Braille Monitor August-September 1985
When Steve and Nadine Jacobson, Federationists from Minnesota, started to return home from the national convention in Louisville, they did not think of themselves as criminals or violators of the law. Yet, even before they had the opportunity to leave the airport, they were subjected to verbal abuse, physically attacked by the police, and hauled off to jail in a squad car. And for what? For sitting peacefully in the seats which had been assigned to them by airline personnel.
United Airlines (the one with the friendly skies) has tried to excuse its brutality by claiming that the Jacobsons sneakily requested exit row seats without revealing that they were blind. Even if this were true, it would hardly seem to be justification for physical attack and public humiliation. But, of course, it is not true. In fact, it is a direct lie. The Jacobsons made their reservations through a travel agent, who will testify that neither he nor they requested exit row seating.
The good faith and morality of United can be gauged by the conduct of one of their attorneys. That ethical individual called the travel agent and, posing as a neutral party, tried to get him to say that he had requested exit row seating for the Jacobsons. Of course, the ploy did not work, for the statement was not true; and the travel agent has integrity.
As this article is being written, plans are going forward for the Jacobsons to return to Louisville to face a prosecuting attorney and a jury to answer for their heinous crimes against mankind and society--and, yes, especially against safety. When the trial finished, United and the Louisville police will undoubtedly find themselves on the other side of the table, for it is a safe bet that they will be called on to answer in court for their vicious behavior and brutal assault. Rather than attempting to summarize the details of what happened, let us hear the story in the words of Nadine Jacobson:
July 19, 1985
Dear Dr. Jernigan:
I first must tell you that I am not a writer, but something has happened to my husband and me which is so alarming that I simply must write about it for my own sanity. We have not been sleeping well for two weeks. I find myself crying unreasonably with no extenuating circumstance--but I know what the reason is. I would imagine this will be more detailed than you wish to have, but please bear with me. I feel it necessary to be as complete and accurate as I can.
On July 7 we were returning home from the convention. Joyce and Tom Scanlan and some other Federationists were to be on the same flight (United 869). When we arrived at the airport, we checked our luggage and asked the person (a woman) behind the desk what our seat numbers were, both from Louisville to Chicago and from Chicago to Minneapolis. She said our seats to Chicago were 9-D and E and from Chicago, 14-E and F. We walked to the gate and met some other Federationists who were traveling on the same plane. We were asked if we wished to preboard and politely declined the offer. This was one of those planes without a jetway. The man at the door told us to follow the yellow lines. We located the staircase to the plane and boarded. The flight attendant asked if we could find our seats, and we did.
As I was reaching to my right to lay our canes next to the window, I realized that to my right (where there should have been a seat) the space was empty. I then felt the door and found the openings that indicated we were in an exit row. I laid the canes down and buckled my seatbelt. I let Steve, who was sitting on the aisle seat directly to my left, know what I had learned. I guess we hoped they wouldn't notice, or if they noticed, that they wouldn't care. We had flown to the Phoenix convention last year on Northwest Airlines, and the flight attendant simply mentioned that we were in an exit row.
Shortly after we were seated, a female flight attendant came and told us that we had to move to another seat because of a federal regulation. We explained to her that we had been at a National Federation of the Blind convention, where we had learned that there was no such federal regulation. We also talked with her about the fact that blindness would not limit us in case of emergency and that we were perfectly capable of handling any situation that might arise.
She then left, and a male person (I believe he said he was part of the crew) came and talked with us. We went through the same explanations with him and told him we were perfectly fine right where we were. He then said he would have to contact the captain. I asked him to let the captain know of our position and asked him to change his mind about asking us to move.
This same gentleman returned and said they had called an agent. The agent came on board. He said he was an agent. We don't know what kind of agent. He spoke to us in a patronizing way, asking us to move just for him if we would and saying that we could file a complaint with United when we reached Chicago.
Then another gentleman came on. He may have said he was the captain. I'm not sure. He talked with us, and we again explained our position and asked that he just let us be. Someone said they would have to call security, but we did not know whether that was happening or not. At one point Steve stood up. A male person then said to me:
"I don't care if you're blind or not. I don't feel like being a nice guy today." He then grabbed my left arm and twisted it. It was very painful, so I tried to free myself from his grasp. My arm was sweaty, so I got it away from him.
