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Announcement :: Race
Support: Vijay Shah, victim of racial profiling.
07 Mar 2010
10am, Moakley Courthouse, So Boston.

posted on calendar
Source: Boston Phoenix

Idling while brown
While the DNC was in town, federal authorities detained people in three separate incidents in what look to be cases of racial profiling

VIJAY SHAH: a dark-skinned man in 'a sea of white people,' ended up tagged as 'suspicious' by police.

FEDERAL AND LOCAL authorities have received much praise for their smooth handling of the Democratic National Convention. The weeklong political gathering, held in Boston from July 25 through 29, was uneventful. No violence erupted, and only six protesters were arrested, half of them on the final day. That’s a far cry from dire pre-convention predictions that 2500 arrests would be made at the DNC, and a tiny fraction of the 1000-plus arrests made only halfway through the Republicans’ confab, in New York City, this week.

There were so few arrests for DNC-protest-related activities, we now know, because there were so few demonstrations to begin with; everyone, apparently, was waiting for the Republican National Convention to make their voices heard. As for the massive security efforts orchestrated for the DNC, well, how safe should we feel now that it’s become clear that, with federal authorities at least, "suspicious" individuals were targeted not based on what they do, but on how they look?

It’s impossible to know just how many people deemed suspicious by law-enforcement officials were held in custody for questioning. The Secret Service, which called the shots during the DNC, does not make such statistics public. But since the convention ended, three men of South Asian descent have come forward to complain that they were falsely detained; specifically, they believe they were singled out by federal authorities for their appearance. Each of the men are dark-skinned and bearded; one of them wears a turban.

Law-enforcement officials dismiss implications that the three cases reflect a pattern of racial profiling employed by federal and local authorities during the DNC. Beverly Ford, the spokesperson for the Boston Police Department (BPD), suggests that Boston police, who were involved in at least one detention, were simply taking orders from their federal counterparts: "It wasn’t us that detained these people; it was Secret Service."

The Secret Service declined to comment on the cases. In response to questions from the Phoenix about the three detentions, Tom Azure, an agency spokesperson, read a prepared three-sentence statement: "During the course of the DNC, law enforcement was in a heightened state of awareness and we responded to suspicious activity. We don’t interview individuals based on their appearance. We interview them based on their behavior." Asked whether the detentions of similar-looking South Asian men speaks to a pattern of racial profiling, he replies simply, "Needless to say, we dispute that."

It’s possible that the detentions of the three South Asian men during the Democrats’ convention were isolated incidents, illustrating nothing more than a series of freak coincidences. It’s possible that the Secret Service had reasons beyond what is known for detaining these men. But it’s not very likely. As Barbara Dougan, a staff attorney at the Boston Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sarcastically remarks, "Please. Don’t insult my intelligence."

IT’S HARD FOR me to believe that my looks had nothing to do with it," says Vijay Shah, a slight, exceedingly polite Cleveland, Ohio, native who now lives in Cambridge. Specifically, the 33-year-old son of Indian immigrants finds it hard to believe that his mocha-brown skin and full beard didn’t play a role in his detention by federal and local authorities on July 25, the Sunday before the DNC started. After all, Shah and other eyewitnesses say he behaved like any of the 1000-plus protesters in the ANSWER Coalition’s march against the DNC — walking the designated route, watching passers-by. But only he, a dark-skinned man in what he calls "a sea of white people," ended up tagged as "suspicious" by police. He wonders, "If I was a pale albino, would I have been lifted from the march?"

It’s a question that consumes Shah today, as he replays the chain of events leading up to what he regards as his "false detention." On July 25, around 1 p.m., Shah made his way to Boston Common, where protesters were convening for the march. But he couldn’t find the event. "I figured it had kicked off," he says, "and I’d catch up with it." He walked through downtown and toward the FleetCenter, the site of the DNC. There, Shah says, he took in the scene. He observed the hordes of delegates, reporters, and law-enforcement officers milling about the perimeter. He observed the security checkpoints and the so-called free-speech zone. "I was absorbing it all," he recalls. "It seemed like a new environment."

Eventually, he got bored. Making his way back to the Common, Shah stumbled on a throng of protesters participating in the march, which had already gotten under way. The scene, he says, had a "festive" air; people were carrying signs and wearing costumes. Shah fell in line and began to "make my voice heard."

