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Idling while brown (continued)


SHAH DID NOT know it at the time, but his "Orwellian" experience was not unique. Less than 24 hours earlier, in fact, Sundeep Sahni, a Boston College student who wears a turban and a full beard in accordance with Sikh religious practice, had faced similar circumstances. This time, the Secret Service had labeled as "suspicious" not a peaceful protester, but a student taking memento photographs with two friends. This time, the subjects in the agentsí cross hairs had not ventured near the FleetCenter. Rather, they were miles away from the DNC, on the BC campus, which housed the federal agency during the downtown political event. Says Sahni, 21, a senior of Indian descent who grew up in Kuwait, "I was just on my campus. But if a nonwhite kid is doing anything, apparently that is suspicious."

Sahniís brush with federal authorities began on July 24, when he and his friends were strolling about the BC campus. About 6:30 p.m., Sahni says, he and Ali Shawaf, a fellow BC senior from Saudi Arabia, had picked up a former BC exchange student, Siddarth Khoutar, who had come to Boston from Australia for a visit. Khoutar, Sahni recalls, wanted to see his old school. It was a Saturday, and the campus had virtually emptied out. But the three passed time taking pictures of themselves in front of various school buildings.

"It was all very innocent," says BC spokesperson Jack Dunn, who describes Sahni as "a terrific kid" who is "a very popular and well-respected student leader on campus." According to Dunn, one of Sahniís friends unwittingly photographed the college dormitory where Secret Service agents were staying during the DNC. "That," Dunn confirms, "was their justification for interviewing the students that night."

Around 8 p.m., Sahni and his friends attempted to enter St. Maryís Chapel, a private residence for Jesuit priests, which prompted a chapel employee to call the BC Police Department. When campus police arrived, they checked the studentsí IDs and, according to Dunn, "were prepared to let them go." At the same time, however, a female Secret Service agent approached the campus-police officers, and asked to interview the three men. Taken aback, Sahni says he wondered aloud "What is happening here?" He recalls, "She said, ĎDonít worry. We just want to ask a few questions, and then weíll let you go.í" Sahni says he ceded to the request because "it was Saturday night, and I wanted to get out of there."

Sahni did not anticipate what would lie ahead. For the next three hours, he says, Secret Service agents peppered him with questions. Worse still, they frisked him, searched his car for "weapons and bombs," suggested that he was a criminal, and even pressured him to sign a release form granting the agency access to his psychiatric records. At one point during the interrogation, Sahni was hustled into a BC police car, as his friends spoke with agents outside. The final straw for Sahni came when the female agent asked to search his turban. When he agreed, she uttered what Sahni now terms "her idiotic and offensive comment": he says she suggested that "I might pull an Uzi out of my turban or something."

All told, Sahni and his friends spent five hours in the presence of Secret Service ó two of them at the BC Police Station. The incident ended after federal immigration officials ran a check on Khoutarís Australian passport. Needless to say, the experience has lingered with Sahni ever since. The following day, he reported his ordeal to BC administrators, who have repeatedly contacted the Secret Service in an attempt to elicit a formal apology. All their efforts have yielded is a four-sentence statement issued by the agency, in which it defends Sahniís apprehension as a function of a "heightened state of awareness" during the DNC. Sahni, the statement reads, "was interviewed and our security concerns were addressed. The case is closed. There are no charges; there is no further investigation."

The response likely rings hollow for this BC student, who is convinced that he was singled out because of his appearance. After all, he points out, he was the only one of the three subjected to a police search. He was the only one held in a cruiser. And he was the only one wearing a turban and a beard. Given all this, he cannot help but conclude that "I have a turban, and turban equals terrorist."

AND THEN THEREíS the case of Arjun Mendiratta, 26, an MIT graduate student studying chemistry and residing in Jamaica Plain. His run-in with federal authorities at the DNC last July has not received the kind of attention that Sahniís has, with the support of the BC community. Nor did he have the fortune to be plucked from a like-minded crowd of peace and social-justice protesters, as Shah had. But Mendiratta, like Sahni and Shah, is of South Asian descent, an Indian-American, born and raised in Chicago. He is small, bespectacled, and unprepossessing, and has a neat, trim beard. Is it coincidence? "I guess not," he says. "What are the odds of that?"

What Mendiratta now considers his "first experience with any sort of profiling" began uneventfully enough. On July 29, the final day of the DNC, he set out for the FleetCenter to catch a glimpse of the scene for the first time. He had noon plans to meet an activist friend at the free-speech zone; in the interim, he intended to pass time taking pictures with his digital camera.

Around 10:30 a.m., he arrived alone at the "protest pen," and was instantly struck by the conditions. "It really did look like a concentration camp," he says. With his camera, he recorded the "restrictive" environment, snapping shots of the barbed wire, the netting, and the nearby military snipers. Then he strolled the downtown area, documenting the heavy police presence ó the cruisers from various communities across Massachusetts, the riot cops and plain-clothes detectives.

It would not take long for Mendiratta to attract unwanted attention, however. About an hour later, after taking several dozen pictures, he was stopped on the sidewalk near Boston City Hall Plaza by a federal officer, who informed Mendiratta that he "was seen taking pictures of entrances to federal buildings." Mendiratta did not put up a fuss. He says he acknowledged that he might have "inadvertently" captured such an image. He produced his Illinois driverís license. He answered questions. Only when the officer asked to see his camera did Mendiratta balk. As he explains, "I felt he had no legal right to see my personal pictures."

By then, two Secret Service agents had arrived on the scene, as had a number of police officers and spectators. He was ordered to step beside a parked police cruiser, which left him feeling as if he were "losing my freedom and control." Then, he heard his cell phone ring.

On the other end of the line was Devon McCullough, Mendirattaís activist friend and an Arlington resident. He had just arrived at the protest pen, toting a sign likening the free-speech zoneís caged atmosphere to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. He couldnít find Mendiratta anywhere, so he called his friendís cell phone. "Arjun wasnít answering," McCullough, an MIT computer hacker, recalls. "So Iím wandering around the pen, wondering what had happened to Arjun. I couldnít understand what had happened to him."

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Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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