I then asked him what his name was. He did not answer. I asked three more times what his name was. He still didn't answer. Then Steve sat down, and a woman from the next row forward handed us a sheet of paper. She explained to us that on the sheet she had written her name and that of the officer who had twisted my arm. His name was on his badge.
Then, someone said our choice was to move or get locked up. I was then placed under arrest. Someone grabbed my left arm again, and I said: "If we're leaving the plane, it might be best to get this seat belt loose."
I had my cane in my right hand by that time. He gruffly undid the seat belt. He had my left elbow. As we left the plane going down the stairway, he attempted to take my cane from me. I asked that I might keep it in order to manage the stairs. He let me keep it.
On the way in, I asked this gentleman what his name was, and he said it was Larry Morgan. Judy Sanders and a woman from Colorado had left the plane also. We walked to a room, where we were seated, and the officers filled out paperwork. It wasn't until this time that I realized Steve was also under arrest.
The experience on the plane was upsetting because many of the passengers were becoming very angry. One woman said, "No wonder, for God is punishing her for being blind." After the gentleman twisted my arm, I was quite scared, and I yelled at him that if he touched me one more time, I would sue him. That statement was out of fear more than anger. We were not at any time abusive to the United staff.
I guess my assumption was that after the paperwork was completed, we would be released since that's what had happened to Judy Sanders when she had a similar problem with People Express. That, however, was not to be. We heard an officer call a local precinct and ask for a squad car.
After about half an hour an officer came and took us downtown in a police car. He opened the glass panel to allow some of the air conditioning to get to the back of the car. There were no door handles in the back of that car. When we got downtown, he told us to spit out our gum and that if we had any illegal substances to get rid of them in the trash can. I told him that I had a sealed bottle of bourbon in my purse, which was to be a gift for a friend, and asked if that would be any problem. He said it wouldn't because bourbon isn't illegal. We asked him what we were being charged with, and he said disorderly conduct.
Then, a female officer came and took my arm. I walked inside the station with her. She then ordered me to take off my shoes and my socks. Then she gave me an envelope and said, "Take off all your jewelry and put it in this envelope."
"My earrings, too?" I asked. I don't know why. I only know that I felt somewhat scared. She said then that my bourbon would be confiscated. I told her it was sealed and that it was a gift. She said that didn't matter. That was the rule, and I could ask somebody else. I said that didn't seem reasonable to me since if they were locking up my jewelry, which is of some value, that they could lock my purse up, too. She said that the rule was the rule. Then, she frisked me, patting all over my body. "Spread your legs, " she commanded. "Farther!"
Then, a male officer clipped a hospital-type plastic band to my right wrist. Then, they took my cane. At this point I was beginning to feel very vulnerable, but taking my cane was the last straw. She then told me to pick up my shoes and socks, and she took me by the elbow to a place where fingerprints were taken. Next, to a place where they took my picture. The next stop was the cell.
The cell was a small room, probably about eight by eight. Its entire contents were a wooden bench that ran along one wall and a combination sink and toilet that was metal. It had no cover. I found later that there was toilet paper.
She then closed the door and told me to pull up my shirt. I did. Then she said, "Pull up your cups." I thought she said, "Pull up your cuffs," so I reached down to pull up my pants legs.
She said, "No! I said your cups!" I pulled up my bra. I felt like crying but decided I wouldn't give her the satisfaction. She then frisked me again and left, locking the door. I went to look at the door. I felt around for a knob. Somehow I thought there would be a knob, but there wasn't. The door was, of course, locked, and there was a window in it. I had to go to the bathroom. I didn't want to there because there was a window in the door--but I had to, so I did. I didn't find a flusher or any toilet paper until later. I kept on thinking, "How can they put us in jail and treat us like this for sitting where we were assigned?"
I was glad that Judy Sanders had got off the plane to get us some help. A while later a woman came in and said she was from pretrial services. She asked me some questions, mainly identifying information. She asked for the name of someone who could verify we were who we said we were. I gave her the name of Donna and Steve Jorgenson. I didn't find out until later that she had called them and told them we were under arrest but would not elaborate on the reason for the arrest. They were very frightened, as you can well imagine.
I then heard Steve being brought somewhere close to the outside of my cell. When this pretrial person who said after I requested it that her name was Becky Strummel left, I asked her to let Steve know where I was. She went out, closing the door behind her, and I heard her asking Steve the same kinds of questions she had been asking me.