He wound up within feet of Alissa Johnson, a 25-year-old Dorchester resident who had attended the march "for the heck of it" that day. It was after 3 p.m., and Johnson and her roommate had recently homed in on two conspicuous people in the crowd — a white man, dressed in a navy sports coat, and a black woman, dressed in a white blazer. Both of them wore an earpiece, with wires tucked behind their collars. Johnson nudged her roommate. "Hey, Sarah. It’s the feds," she recalls saying, while pointing out two agents later identified as Secret Service. Then, she spotted another man, donning the same type of earpiece. Johnson and her roommate watched as one of the three fingered a protester, who happened to be Shah.

From behind, Shah appeared "familiar," Johnson says, as if he were "in my English class or something." He wore a gray T-shirt, khaki pants, and a backpack. Johnson found it "weird" that the Secret Service would be tracking him, since, she says, "he wasn’t doing anything." But then, she got a good look at Shah. "We were like, ‘Oh, of course,’" she adds. "Of all people to be pulled out of the mainly white crowd, it’s the person who looks Arab."

One of the male agents approached and, according to Shah, "He said, ‘I’d like to talk to you on the side.’" The man did not identify himself, Shah says. Nor did he explain what he wanted to discuss. Leery, Shah says he "flatly yet politely" refused.

Johnson, who corroborates Shah’s account of this exchange, and her roommate tapped Shah on the shoulder. "My roommate told him, ‘Right on, dude. Good answer,’" she says.

Evidently, the Secret Service did not agree. About a half-hour later, as the march neared Government Center, Jesse Kirkpatrick, a North End resident who attended the demonstration, noticed a Boston cop and a plain-clothes official congregating on the side. Suddenly, they grabbed a fellow protester, Shah, who had been walking "in front of us and beside us for a while," Kirkpatrick says. The men spirited Shah into an alley near Court and Cambridge Streets, which was quickly blocked off by a line of uniformed officers. Kirkpatrick couldn’t grasp why authorities had nabbed Shah, he says, because Shah "had been marching with us for a good deal of time, and I hadn’t seen him do anything out of the ordinary."

For Shah, what happened next calls to mind a George Orwell novel, when the powers-that-be snuff out the protagonist with no regard for constitutional rights. Suddenly, Shah was whisked down an alley by two men, who ominously warned him not to resist. Seconds later, he found himself sitting on a step, in the shadow of Boston City Hall, his hands cuffed behind his back. One man, according to Shah, identified himself as Secret Service. "He told me, ‘We noticed you in the security zone. We saw you walking, stopping, and looking around,’" Shah recounts.

The agent told Shah that his actions had "raised their suspicion," and demanded to see identification. Nervous, yet insistent he had done nothing wrong, Shah sat silently. "I realized," he explains, "they had pulled me out of the march for stopping, walking, and looking about — all basic human activities."

By this time, several dozen marchers had gathered at the scene. Some demanded that the police justify their actions. Others chanted, "No racist arrests!" As word spread about the detention, the protests grew louder. Steve Iskovitz, of Somerville, echoes a half-dozen eyewitnesses interviewed by the Phoenix when he says: "They held this guy because he looks like he’s from over there. Like from India, Pakistan, the Middle East, one of those places."

It would take only minutes before Brockton attorney John Pavlos, who represented the organizers of the march and who attended the event, followed the sounds of the protesters to the alley. Pavlos quickly gathered that Shah needed legal help. When he inquired what happened, he recalls, "One of the Secret Service guys, who identified himself to me as such, indicated that they had observed suspicious behavior from Vijay" — to wit, he was "walking and looking around."

Pavlos questions whether such behavior actually qualifies as grounds for "reasonable suspicion," the legal term that allows law enforcement to temporarily detain someone. He explains, "I was doing the same thing as Vijay that day, walking around, looking at the spectacle of security. It seemed clear to me that Vijay’s behavior was only suspicious because of what he looks like."

Shah appointed Pavlos his attorney, and the latter negotiated with police to end what he considered an "illegal detention." Shah would submit to a photograph; in return, he would be released. "I thought it was a fair compromise," Shah says, not least of all because he’d been held, against his will, for two hours by then. The Secret Service and the Boston police took pictures. Yet rather than let Shah go, Pavlos charges, "they reneged on the deal." Minutes later, Pavlos was muscled aside by several cops as Shah was shoved into a police cruiser.

Hauled off to the Boston A-1 Police Station, Shah says he was held in an open, graffiti-covered room. Inside, two Boston officers and the Secret Service agent accused Shah of not cooperating. Again, they demanded Shah’s ID, but he was reluctant. "I don’t like delivering my personal information to Secret Service," is how he puts it.

