Well, folks, we have ourselves another debacle in the news. I know, which debacle, right? This time, I’m referring to the United Airlines incident where a man was literally dragged from his seat by authorities, causing him bodily injury and huge controversy for all involved.
I’ve thought a lot about this incident for days. Like most tragic situations that reach viral levels in terms of public reach, this one illustrates several problems that need addressing. It also brings up numerous social issues.
A lot of controversy over the United incident was the fact that David Dao, the man who was dragged from his seat, refused to leave the plane when asked to after they needed the seats to transport crew. Airlines bump people because they overbook and for other reasons, and the rules and regulations around that are complicated. Long story short, Dao got bumped after he’d boarded and taken his seat rather than before because the airline needed to transport four crewmembers. They needed four seats, no one volunteered, and after a lottery selected four people, three left, Dao refused, and shit got ugly.
A lot of the controversy here boils down to whether or not he should have complied, and whether United had legal means to force him out of his seat. This NPR article states that United has revised their rules, and its first line reads “United Airlines crew members will no longer be able to bump a passenger who is already seated in one of the airline’s planes,” implying that they could before. I did some research on the legality of the case and have seen differing analyses, some stating that the guidelines for removal cover only denial of boarding or, if boarded, more stringent reasons for removal (i.e. violence), with others stating that United had the right to remove him, period. To combat public outrage, this YouTube video offers more details on United’s decision to remove him, and justification for their choice.
That’s the thing with these situations. We want a clear answer, but we don’t get one. Even the legal experts disagree. That’s why there’s controversy, and it’s up to the courts to decide later.
That brings me the social Issues this incident brought up:
One reason the public is so riled up about this incident is it brings up questions about consumer rights. When you pay for a flight and get seated, you assume that you’ll get what you paid for. Yet, the airlines have considerable power because they have to consider public safety, we still have 9-11 concerns impacting our flights, and, well, because airlines are big businesses and we live in a culture and economic system that protects the interests of big business.
I think a lot of people are angry because it seems crazy that a person could pay for an airline seat and get forcibly bumped. We all know people get bumped, but for most of us it’s something they volunteer to do (with compensation, of course). We assume that if we don’t volunteer, we keep our seat. Clearly, that’s not always the case.
To change these sorts of rules and protect your airline seat (or what have you), you need regulations. Regulations are imposed by the government. The battle between free market and government regulation is an important one, one we disagree on in this culture. People gripe when the regulations aren’t strict enough (like in this situation), but they gripe when government imposes regulations that inconvenience us (like paying taxes).
Then there’s this: the way the officers handled the physical removal of Dao from the airplane, causing him injuries and generally scaring the crap out of people. Police brutality is a major issue in our country, and it brings up another important social issue: just as we must consider how much power we give corporations, we have to consider how much power we give law enforcement.
Excessive force is a common problem in the US. The general culture of law enforcement here is pretty authoritarian. I find this strange. We’re a democracy, a government ruled by the people; we’re all about individual rights and liberties. Yet, we have a law enforcement system that can and will rough you up, beat you, or kill you for being noncompliant. There’s a constant “Don’t fuck with cops” and “Don’t talk back to or argue with a cop” culture here for all of us, and god help you if you’re black. I have a big, outspoken, and very intelligent black friend who says that nothing scares him in life, except cops. And he has the terrifying experiences to justify that fear.
Why is this? We’re taught to value individual rights, to question authority and government, to look down on dictatorships and police states that rob individuals of their liberties… but you can’t question a police officer? You have to do what you’re told, even if the officer is in the wrong? You have to risk being brutalized? I once did research on whether it’s okay to call a cop a pig or some other insult; it’s totally legal to do so, but there are many cases of people getting ticketed or arrested for it.
Overall, when the public goes up in smoke over some injustice, I often feel glad. It’s a sign that we won’t tolerate oppression, that the voice of the people has power, that we’ll never wind up in dystopian conditions like those in George Orwell’s 1984. Yet, some of the outrage at this incident annoys me. There are plenty of examples of corporations exploiting the public (and doing so because they’ve got the money and influence to mold the law in their favor) and there are plenty of examples of police brutality, many of which are more terrifying and with larger ramifications than this one. Yet, many people remain apathetic until the injustice becomes something that could affect them personally and/or happens to someone privileged. In other words, this event involved a man being denied his plane seat (something that could happen to the average person) and it involved someone of relative privilege (a doctor) instead of someone lower on the socioeconomic ladder. If an unarmed black man is shot by police, it’s his fault; but a doctor misses a few appointments on Monday, it’s a fucking tragedy.
I think Dao should have gotten off the plane. Did he deserve to be brutalized? Absolutely not. He’ll sue, he’ll win, and rightly so. However, if I were in that situation, even with murky legalities, even with my anti-authoritarian beliefs, I would have complied. I would done so for the sake of peace, for the sake of the other passengers, for the sake of the future flights affected by mine being delayed, for the sake of the crew and everyone else. I would have then done my research and taken any necessary measures, even boycotted United if necessary.
Some things are worth taking a stand over, worth defying authority, worth even risking injury. In my opinion, this wasn’t one of them.
If you disagree, no problem. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.