It was very hot in the cell. The building was air-conditioned, but the cool air did not reach the cell. I started humming, hoping that maybe Steve could hear. I hummed, "Glory, Glory Federation" and the new airlines song. I then spent some time trying to figure out all of the words of the airlines song, and they soon came to me. I did not have a watch, so it was hard to keep track of time. I kept on humming. Sometimes I heard Steve whistle, and I hoped he was all right. I kept up the humming so that he would think I was all right, even though I wasn't so sure. After a long time, someone came and took me by the wrist and did a full fingerprint set and another set of pictures. I asked why, but they only said it was their procedure. I was then brought back to my cell, and the door was again locked.
At one point they removed me from my cell and took a woman in there (I would imagine to do a strip-search), and then I realized that Steve was out in the hallway. He didn't even have a chair to sit on, or a toilet. When I went back into my cell, I felt thirsty, so I cupped my hand and drank some water that way. But then, I felt bad about that, realizing that Steve didn't have any water at all.
During this time we heard noises and activity throughout the jail. People were asking to use the phone. Sometimes the officers would let them, and sometimes they would tell them to wait.
At the time the officer brought the lady into my cell, I was told to stand outside the cell with my hands against the wall. As he was putting me back into the cell, I asked if Steve and I might be allowed to sit together in the cell. He said, "Well, then you wouldn't be punished, would you?" I talked about this later with Steve, and Steve had heard him laughing and thought he was joking. Well, if he was, it was a cruel joke, indeed.
The waiting went on and on. Then, Steve asked to use the bathroom. They brought me out of my cell and had me stand against the wall again. They had Steve use the lavatory in my cell.
By this time I was humming classical music. I was beginning to feel that we might be stuck there the whole night.
Steve asked to use the phone and called Judy. He learned that it was about ten minutes after ten by this time. It was a little before seven when we got to the jail. Judy, not the police, told Steve that we were to be released. She also said she had contacted the press.
Throughout all this time Steve and I had not been allowed to communicate with one another. I started hearing some tapping and realized that it was Steve using a code we had developed as young lovers. He was trying to cheer me up. I was telling him I loved him and that this would be over soon. I learned later he could not hear me. After Steve's call to Judy, the waiting seemed interminable. Finally, someone came to get me. They told me there were t.v. cameras outside waiting for us. They didn't seem happy about that. We signed some papers and were given back our possessions, with the exception of my bottle of bourbon. The next day I learned that my cross pin with my name engraved on it, which was a gift from Steve, was missing.
I felt so relieved when they gave me my cane back. I was mainly relieved that we were getting out of there. The t.v. cameras were waiting for us.
We didn't sleep until after three that morning. When we arrived back at the Galt House, we contacted David Murrell, a Kentucky attorney who is a Federation member, and also Marc Maurer. We described to them what happened to us. They were supportive and caring as you would know that Federationists would be.
We learned some things from them that were very interesting. First of all, we learned that a release order had been signed by a judge for eight that evening, but we were not released until eleven.
The next morning we went to court, and there were several Kentucky Federationists there to support us. When we arrived in Minneapolis, there were about twenty-five Federationists singing the new airline song. Without the support of the Federation, we could not get through this.
There are some unsettling things that I guess maybe I already knew but didn 't want to think about. The people with United enjoy pushing blind people around, just like the Louisville police do. They both see themselves in positions of power, and they enjoy using it, no matter how humiliating it may be to the people they use it on. It doesn't seem right that in this country blind people can be arrested and jailed and treated like common criminals for sitting in seats to which they were assigned.
When we were in those seats, Dr. Jernigan, I kept on thinking about your banquet speech. You said that if we really believe we are first-class citizens, that will change life for blind people. I had moved from seats in the exit row on two previous occasions. I had put up a valiant argument, and then moved. That did something damaging to my self-respect. I couldn't do it this time. I simply couldn't move. But the most important part about all of this is that if it were not for the Federation, we couldn't take this kind of stand. No one of us alone could handle legal expenses. We'd just have to put up with it and shut up. But because of the National Federation of the Blind, we can take a stand and let people know that those of us who are blind are capable citizens.
Please forgive the unpolished syntax of this letter. Please know that it was something I had to tell you about. Sometimes this wonderful movement of ours stretches us in ways we could not imagine.