As Shah was subjected to questions — such as where he lives and why he attended college in Oregon 10 years ago — Pavlos and a dozen or so protesters walked the short distance to the A-1 station. According to Pavlos, he requested permission to see his client during the interrogation, but a Boston sergeant "was running interference for the Secret Service." He adds, "I made no fewer than five requests of the Boston police asking to see my client," to no avail. (The BPD’s Ford, who confirms Shah was detained in the A-1 station, declined to comment about the incident, saying, "It was all Secret Service. They came to us and requested assistance. We provided it.")

After an additional 45 minutes, Shah handed over his Ohio driver’s license, which precipitated his release. Nearly three hours had passed. As he exited the station from the rear door, Shah took in his surroundings once again — the sunshine, the traffic, the protesters. "It all seemed so surreal," he says. "I wondered, ‘What does one do after being falsely detained? Get an ice-cream cone?’"

SHAH DID NOT know it at the time, but his "Orwellian" experience was not unique. Less than 24 hours earlier, in fact, Sundeep Sahni, a Boston College student who wears a turban and a full beard in accordance with Sikh religious practice, had faced similar circumstances. This time, the Secret Service had labeled as "suspicious" not a peaceful protester, but a student taking memento photographs with two friends. This time, the subjects in the agents’ cross hairs had not ventured near the FleetCenter. Rather, they were miles away from the DNC, on the BC campus, which housed the federal agency during the downtown political event. Says Sahni, 21, a senior of Indian descent who grew up in Kuwait, "I was just on my campus. But if a nonwhite kid is doing anything, apparently that is suspicious."

Sahni’s brush with federal authorities began on July 24, when he and his friends were strolling about the BC campus. About 6:30 p.m., Sahni says, he and Ali Shawaf, a fellow BC senior from Saudi Arabia, had picked up a former BC exchange student, Siddarth Khoutar, who had come to Boston from Australia for a visit. Khoutar, Sahni recalls, wanted to see his old school. It was a Saturday, and the campus had virtually emptied out. But the three passed time taking pictures of themselves in front of various school buildings.

"It was all very innocent," says BC spokesperson Jack Dunn, who describes Sahni as "a terrific kid" who is "a very popular and well-respected student leader on campus." According to Dunn, one of Sahni’s friends unwittingly photographed the college dormitory where Secret Service agents were staying during the DNC. "That," Dunn confirms, "was their justification for interviewing the students that night."

Around 8 p.m., Sahni and his friends attempted to enter St. Mary’s Chapel, a private residence for Jesuit priests, which prompted a chapel employee to call the BC Police Department. When campus police arrived, they checked the students’ IDs and, according to Dunn, "were prepared to let them go." At the same time, however, a female Secret Service agent approached the campus-police officers, and asked to interview the three men. Taken aback, Sahni says he wondered aloud "What is happening here?" He recalls, "She said, ‘Don’t worry. We just want to ask a few questions, and then we’ll let you go.’" Sahni says he ceded to the request because "it was Saturday night, and I wanted to get out of there."

Sahni did not anticipate what would lie ahead. For the next three hours, he says, Secret Service agents peppered him with questions. Worse still, they frisked him, searched his car for "weapons and bombs," suggested that he was a criminal, and even pressured him to sign a release form granting the agency access to his psychiatric records. At one point during the interrogation, Sahni was hustled into a BC police car, as his friends spoke with agents outside. The final straw for Sahni came when the female agent asked to search his turban. When he agreed, she uttered what Sahni now terms "her idiotic and offensive comment": he says she suggested that "I might pull an Uzi out of my turban or something."

All told, Sahni and his friends spent five hours in the presence of Secret Service — two of them at the BC Police Station. The incident ended after federal immigration officials ran a check on Khoutar’s Australian passport. Needless to say, the experience has lingered with Sahni ever since. The following day, he reported his ordeal to BC administrators, who have repeatedly contacted the Secret Service in an attempt to elicit a formal apology. All their efforts have yielded is a four-sentence statement issued by the agency, in which it defends Sahni’s apprehension as a function of a "heightened state of awareness" during the DNC. Sahni, the statement reads, "was interviewed and our security concerns were addressed. The case is closed. There are no charges; there is no further investigation."

The response likely rings hollow for this BC student, who is convinced that he was singled out because of his appearance. After all, he points out, he was the only one of the three subjected to a police search. He was the only one held in a cruiser. And he was the only one wearing a turban and a beard. Given all this, he cannot help but conclude that "I have a turban, and turban equals terrorist."

