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‘Unjustified Display of Security Theater’: Two Black Alaska Airlines Passengers Were Speaking and Texting In Arabic, One Complaint Saw Them Removed from the Flight. Lawsuits Follow.

Two men are suing employees of an airline they say violated their civil rights in 2020. Both individuals, Black, Muslim, and American citizens, were removed from the flight because they were texting in Arabic.

Alaska Airlines (Wikipedia Commons)

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington against Alaska Airlines, claiming they were victims of Islamophobic, racist, and xenophobic attacks when employees denied them “rights as ticketed passengers,” guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and Washington State’s Law Against Discrimination.

According to the lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star, Dirar and Elamin, partners in a medical transport company, have secured representation from Council on American Islamic Relations for this matter and are seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages, injunctive and declaratory relief, and attorney’s fees for unlawful discrimination on the basis of perceived religion, race, color, ethnicity, alienage, and national origin. 

Dirar and Elamin are described by their attorneys as “Black, bearded, ethnically Sudanese, Middle Eastern-born, Arabic-speaking, heavily-accented Muslim man,” and discriminated against for those reasons. 

The claim alleges on Feb. 17, 2020, the two boarded a flight at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to take a first-class business trip to San Francisco.

The two were on their way to “San Francisco for the purpose of conducting a business-related purchase of vehicles which they intended to drive back to Washington State,” according to the lawsuit.

After boarding the flight, the two were seated on opposite sides of the aisle in the second row, Dirar in 2C and Elamin in seat 2F. Before the flight took off, the two started chatting with each other in a different language around other passengers in the section of the plane.

In addition to speaking in a foreign tongue, Dirar was also texting on his phone in Arabic, capturing the attention of a passenger sitting next to him and reading his private messages.

The complaint detailed the altercation that prompted them to be asked to leave the flight.

“The Plaintiffs occasionally made small talk with each other in their native Arabic, and Plaintiff Dirar used Arabic text and emojis in a friendly text exchange with a friend who was not aboard the plane,” the lawsuit states.

“After an unsubstantiated and disproven complaint against Plaintiff Dirar by a non-Arabic speaking co-passenger who became upset upon seeing some of [his] texts, Defendant, directly and/or by and through its agents and employees, proceeded to self-servingly discriminate against Plaintiffs based upon their perceived religion, race, color, ethnicity, alienage and national origin by using Plaintiffs as scapegoats in an admittedly unjustified and unnecessary display of security theater which included: removing and barring Plaintiffs from their contracted-for seats aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 304.” 

Multiple people from the airline got involved including the captain, Alaska manager Noor, and an agent.

“Alaska Manager Noor, who was wearing a suit and carrying a piece of paper, approached Plaintiffs and ordered them to deboard to discuss a ‘ticket issue,’” the lawsuit claimed.

“Plaintiffs asked Alaska Manager Noor to explain the ‘ticket issue,’ but Alaska Manager Noor refused and stated that he would explain further once Plaintiffs grabbed their carry-on luggage and deboarded the plane. Plaintiffs complied with Alaska Manager Noor’s instruction by calmly and peacefully grabbing their belongings and exiting the plane.”

The two were brought to the ticket counter area of the airport and introduced to a FBI agent and a Transportation Security Administration agent. 

A police report from Seattle Police officers stated someone from the airline “informed a responding officer that the incident was a ‘misunderstanding between passengers,’ that ‘everything was fine,’ that ‘there was no threat of any kind,’ and that ‘police were no longer needed,’” the lawsuit document reports. 

According to the report from that day made by Port of Seattle police’s Officer Neisinger, an unnamed female Alaska Airlines manager asked, “whether a K-9 unit could be deployed to scan the airplane despite Alaska Airlines having already discovered that Plaintiffs posed no threat.”

The men claim they were humiliated in front of the passengers on the flight, particularly when uniformed police officers surrounded them and escorted them off the plane. The law enforcement personnel did not consider the nature of the text messages or that neither man posed any threat to the flight, crew, or others onboard.

Elamin and Dirar were not allowed to re-board the flight. After this, the most belittling act perpetrated against the two, according to the claim, is that the two men were not allowed to ride together on Alaska Airlines because of the presumed danger they jointly posed — “thereby downgrading Elamin’s seat” and forcing the duo “to arrive at their destination hours later than their originally contracted flight.”

The travel arrangements were spliced despite the airline admitting the two were posing no terrorist threats.

“When we traveled that day, we were not treated the same as other people, and it made me feel like I was not equal to other people,” Dirar said in a statement. “I don’t want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or not Muslim.”

The two are asking for a trial by jury and for the court to issue an injunction prohibiting the airline from discriminating against passengers and customers based on their religion, race, color, ethnicity, alienage, or national origin, provide racial and religious sensitivity training to all employees establish culturally sensitive protocols and procedures for the handling of customers.

The Seattle Times reports CAIR-WA Executive Director Imraan Siddiqi said in a statement, “Flying While Muslim has been for far-too-long a very real phenomenon.” 

“This incident with Alaska Airlines is one of the most egregious examples of this happening in recent years,” he continued.

In a statement, Alaska Airlines responded to the claim: “Alaska Airlines strictly prohibits unlawful discrimination. We take such complaints very seriously. Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe — every day.”

Both men are asking for an award of economic damages, including, but not limited to, reimbursement of flight tickets and compensation for delays. 

They are asking also to be compensated for non-economic damages in an amount to be determined at trial for the Plaintiffs’ loss and injury, including but not limited to, fear, anxiety, humiliation, stigmatization, trauma, embarrassment, emotional distress, and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

Lastly, Dirar and Elamin are asking the court to award them attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses incurred by the case.

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