I was browsing Twitter the other day, and United Airlines was literally all anyone was talking about for almost two days. This is noteworthy even just because it gave me a short reprieve from having to look at or think about that talking Cheeto, but I’m wondering just what about this incident is capturing everyone’s attention so unilaterally. It’s not like there’s any shortage of fuckery happening, so why is this story blowing up the way it is?
Don’t get me wrong, getting bloodied up and dragged away by the cops is certainly something we should be sitting up and paying attention to—but that happens all the damn time, without the kind of universal social coverage that we’re seeing. Is it the fact that the victim was Asian American, and not black? Or a doctor, and not a teenager? I can’t pretend to speak with any authority on the race factors at play here, so I’m not going to. But I am certain that I can point to one power dynamic that led to this beating, and could lead to many others—the corporation versus the individual.
United Airlines showed us that when the personal interests of a private citizen clash with the economic interests of a corporation, the police can be summoned to mediate the conflict. They can mediate it with force, they can use violence—and they won’t be on your side.
Police intervention in the economic interests of a corporation isn’t new. If something is stolen from a store, you can expect the police to respond. Other areas are more tricky, like car repossession—it is not uncommon for the police to be summoned to the site of a repossession by either the consumer or the repossession agent to ensure that it doesn’t come to blows, but the police are not technically able to “aid” in the repossession of a vehicle. That’s because the state cannot seize private property without due process, and a default on a car loan is a civil matter, not a criminal one. So, the creditors can seize your car, but an agent of the state cannot.
So—what happens when the police try to seize a seat out from under a paying customer? What happens when they bloody him up in the process?
I am amazed that over booking is legal. It means that United is allowed to “protect” itself from the revenue lost when someone buys a ticket and then misses the flight or otherwise doesn’t show up. The thinking here is that if the plane flies and the seat is empty, it could have been sold twice. Airlines are allowed to accept money for seats on planes that don’t exist. I’m a freelancer, and I sure as shit don’t get to sell things twice hoping that the first buyer doesn’t show.
Even more disturbing is the grounds on which force was used, and then further defended, by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. In a letter, Munoz claimed the airline company “followed established procedures” (it didn’t) when aviation police removed a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger from the plane, who had “raised his voice and refused to comply.”
It’s funny how a person will become disruptive and belligerent when you try to drag them off of an airplane. It’s also good to know that raising one’s voice and ‘refusing to comply’ with a company’s attempts to screw you are now criminal acts in this country that entitle one to an epic, state-sponsored beatdown.