AND THEN THERE’S the case of Arjun Mendiratta, 26, an MIT graduate student studying chemistry and residing in Jamaica Plain. His run-in with federal authorities at the DNC last July has not received the kind of attention that Sahni’s has, with the support of the BC community. Nor did he have the fortune to be plucked from a like-minded crowd of peace and social-justice protesters, as Shah had. But Mendiratta, like Sahni and Shah, is of South Asian descent, an Indian-American, born and raised in Chicago. He is small, bespectacled, and unprepossessing, and has a neat, trim beard. Is it coincidence? "I guess not," he says. "What are the odds of that?"

What Mendiratta now considers his "first experience with any sort of profiling" began uneventfully enough. On July 29, the final day of the DNC, he set out for the FleetCenter to catch a glimpse of the scene for the first time. He had noon plans to meet an activist friend at the free-speech zone; in the interim, he intended to pass time taking pictures with his digital camera.

Around 10:30 a.m., he arrived alone at the "protest pen," and was instantly struck by the conditions. "It really did look like a concentration camp," he says. With his camera, he recorded the "restrictive" environment, snapping shots of the barbed wire, the netting, and the nearby military snipers. Then he strolled the downtown area, documenting the heavy police presence — the cruisers from various communities across Massachusetts, the riot cops and plain-clothes detectives.

It would not take long for Mendiratta to attract unwanted attention, however. About an hour later, after taking several dozen pictures, he was stopped on the sidewalk near Boston City Hall Plaza by a federal officer, who informed Mendiratta that he "was seen taking pictures of entrances to federal buildings." Mendiratta did not put up a fuss. He says he acknowledged that he might have "inadvertently" captured such an image. He produced his Illinois driver’s license. He answered questions. Only when the officer asked to see his camera did Mendiratta balk. As he explains, "I felt he had no legal right to see my personal pictures."

By then, two Secret Service agents had arrived on the scene, as had a number of police officers and spectators. He was ordered to step beside a parked police cruiser, which left him feeling as if he were "losing my freedom and control." Then, he heard his cell phone ring.

On the other end of the line was Devon McCullough, Mendiratta’s activist friend and an Arlington resident. He had just arrived at the protest pen, toting a sign likening the free-speech zone’s caged atmosphere to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. He couldn’t find Mendiratta anywhere, so he called his friend’s cell phone. "Arjun wasn’t answering," McCullough, an MIT computer hacker, recalls. "So I’m wandering around the pen, wondering what had happened to Arjun. I couldn’t understand what had happened to him."

While Mendiratta’s phone rang, he stood before the Secret Service agents as they made not-so-veiled threats. "They told me, ‘Show us the pictures or we’ll have to take you in’ and ‘You can do this the easy way or the hard way,’" according to Mendiratta, who had never been in trouble with the law before. Intimidated and anxious to meet his friend, he says he agreed to show the agents his camera. But when he lifted it up to his eye, he says, they snatched it from his grip and began advancing through the digital images.

Then Mendiratta’s worst nightmare happened. The officers quickly cuffed him, ordered him to spread his legs, patted him down, and muscled him into the cruiser. He was carted off to a downtown police station just seconds away. (The BPD’s Ford says the department has no record of more than one detention during the DNC; however, she says, "If a second person was detained by the Secret Service, it’s very likely he was brought over to District One.")

Inside the station, a Secret Service agent and three other federal officers fired questions at him — about his profession, his roommates, and even his political beliefs. And they kept mentioning the "suspicious pictures" on Mendiratta’s camera. Befuddled, Mendiratta says he pled his innocence. Indeed, his camera had stored in its digital memory pictures that were several months old. "The only thing I could imagine," he says, "was a picture at a party with a joint in the background or something."

Eventually, the agents tipped Mendiratta off to what concerned them. It was a photograph of his MIT lab that he had taken some six weeks earlier. His lab partner, a Japanese student who speaks in broken English, had written him an oddly worded note warning him about a hot plate. The note read: "Now, the plate is hot." When Mendiratta saw the sign, he "had to laugh because it was funny," he says. He also snapped a photo of it as "a bit of workplace humor."

At the station, Mendiratta explained as much to the federal agents. Then, in hope of gaining his release, he offered to elaborate on the circumstances behind the rest of the photographs — all 100 or so of them. Some of them depicted a recent trip to Montreal. Others a summer house party. Still others a lazy day with his girlfriend. After walking the agents through the contents of his camera, Mendiratta says he was allowed to leave. He had been held by federal authorities for approximately three hours.

Later that afternoon, he caught up with McCullough at the protest pen, and confided to him what had just occurred. McCullough, who met Mendiratta through a MIT peace and social-justice mailing list and who describes his friend as "just a quiet guy," was stunned. Then, he says, "Someone pointed out that Arjun has a serious permanent tan there. Could that have something to do with why he was detained?" At that moment, McCullough observed all the people with cameras milling about in the pen. "It hit me," he says. "Arjun was singled out because he matches the profile of our imaginary enemies — he has a beard and dark skin."

