On Friday night, video emerged of an American Airlines flight attendant allegedly hitting a woman with her baby’s stroller, then challenging a passenger who attempted to intervene to “hit me.” The incident bears obvious similarity to a recent string of disturbing airplane encounters, the most notorious of which involved a police officer dragging a bloody passenger off an overbooked United flight.
These conflicts have received a great deal of publicity in recent weeks, but they are not at all a new phenomenon. Indeed, just last year, in a nonviolent but still disturbing confrontation, American Airlines removed Rev. William Barber II—president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Mondays movement—from a flight, utilizing a police officer. The incident received virtually no press at the time, but it has become relevant once more in light of this month’s airplane confrontations. Barber had just delivered the keynote speech at an interfaith event that launched the 2016 Ecumenical Advocacy Days, which encourages people of faith to fight for the rights of the marginalized. He had boarded a plane returning to Raleigh-Durham and sat down in the two seats he requires due to a disability when he noticed a fellow passenger talking very loudly. When he asked a flight attendant to request that the passenger lower his voice, the man began disparaging Barber, criticizing his disability and declaring his problems with “those people.”
According to a statement written by Barber and published in the Wilmington Journal, what happened next is distressingly familiar. Barber could not turn around because of his disability, so he rose and calmly told the man that, in Barber’s words, “he did not know me” or “my condition.” He added that he “would pray for him.” Apparently, a member of the airline crew then called the police. An officer arrived and told Barber, “Sir you need to leave the plane.” Barber did so immediately. He reflected on the experience in his statement:
Virtually all the police officers and American employees were gracious to me. Some were openly troubled by the decision to force me to spend another night away from home. To those of you who were worried about me, I am fine, physically. Yes, I am not at all happy about what I believe were the real reasons I was the one asked to leave. My training and experiences with non-violent civil disobedience, and my deep faith, however, made my decision to peacefully comply with the order to get off the plane an easy one. I turned the matter over to my legal counselors, one here and one in Washington DC.
The graciousness of Barber’s statement is unsurprising: For years, the reverend has served as the leading moral voice of progressive opposition to racism, greed, and bigotry. As the leader of Moral Mondays, Barber battled North Carolina’s Republican-led descent into cruelty, apathy, and avarice. He has been mocked, degraded, and arrested by his opponents, and yet he continues to fight tirelessly against injustice. And for that, he was rewarded by getting booted from his airplane by a law enforcement officer. Barber may have complied “peacefully” with the officer’s instructions. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to accept this state of affairs as anything close to normal.
*Correction, April 23, 2017: This post originally misstated the date on which Barber was removed from the airplane.