Every now and again you read a news report in the media which connects with real life in the most profound ways. You may have read some of the increased media coverage about the black steel band ejected from a budget airline because someone thought they were terrorists. They have become known as the Talipan.
In the first week in February it made all sorts of connections when I read about the black steel band led by a blind calypso musician who won damages against one of our leading budget airlines for ejecting them from a flight from Sardinia because a British psychology lecturer on holiday with his family complained he thought they were terrorists. It spoke volumes about the way post 9/11 hysteria can impinge on human rights. It touched on the power of casual racism and intolerance to shape human action. It said much about the treatment of people with a disability. It showed how mere suspicion, however groundless, can have grave ramifications and how regulations can often make situations far worse than they are.
I was partly drawn to the case because I too am a regular visitor to Sardinia and have used the same airline on numerous occasions, flying in and out of Alghero.
The incident happened on New Year's Eve 2006. After performing to critical acclaim on the island the London-based Caribbean Steel International Orchestra, whose four members were the only black passengers onboard , were escorted off a Stansted-bound plane at gunpoint after the lecturer threatened to remove his family from the plane if the pilot did not insist upon the band's removal. The band's leader is believed to be the only blind tenor pan player performing in the world today.
The band had sat together in the terminal building, a fact that had been noted by the suspicious passenger. He grew alarmed when he saw band members sit separately by the windows. on the plane (they had pre-booked priority window seats on the flight which resulted in them sitting apart). Following the complaint that he thought they were terrorists the crew evicted the four musicians from the plane and they were escorted to the airport building for interrogation by the armed Sardinian authorities.
The university lecturer had also complained to the stewards that the blind band leader, who was wearing dark glasses, was behaving suspiciously. The lecturer thought he was 'reading a newspaper'. The band leader had sat next to a passenger reading a newspaper and, being an avid football supporter, had asked him to read out the football scores for him. As he did so the leaders' glasses appeared to scour the results page in the passenger's newspaper.
After a 20 minute delay while their identities were checked by the Italian authorities the band were given permission to rejoin their flight home. However, the captain refused access even though the band’s leader had his disability card inspected and his sightless eyes verified. He had lost his sight in 1983 after a cataract operation failed.
In court the budget airline claimed the captain had taken the 'safety first option' after he noted 'tension' on the flight because of the incident. After promptings from the band's MP the budget airline offered the band members £100 each and vouchers for their flights home, but no apology. Although the band were allowed to leave the island on New Year's Day they had to fly to Liverpool instead of Stansted forcing an uncomfortable overnight stay because they missed their London bus connection and could not find a hotel room that early in the morning. The band were forced to spend a very cold and wet New Year's Day night in a kebab shop and then a bus shelter before the bus station opened and they could return to London. They arrived home two days later than they had intended and missed spending the New year with their families.
Each member was awarded £800 compensation, in addition to the extra costs each incurred of £190. In his written judgment District Judge Southcombe told the City of London county court the captain had 'ample time' to reassess the situation once the Italian authorities had checked each band member's identity and papers. 'Just because a passenger was black or someone did not like the look of him or her, it was not acceptable to offload that passsenger', he explained.
Judge Southcombe concluded that the band's ‘embarrassment at being the only black persons removed from the aircraft at gunpoint for no reason, their inability to be with their families and friends on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the overnight stay in the cold in Liverpool have to be taken into account’. The sum awarded, he declared, reflected the ‘extreme situation’ the band found themselves in. The psychology lecturer did not in fact give evidence in court. Various media reports suggested that he was in fact a professor of psychology.
The budget airline is appealing against the verdict while the band members have called for an investigation into the incident by the Civil Air Authority. The budget airline has still steadfastly refused to offer the band a full apology. It commented: 'while we sincerely regret the inconvenience they suffered, our crew were absolutely right to prioritise passenger safety/ security at all times'.
The story begs many questions. Would the incident have happened if the band had sat together on the plane? Would the incident have happened if the band's members were all white? Would the lecturer's suspicions have been aroused if the band leader was of normal sight? Why did the reported 'tension' spread so rapidly among the passengers? Was the reaction of the captain excessive? Why, once the band member's papers had been checked, were they not allowed back on the flight when it was clear they were talented musicians returning home from a successful tour of Sardinia? And why were the budget airline's regulations followed with such prejudice when it was clear that there was in fact no danger to the plane, or the occupants?
Some might argue that such extreme situations are justified in the post 9/11 context, that the captain had no alternative but to deny the band access even after the Italian authorities had checked all the documentation.
But consider this. What if the band members were in fact terrorists but white skinned and their leader able-bodied? It would be highly unlikely that they would have been stopped. The lecturer’s suspicions would not have been so aroused.
As Roosevelt once observed in the last century in another decade noted for its paranoia, quite often there is 'nothing to fear except fear itself’. Indeed, one might argue that exhibiting racist behaviour on an airplane could itself, if taken to extremes, be prejudicial to the safety of the occupants. It is also outrageous that, not for the first time, the budget airline concerned showed such scant regard towards a passenger with a disability.
And the final irony? Guess who is playing at the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow in March. Yes, you guessed it. The Caribbean Steel International Orchestra!
I doubt if the budget airline will dare show its face, do you?
For a revealing interview with two of the members of the Caribbean Steel International Orchestra see Grounded from guardian.co.uk.