarrar identifies as Inspector Harris.

“He asked me if I had any other T-shirts to put on, and I told him that I had checked in all of my bags,” Jarrar relates on the blog. “And I asked him, ‘Why do you want me to take off my T-shirt? Isn’t it my constitutional right to express myself in this way?’ . . . Do you have an order against Arabic T-shirts? Is there such a law against Arabic script?’ ”

Here’s what Inspector Harris said, according to Jarrar: “You can’t wear a T-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It is like wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘I am a robber’ and going to a bank.”

Harris asked Jarrar to turn his shirt inside out, which he says he refused to do. Then an employee from JetBlue offered to buy Jarrar a T-shirt to put over the one he had on. Not wanting to miss his flight, Jarrar eventually agreed.

Jarrar says he told the inspector and the JetBlue employee: “I feel very sad that my personal freedom was taken away like this. I grew up under authoritarian governments in the Middle East, and one of the reasons I chose to move to the U.S. was that I don’t want an officer to make me change my T-shirt. I will pursue this incident today through a constitutional rights organization.”

When he boarded the plane, Jarrar says he was not allowed to sit in seat 3A, which was on his boarding pass and which he had chosen over the Internet. Instead, JetBlue moved him to the very back of the plane, he says.

“It sucks to be an Arab/Muslim living in the U.S. these days,” Jarrar says on his blog. “You are a suspected terrorist and plane hijacker.”

JetBlue, for its part, explains its side of this story.

“Mr. Jarrar was approached both by TSA and JetBlue personnel because they saw that customers in the area had noticed his T-shirt and were confused or concerned about it,” says spokesperson Jenny Dervin. “In that situation, our crew members have the responsibility to create a safe environment as well as safe travel. If there’s anything that upsets or confuses our customers, our crew members have to address them. At the same time, they have to respect the rights of the individual and make sure the individual is treated fairly and respectfully. JetBlue personnel approached Mr. Jarrar and explained that customers were concerned or confused, and asked if he could ease the confusion. At no time was he ever denied boarding. He did agree to put another T-shirt on, which we purchased for him, which we really appreciated.”

Nevertheless, JetBlue says it told Jarrar sorry. “We have apologized to Mr. Jarrar for any embarrassment or unnecessary attention” the incident may have caused, Dervin says.

Jarrar, who could not be reached by The Progressive, spoke to Amy Goodman on October 23 on Democracy Now! He told her he is taking legal steps with the ACLU and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

By the way, Jarrar reports that he has received death threats. On his blog, he quotes from a National Guard member who served in Iraq: “If I run across you in my daily tasks, I will kill you. GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY COUNTRY IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT HERE.”

Stephanie Schwartz goes to Hunter College in New York, and she was also wearing a “We will not be silent” T-shirt on October 9 when she was going on the Staten Island Ferry.

She told Amy Goodman that once she got on the ferry, four Coast Guard officers positioned themselves in front of her.

When she was leaving, a security officer told her, “You better not wear that shirt on this ferry again,” she said, adding that he asked: “You remember what happened on that JetBlue flight?”

Schwartz said she answered that it smacked of racial profiling to her.

When Jarrar heard that the the security officer invoked his experience with JetBlue, he was taken aback. He told Amy Goodman: “I’m very shocked to see how my incident, my oppression at JFK, is being used as a precedent to justify oppressing more people.”

The Coast Guard gives a different account.

Coast Guard officers “were approached by an employee of the ferry who had concerns about the shirt, but their response to that employee was that they weren’t going to take any action,” says Commander Jeff Carter, spokesperson for the Coast Guard. “They had no intention of intervening. She had every right to wear the shirt.”

Concerned about our civil liberties, Schwartz organized a protest at the Staten Island ferry on October 23.

According to the newspaper the Staten Island Advance: “A group of nearly 100 anti-war activists, most wearing black T-shirts with the legend ‘We will not be silent’ boarded two evening ferryboats . . . to exercise their right to free speech.”