By Chris Hoenig
In one of his movie roles, Kal Penn is whisked away to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay because someone thought his bong was an explosive device. In real life, Penn, whose parents are Indian immigrants, told GQ of being racially profiled at an airport, saying, “It’s happened to almost every brown dude I know,” and, “It goes against the notion that something like that makes us safer.”
But then he went and tweeted this:
If there was any question whether the tweet was just him sharing an interesting column or was an all-out endorsement of the NYPD’s policy, Penn’s responses to suddenly dumbfounded fans left no doubt:
As his Twitter followers tried to figure out if it was one really bad joke or if his Twitter account had been hacked, Penn continued to justify the program:
The tweets came after a federal judge ruled that the NYPD’s preventative policing program is unconstitutional, calling it “indirect racial profiling.” The policy allowed police to stop and frisk people based on their clothing, knowledge of their criminal past or just an officer’s own observation that a person could be acting as a lookout or casing a location. More than half of those stopped as part of the program have been Black, even though that demographic makes up just a quarter of the city’s population. Only 6 percent of all stops led to an arrest.
The Obama administration made its stance clear when Attorney General Eric Holder filed a brief on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights opposing the NYPD’s program. Penn was a part of the administration at the time, having left Hollywood in 2008 to take a job as Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement.
But it was his experience during his time in D.C., when he was the victim of armed robbery, that Penn pointed to in justifying his support for “Stop and Frisk”:
Now, the about-face. As the social-media storm grew, groups including the Applied Research Council (publisher of Colorlines.com) and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) connected with Penn. The result of the outreach came Saturday in the form of yet another tweet:
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) August 17, 2013
In a column for the Huffington Post, Penn clarified his remarks.
The point of those tweets was what I presumed was a discussion among progressives of color, as a brown guy who gets stopped all the time after 9/11 and who lives in big cities, about what various things we need to do to make our communities of color safertogether, including adhering to the constitution, and openly talking about whether there is merit to portions of a particular law when taken in conjunction with larger community-building,” he wrote.
I think the entire context of my tweets was lostprobably because I tried to make some snarky cynical banter in a tweet about “activist judges.” (That was meant as a jokey way of using words that we usually see on far-right news networks but was received about as well as my role in The Mask 2.) My original point was a conversation piece. As people of color, is this effective Does it have merit How do we make our own communities of color safer (since we are collectively more often victims of crime)
The ARC and SAALT released a statement responding to Penn’s column. “Our unequivocal answers to these questions are: no, no and not with Stop and Frisk,” the statement reads. “Stop and Frisk sounds so benign yet it covers up theviolent humiliationexperienced by hundreds of thousands of young Black and brown menannually. Beneath the numbers is the human impact of this sort of policing. It involves being thrown to the ground face down. It involves cops dumping your belongings on the street while they taunt you with predictions that you’ll never amount to anything. It involves having this happen to you a dozen times before you’re 16 years old, and continuing into your adulthood. This sort of police enforcement not onlyhurtsthe individual, but also entire communities whose members are treated as ‘others’ and automatically deemed unwelcome suspects in their own neighborhoods.”
In an attachment, Penn endorsed the statement. “I have and still do oppose racial profiling in any form. I want to thank SAALT and the Applied Research Center for reaching out and starting to educate and dialogue with me about these issues. I plan on being in regular contact with these great community leaders and allies around the issue of racial profiling, and to dialogue with and engage others about it. It’s important for all our communities to be educated, informed and mobilized.”