A woman says that American Airlines called the police on her for flying while “fat and black.”
On Thursday, Amber Phillips, host of the podcast “The Black joy Mixtae,” was flying from Durham, N.C., to her hometown of Washington, D.C., in a window seat of a 65-person plane. Space was so tight that when she placed her arm on the seat divider, it touched that of her fellow passenger.
“The passenger next to me, a white woman, made it clear with her body language that I was bothering her — she was aggressive when flipping her hair with her hand and fastening her seatbelt — and she was bullying me,” Phillips, 28, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The woman asked Phillips to move over. “I explained that I couldn’t move because I was in a window seat, and I said, ‘You are being mean to me. The world does not revolve around you.'” The woman responded by propping her left right on her leg so that the sole of her shoe was nearly touching Phillips. “I told her, ‘Don’t let the bottom of your shoe touch me.’”
The women spent most of the 60-minute flight in silence. Phillips accidentally dropped her headphones on the floor but fearful of making further contact, she didn’t reach for them. However, as the plane began its descent, Phillips began recording herself and her seatmate.
“When people practice discrimination, they do so because they believe people won’t tell on them,” says Phillips. “Shame keeps people like me from turning a light on it. But I deserve to exist. I deserve to fly. I didn’t deserve how I was treated.”
When the plane landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Phillips says the woman informed the flight attendant that she had been harassed by Phillips. Determined to get home without further incident, Phillips deplaned and boarded an airport shuttle on the tarmac, when suddenly an attendant instructed her to step off the bus.“I was scared,” says Phillips. “My phone battery was dying and I was scanning the crowd trying to make eye contact with anyone who could help. A woman asked if I was OK and I said no. I gave her my phone number, asked her to record anything that happened next, and I got off the bus.”
Phillips was met by an officer from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department who requested her ID. “As I was reaching for it, I asked, ‘Did you ask the other woman for her ID?’ He said, ‘No. And I don’t need your abuse.’”
Phillips handed over her passport, which she says the officer “snatched” (an exchange Phillips says was verified by a black tarmac worker) and then asked for a secondary form of ID. “He said he was investigating this as an assault,” says Phillips.
Soon, the gate manager and a second female officer arrived, and Phillips says, “I am here because my arm touched a white woman.” She added, “I told the police I was terrified and one said, ‘If you did nothing wrong, you shouldn’t be afraid.’”
Both women were ultimately allowed to leave after police had determined there was no wrongdoing, but the incident isn’t over for Phillips. Later that night, she tweeted about the experience in a thread that went completely viral. American Airlines sent the following statement to Yahoo Lifestyle:
“Last night on American Eagle flight 5580, operated by PSA Airlines, from Raleigh-Durham (RDU) to Washington, D.C. (DCA), two passengers seated next to each other engaged in a verbal altercation while on board. Upon landing in DCA shortly after 8 p.m. ET, one of the passengers requested the flight attendant contact law enforcement. The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) Police Department was called to assist. We have reached out directly to the customers for more information.”
The airline also included a statement from law enforcement:
“At approximately 8:05 p.m. on April 26, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police responded to a call from an American Airlines flight attendant after a passenger traveling on American Eagle flight 5580 made a request for police assistance. The request followed a reported in-flight incident involving two passengers, which continued on an American Airlines shuttle bus at Reagan National Airport. Upon arrival on scene, Airports Authority police asked both passengers to exit the shuttle to protect their privacy and to allow for an investigation. Both passengers complied with police requests, and it was determined that there was no immediate threat to passenger safety. There were no arrests, no charges were filed and both passengers continued on their way without further incident”
Phillips says, “As a black woman, my life is always at risk, especially when facing policies that are in place to discriminate. Fatness is not the problem — the problem is the discriminatory and racist way we treat fat people in this country. I also need people to know that the intersections of my identity as a fat, black woman are what led to the racist interactions with the white passenger and the police.”
Phillips also says the woman’s decision to involve the police was an attempt to portray her as an aggressor that could have had severe consequences. “This situation is why white people should stop calling the police on black people who are simply existing, especially in a country that, right now, is filled with unapologetic hatred,” she says. “I’m telling my story because I deserve to exist.”