When news broke on Wednesday that a 14-year-old Muslim boy in Texas had been suspended from school and arrested based on bigoted assumptions, social media went crazy. Hashtags were created and more than a million tweets were posted. By day’s end President Barack Obama had invited the boy to the White House, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he’d love to meet him, Twitter had offered him an internship, and Google invited him to the company’s science fair.
The boy in question is Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth-grader at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, whose arrest and suspension this week sparked national debate over racial and religious profiling in America after teachers at his school mistook his homemade electronic clock for a bomb.
The self-described inventor had shared his invention with his engineering teacher, who had praised the project, but when the device beeped in his backpack during his English class, other teachers had a different reaction.
“An officer and the principal came in and took me up, and they took me to a room filled with five officers,” Mohamed said in a video posted by the Dallas Morning News. “They interrogated me and searched through my stuff and took my tablet and my invention.”
Mohamed said he repeatedly told teachers and the police that his project was not, in fact, a bomb, but his insistence fell on deaf ears. Mohamed, wearing a NASA t-shirt, was subsequently arrested, escorted out of school in handcuffs and taken to a juvenile detention center, where he was searched, fingerprinted and had his mug shot taken.
Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd said Mohamed was arrested because he would only say that the device “was a clock, and was not forthcoming about any other details.” And while police spokesman James McLellan acknowledged that Mohamed repeatedly maintained that the clock was just a clock, “there was no broader explanation” for it.
“That’s because there were no other details!” said an emotional Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show on Wednesday. “It’s a clock! It tells time because it’s a clock!”
Mohamed’s father has said his son “just wants to invent good things for mankind, but because his name is Mohamed and because of September 11, I think my son got mistreated.”
“I felt like I was a criminal, I felt like I was a terrorist, I felt like I was all the names I was called,” Mohamed said on MSNBC Wednesday night. “One of the officers did comment on me walking into the room. He got back in a reclined chair, and he relaxed, and he was said, ‘That’s who I thought it was.’ I took it to mean that he was pointing at me for what I am, my race.”
After his arrest, police refused to let Mohamed call his father, according to Alia Salem, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Instead police searched his backpack, confiscated his iPad and pressured him to write a statement. Salem said Mohamed is an American citizen, was aware of his rights and told the police he did not want to make any statement until his father arrived. Salem added that police continued to pressure Mohamed until he was fighting back tears.
Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne argued on Wednesday that both school and law enforcement officials in her community “followed protocol” during their investigation.
During an impromptu press conference Wednesday evening, Mohamed said the incident was not the first time he was singled out in Irving’s schools. “In middle school, I was called a terrorist, [I was] called a bomb-maker,” he said. “Just because of my race and religion.”
But following this incident, Mohamed said he was overwhelmed by the support he’s received from around the world. “I didn’t think I was going to get any support because I’m a Muslim boy. I thought I was just going to be another victim of injustice.”
He added of the support, “I see it as a way of people sending a message to the rest of the world that just because something happens to you because of who you are, no matter what you do, people will always have your back.”
No charges were filed against the ninth-grader, and even after learning that the clock was just a clock built as a science project, the school suspended Mohamed for three days and sent a letter to all parents essentially blaming the victim.
Despite already knowing that the clock was just a clock and not harmless, the letter from school principal Dan Cummings implies that Mohamed was at fault for violating the “Student Code of Conduct.” The letter also asks students to “immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior,” in essence perpetuating the notion that the incident was suspicious.
Mohamed said he has no interest in returning to MacArthur High School and is exploring his options on where to go instead.
In the meantime, he has a few places where he’s been invited.
President Obama late Wednesday tweeted “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”
Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.
President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015
Facebook’s Zuckerberg posted on his own Facebook page: “Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed. Ahmed, if you ever want to come by Facebook, I’d love to meet you. Keep building.” And Twitter itself reached out to Mohamed with its own tweet: “Hi @IStandWithAhmed, we [love]building things at @twitter too. Would you consider interning with us We’d love it DM us!”
In addition to those high-profile invitations, Mohamed has been invited to visit MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence lab, where he said he wants to go to school; he has also been offered a scholarship to Space Camp, a lifetime membership in Dallas Electronics Club, an actual space-flown NASA shirt from astronaut Daniel Tani, and offers to visit the telescope lab at the University of Texas in Austin and GE headquarters.
Hillary Clinton later tweeted Mohamed as well: “Assumptions and fear don’t keep us safe they hold us back. Ahmed, stay curious and keep building.”