DOUGAN, OF THE Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, sees the DNC detentions as part of a larger pattern of racial profiling that has become all too apparent in the post-9/11 era. "The federal government," she charges, "has embraced racial profiling as domestic policy these days." As a result, people who look like they could hail from the Middle East — Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis — are getting caught up in the government’s widening net, all cast in the name of homeland security. People of color are becoming suspect.

What she — and many other legal experts — describe as "the ineffectiveness and inappropriateness" of using racial and ethnic profiling as an intelligence-gathering tool is illustrated in the reported details of the DNC detentions. In Sahni’s case, for example, the Secret Service agents pinpointed him for special security searches even though he didn’t actually own the camera in question — indeed, as he told the Phoenix, "I didn’t even take the pictures." Such facts, Dougan explains, "if true, tell me that the Secret Service is interested in race, religion, and nationality," as opposed to behavior.

Even when law-enforcement officials claim to focus solely on behavior, they are often homing in on people of a different race or ethnicity to begin with, according to Carol Rose, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts. How else to explain the fact that three bearded, South Asian men, behaving no differently from any of the hundreds of tourists at the DNC, wound up tagged as "suspicious"? More likely than not, Rose says, "Behavioral profiling was being used as an excuse for racial profiling." And when that happens, she adds, "There’s no guarantee that people of color are being protected from clear civil-liberties violations," such as unreasonable searches and false detentions.

Whether such civil-liberties violations took place during these particular DNC detentions remains a question for the federal and state courts to determine, naturally. But legal experts suspect that they did. Already the ACLU has reached out to Sahni in hopes of pursuing possible legal action, while the organization is following up on the other cases. And Shah — who has a list of corroborating witnesses to his detention — is intent on seeking legal recourse. Pavlos, his attorney, confirms that he is considering "a laundry list of various legal actions including civil-rights violations," although he has not filed a formal lawsuit yet.

For now, each of these men seems committed to spreading the word about his DNC ordeal to show how innocent South Asian people can be wrongfully detained. On the one hand, they cannot quite fathom the absurdity of what happened to them. On the other hand, they fear that they — or, for that matter, any South Asian — will find themselves labeled a suspect for no good reason. Based on their experiences, they’ve each gotten one message: "If you have a beard and brown skin, you cannot be trusted," says Shah. He then notes, "But if that isn’t racist, I don’t know what is."

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi (at)

This work is in the public domain
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Support: Vijay Shah, victim of racial profiling.
07 Mar 2010
time place and date
07 Mar 2010
Caged (DNC) Freedom (
14 Mar 2010
Modified: 09:39:39 AM
(sorry for the extra details that anyone (surely) here would know - G/E had responded to the IndiaWest reference below.

"Not only did John Grebe, Sounds of Dissent on WZBC

( on 91.5 FM in Newton, MA (USA) --

airs Saturday's, usually shortly after 11:00 a.m,

-- beginning generally before "live" interviews which is not generally the case by some forms of "the media" - in this case radio (especially such topics as this "incident" which are devoid on other forms, ones that give themselves quite a fine self-appraisal) -- features includes Media Minutes (, etc)

-- have an interview about this but it was aired again (good to do as Hank Faunce ) [miss him and his squeaky chair] on WMFO (40 years on community free form radio) on Sunday, 14 March 2010 by Stan and everyone involved in Truth and Justice Radio...

audio (sorry not OGG or some other free format (available for two weeks)

Everyone knows to edit the M3U - this is common knowledge, right?

[even recall the shirt I had on WZBC!]

Even though I was at this ( DNC) "caged" citizenry's right to caged assembly - I did not see or hear about this till today (14 March 2010) which speaks to the "permissible spectrum" again on some forms of the media.

I did see a few [actually several] "street" controllers (Secretly Visible Police (Sort of an Orwellism) following "three" or so people who had a banner and were speaking such that [down Stanhope or (name?) basically only one nearby would hear.

G/E told someone from one of the legal defense groups, National Lawyers Guild if memory and she immediately called someone.

I will leave out the image of the police barrier (waiting to be called" that was at Stanhope intersection away from the caged freedom or the woman coming out of a bank who said:

"I thought this was going to be peaceful" as someone was being pulled down Canal Street (if memory)

- I said: tell that to the "police."

But that also speaks to the experience of Vijay Shah,
"Man Arrested at DNC Files Racial Profiling Suit
By SUNITA SOHRABJI March 04, 2010 01:49:00 PM"