The United Video and the Face of Complicity


The more I watched the video, the more I thought about the guy it starts with. The guy whose face fills the frame whenever it’s tweeted (which is often). Y’know the guy – the guy in the orange shirt with the blank expression, who’s just sitting there, letting this thing play out. He seems resigned to the situation, even seems to chat a bit with the state-and-corporate-sanctioned bullies who are about to knock a doctor senseless, pull him out of his bought-and-paid-for seat, and drag him down the aisle like a bag of trash. The guy in the orange shirt just sits there, and though he’s off-camera once the trouble starts, he’s not heard. No one is, except for one woman who raises her voice in (understandable) shock and disgust. A few others murmur their disapproval, or take videos. Everyone else sort of cringes and waits for it to be over.

And then, writer Nick Amadeus nailed it:

As Monday continued, that face began to put itself into words, forming a frustratingly vivid portrait of authoritarian victim-blaming. It was all the more depressing because it seemed, as everyone logged on to their social media of choice Monday morning and watched the video, that we might have one of those rare moments of cross-cultural unity: sure, our country is paralyzingly bifuricated and currently under the rule of a fiercely divisive name-calling man-child, but we can all agree that when you buy an airline ticket and go sit in your seat, even if the airline has overbooked and really wants your seat so four of their employees can deadhead to Louisville, they shouldn’t be able to send security people to forcibly drag you out of it. We can all agree on that, right? RIGHT?

Of course not, because we’re operating at the junction of blind allegiance to law enforcement and corporate interests. The first garbage commentary came, predictably enough, from “writer, speaker, father of three” and Mike Pence defender Matt Walsh, who opined:

I’m sure if Matt Walsh were being yanked from his seat by a guy twice his size, he’d choose to quietly pray.

And then there was Dan Hensley, owner and editor-in-chief of the “Powered by Blogger” “Chicago-One News,” who had this rancid-sack-of-flaming-feces take:

Yes, those are the criminals – the people who recorded the brutality! Just ask Ramsey Orta. Challenged on this contemptible notion, Hensley doubled down:

You read that right: the safety of our nation was being threatened by the doctor who wanted to keep the seat he’d pay for so he could see his patients the next morning. Imagine having a mind capable of twisting logic, decency, and common sense into that kind of apologia for brutality.

Next up on our cavalcade of asshats: “infosec” podcaster Daniel Miessler, who has somehow accumulated 47K Twitter followers in spite of being the kind of human being who can look at that video and come away with this:

You should expect to be injured. Not compensated, not even removed – if you dare not subject to the whims of the plane waiter, you should expect bodily harm. You should just expect it. It’s a given!

Few were surprised when entertainment journalism’s worst human, Oscar blogger Jeffrey Wells, piped up with his thoughts on the matter, originally titled (and it’s still in the URL) “Asian Guy at Fault,” in which he insisted:

“I’m sorry but when airline employees regretfully inform you’ve been bumped from a flight, that’s it. You’re not going to stonewall them into changing their minds — you’re taking the next flight. And if you howl in protest when they insist you have to give up your seat and then make them drag you off the plane, you’re the asshole, not them.” [Bold his, not ours, because who writes like that?]

So, put another way: don’t bother to resist, just submit, allow airlines to treat you however they’re going to, especially if you’re Asian.

What say you, “YouTube commentator” and former Gubernatorial candidate Matt Jarbo (30K followers)?

The running theme of these white-hot takes doesn’t exactly require a decoder ring, or even a pair of those They Live glasses:

Because while some of us may flinch at unprovoked brutality of the video, the corporate double-speak of United’s subsequent statements (“I apologize for having to re-accommodate those customers”) and the demonstrable falsehoods of the Chicago Police statement (“Aviation officers arrived on scene and attempted to carry the individual off the flight when he fell”), there is also a certain type of citizen who prays at the church of Law and Order, and will always presume officers of either stripe are in the right, evidence be damned. (See also: the Rodney King verdict, announced 25 years ago this month.) And many of your fellow Americans also pledge allegiance to capitalism, working from the assumption that if a corporation they support did something, it couldn’t be altogether bad. This story gives them a two-for-one!

And that’s how the United video is about so much more than the United video – it gets to the heart of police brutality, and the resistance to protest movements like Black Lives Matter to boot. Because when a Michael Brown or an Eric Garner or a Tamir Rice is shot or strangled and left for dead in the streets by an “officer of the law,” the legitimate concerns and qualms of people of color, borne out of literal centuries of systemic racism and police harassment, are dismissed by said Certain Type of Citizen out of hand. Why didn’t they just comply with the officers? they’ll ask. Why were they resisting? Why were they making trouble?

And this is probably where it’s worth noting that there’s a certain quality that’s shared by everyone I’ve seen speak out against the United victim. What could it be?

Clear back in 1974, Richard Pryor pinpointed the essential element of white privilege (before anyone was even calling it that) which made the mere fact of police harassment so hard to communicate: “That’s ’cause the police live in your neighborhood,” he explained, “and you be knowin’ ’em as Officer Timpson. ’Hello, Officer Timpson, going bowling tonight? Yes, nice Pinto you have.’ Niggers don’t know them like that.. A nigger got to be talkin’ ’bout, ’I am reaching into my pocket for my license! ’Cause I don’t wanna be no motherfuckin’ accident!’”

Guys like Walsh, and Wells, and the guy in the orange shirt, and all the rest will never really understand the guy who’s dragged from his seat, because they’ll never be the guy who’s dragged from his seat; it’s clear, by the way they’ve framed this incident, that they have no interest in understanding. But if the only people we’re speaking up for are ourselves, blithely turning a blind eye to injustice and brutality literally feet away from us because we don’t want to cause any trouble and it’s not affecting us directly, then we’re all fucked. And the next four years are going to be even scarier than we thought.