Sunday, 24 July 2016

Experiencing Racial Profiling

Racial profiling has always existed. But it has become common these days. In the name of national security, agencies in every country are working on racial stereotypes - colour, names, attire, appearance etc. - and targeting people, whether is the US, UK, Spain, Netherlands or India. The views of American presidential candidate, Donald Trump about Mexicans and Muslims are well known. Most cases of racial profiling in western countries relate of people of colour who are often stereotyped to be involved in more crimes. In the last decade terrorism and racial profiling for anti terrorist activities have become prominent.

Most of my colleagues who work in Human Geography are very well aware of the issue, research it or have faced profiling themselves. In the past I often discussed this issue with friends and colleagues. Most of my arguments were based on reading academic and popular media (mostly Guardian) articles. But recently I went through my own experience of racial profiling. I thought it would be useful to recount the experience for others.
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I visited Wroclaw, Poland recently. Since, I was travelling within Schengen region, I was not worried about visa and immigration process. I have travelled within the region a few times in the last 5 months and never needed to go through visa checks etc. This time was different. When I was in the queue to board the plane at the airport in the Netherlands, the ground staff checked my visa. I found this strange but since they were checking everyone's ID and my passport was Indian looking at the visa made sense.

In the flight I was the only person of colour. But that is not unusual. When I arrived in Wroclaw, I headed to the exit to meet my friends. Since the flight was within Schengen region, there was no boarder control. People from my plane were exiting the airport freely. As I reached the gates, the other passengers were walking out. I was stopped by two police officers. They did not stop anyone else, just me. Did they naturally assume that every other person was Polish/European and since I was a person of colour, I was from another country? I could have been a Polish citizen or a citizen of another European country. Alternatively, some other passengers could have been citizens of non European countries. The officers had a hand held device. They asked for my passport and visa and checked them before letting me go. I didn't think much about it. As an Indian citizen, I am used to going through boarder control in every country I visit.

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I spent the next 3 days walking around Wroclaw. I noticed the city had very few people of colour. The city centre was full of tourists. Mostly Polish, Germans, Spanish and French. Although my friends told me that they had some Indian work colleagues, I didn't see many Indians on the streets. On the fourth day I went to watch a film and then to the bus station to get a ticket for my next day's travel. Wroclaw train station in next to the bus station. So I went to the train station to grab a bite. I chose KFC. Now, if you are in Poland and you ignore all the good food around and go to KFC, you must be punished. And I was punished.

Wroclaw train station 

As I was eating a couple came and sat at the table in front of me. The women had her back towards me. After a while I noticed she was discretely taking photos of me with her phone. From the top of her head or from the side, as if taking a selfie. I could see my face in her camera. It was odd but I thought, "may be people in this city have not seen many Indians and these people are just excited about it (as many people from the west experience when they visit India)". I finished my meal and as I was leaving, the man stood up and stopped me. In broken English he asked me to come with him. I asked why. He took out a badge and said in a low voice, "police" and again asked me to come with him. This scared me a bit. I had no idea what was going on. I didn't know what I had done in the last half hour which called for a trip to the police station. I repeatedly asked him why he was taking me with him but he didn't answer.

We went to the police station at the train station. He started talking to the officer at the reception in Polish. All I could understand was KFC (probably in reference to where he found me). After 5 min of discussion, the pain cloths police man who brought me there asked for my passport. Then he asked me to show the photographs on my camera. In the next 5 min we went through all the 230 photos on the camera. This is when two other officers arrived. Another 5 min of discussion in Polish followed. KFC was spoken a few times. One of the officers then asked me for my passport followed by another round of looking through the photographs. Again I asked a few times what was going on but no one answered.
I was eating under one of the umbrellas
At this point the senior office went inside the police station with the plain cloths man. I was left outside with the junior officer who took my passport and visa and passed them along to the officer at the reception. Now they were checking the documents.

I asked the officer again what was going on. He told me they were supposed to check every tourist. I told him that there were thousands of tourists in the city and they picked only me up. There were Germans, Spanish, French and British. I asked him if I was picked up only because I looked very different? He smiled but didn't answer. After 5 min I asked him if Poland was on high alert for terrorism. He told me that they had orders to check everyone from 'high risk' countries - for them most South Asian and many middle eastern countries. This was because Obama had visited the country last week. I thought Obama already left, what are you worried about now. Anyway, this confirmed my suspicions of racial profiling for anti terrorism work. But when I was brought to the station, no one knew what nationality I had. Again, I could have been from one of the European counties, not from one of the 'high risk' countries. Was it my colour - that I looked very different from others around me - that they picked me up?

Then he asked me various questions.

Where was I coming from.
I told the officer I lived and worked in the Netherlands.
He said, "I don't know that country".
I said, "Holland".
He knew that one.

Then he asked me what I was doing in Poland and where I was staying.
I told them I was there for tourism and was staying with friends.
He asked, "Indian friends!?". I told him,"Polish friends".
That seemed to give him some comfort.

The young officer asked me if I had some dangerous item in my bag.
I joked,"I have a book" and then asked,"what qualifies as a dangerous item?"
He said,"a gun or a knife".
I told him I didn't have any of those but if I had I would tell him.

After spending about 45 min in the station, checking of documents, looking through the photos and questioning they told me,"You are free". I guess until now I was not 'free'. But as I was leaving they asked for my documents again and took them into their office. 15 min later they handed back my documents and said,"thank you". No apologies were given.

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This started as a scary thing for me. I had no idea why I was being taken to the police station. No one was ready to tell me anything. The officers discussed in a language I didn't understand. This made things scarier. Although a very very distinct possibility, the thought of spending a night in a cell crossed my mind. However, the idea of having some friends in the city who could help gave me some comfort. I can only wonder how I would have felt if I didn't know anyone in the city. In addition, being in social science this is something I have often discussed and debated. So, after a while, for me, this just became an experience that I could write about. Also, if I got into some trouble, I had some comfort that I will have a strong academic community supporting me. But if I was a lay person this would have been a much scarier experience. 

Also, I wonder what would have happened if I had refused to go with the officer. The next day I was catching lot of connecting trains and buses with only an hour or so between them. I kept thinking constantly what might happen if the police stop me and I miss my transport or if I refuse to go with the police because I have a train to catch in the next 10 min. The experience has left a longer term imprint on my mind. This was my first prominent experience of racial profiling but I expect this will only be repeated more times in the coming months and years.

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