Traveling While Black: I Was Racially Profiled and Locked Up in Israel

Detroit activist and writer Kristian Davis Bailey was en route to a West Bank conference to talk about Black and Palestinian solidarity when Israeli police accused him of drug smuggling. Here, he reflects on the trauma of his arrest and insists that it’s nothing compared to what Palestinians face.

For two months I have been silent about an unexpected and traumatic experience: my racial profiling, arrest and incarceration by the state of Israel in mid-December.

I was on my way to Birzeit University in the West Bank to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement and the connections Black youth and organizers have made to the Palestinian struggle. I’ve recently contributed heavily to this work: I organized a delegation of Palestinian students to Ferguson in 2014, co-organized the 2015 Black Solidarity for Palestine statement endorsed by 1,000 activists including Angela Davis and Talib Kweli, and co-wrote the 2015 Black-Palestinian solidarity video “When I See Them, I See Us” that featured Danny Glover and Ms. Lauryn Hill.

To get to Birzeit, I entered the West Bank from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge, which is actually a land crossing between a Jordanian and an Israeli-controlled terminal on Palestinian land.

The Israel Airports Authority officer in charge alleged that my clearly-labeled bottle of ibuprofen from CVS was actually Captagon, an illegal amphetamine that Western news media has recently labeled the drug of choice for Syrian and ISIS fighters.

The so-called evidence of my trafficking was a photo the chief pulled up on his phone. He claimed that what he identified as Captagon looked just like my pills. My tablets were small and red with “I-2” engraved on them. (I later learned that “I-2” stands for “ibuprofen, 200 milligrams.”) Most of the images of Captagon I’ve seen online show pills that are yellowish-gray or beige.

After I argued with the five additional officers who had gathered to look at my ibuprofen, one of them told me that I was right, that I was carrying painkillers. She then told me to go sit down in the terminal waiting area.

But an hour later, border agents took me to a side room where a police officer told me that I was suspected of smuggling drugs into the country. I was subjected to a full strip search and placed under arrest. I entered Palestine in the backseat of a police van, handcuffed and shackled and flanked on either side by Israelis with U.S.-made military-grade assault rifles.

The police drove me 30 minutes from the Jordanian-Palestinian border to a station in Ma’ale Adumim—an Israeli settlement in the West Bank that is illegal under international law. Here, the police interrogated me before I could speak to the lawyer I had asked for, in contravention of Israeli law. They told me to sign multiple forms that were printed only in Hebrew, a language I cannot read or understand. The police then confiscated all of my electronics—phone, computer, camera, voice recorder and hard drive.

After briefly consulting with a public attorney, police took me to the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. Despite repeated requests, I was not allowed to call my parents, the U.S. Embassy or any local contacts.

Nobody knew where I was.

Just as I had been shocked that my interrogator in Ma’ale Adumim was Arab, I was surprised to see an Ethiopian man among the police officers at the Russian Compound jail. Besides these officers and a few Sudanese prisoners, these were the only non-White people I saw during my arrest. I shared a cell with three older Israeli men and spent most of the night in disbelief, hoping someone outside would figure out where I was. It was my first time in a jail.

At my court hearing the next morning the judge agreed to release me on a 6,000-shekel bail ($1,500 USD) under the conditions that the police would keep my passport and that I could not leave the country for 10 days. The bail emptied my account, and the travel restriction kept me in the country three days longer than planned.

Police released me 27 hours after I first arrived on Palestinian soil. It was only at this moment that my family had any idea where I was. My parents said they had a feeling something was wrong after they hadn’t heard from me. They recommended contacting the U.S. Embassy and Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the congressman for the district in Queens where I grew up and where my parents still work. I emailed both. One day later, I spoke with the head of American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. He designated my case high-priority after hearing from Meeks.

I had missed my panel on international solidarity while I was imprisoned, but Jamil Dakwar, a Palestinian human rights attorney who was attending the conference, volunteered to give me legal advice throughout the week and made sure I was as comfortable as possible. I stayed with friends in Tel Aviv and Haifa since I could not cross the checkpoint into the West Bank without a passport or proof-of-entry into the country.

Two days after my release, I was summoned to the Ma’ale Adumim police station for a second interrogation.

During a two-hour period, the two police officers questioning me spent no more than 10 minutes asking about the Captagon I was allegedly smuggling. For the rest of the time they scrutinized photographs from my camera and phone. Based on these pictures they interrogated me about my prior travels in the region, the organizing I’d done in the U.S. and my attendance at a political rally for Rasmea Odeh headlined by Angela Davis.

The police attempted to create a narrative that I supported Al Qaeda and ISIS and they called me a liar when I stated, unequivocally, that I did not. Then they made anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian and anti-Black statements, at one point comparing my alleged crime in Israel to them visiting New York City as tourists and going to Harlem to buy drugs.

But the police obviously did not believe their own claims, as they let me go after the interrogation. I then waited for the results of their lab test to confirm that I had indeed been carrying ibuprofen, a widely used over-the-counter pain reliever.

Four days later, the U.S. Embassy called to tell me that the police would return my passport the next day—eight days after I arrived and one after I had planned to leave. The police had closed my case on the basis of “no fault,” meaning that I did nothing wrong and no record of the charge would remain.

Since returning to the U.S. in January, I have not been able to find a picture online of Captagon that looks anything like the red pills in the image that the border chief used to justify my arrest. The officers who made this accusation either intentionally lied or irresponsibly operated on bad intelligence.

Either way, I have no illusions about what occurred.

Israeli border agents racially profiled me long before accusing me of drug smuggling. Halfway through the bus ride between the Jordanian and Israeli terminals, an Israeli soldier ordered me and a Muslim man from the U.K. traveling with his wife and children off our bus the moment it entered Israel-controlled territory. We were the only two questioned out of 20 people. Ten minutes later, at the Israeli arrivals terminal, the first customs official that I spoke to had flagged me for additional questioning and called for her supervisor.

The racism of the border process at the Allenby Bridge was obvious. Most White and East Asian travelers made it through without delay. Almost all of the 20 people who were stopped when I was there were visibly Muslim, Arab or South Asian—some, in spite of being citizens of “safe” places like the U.S. and U.K. I did see a White woman questioned for her suspected involvement in Palestine solidarity work.

These instances were consistent with structural racism in Israel. Since its founding, Israel has rested on the expulsion, second-class citizenship, and later, occupation of indigenous Palestinians. Its practice of Zionism has created a racial hierarchy that privileges White Jewish people over Palestinians and other non-White people.

Currently, there are more than 50 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian people who are citizens of the state of Israel.

While Jewish people from anywhere in the world can visit and become citizens, Israel subjects some Arab and Muslim people to what the U.S. State Department calls “unequal and hostile treatment at borders and checkpoints.”

Anti-Blackness also exists in Israel. Until a social worker exposed the practice, Ethiopian Jewish women immigrating to the country were given the contraceptive Depo-Provera without their knowledge or consent. This resulted in a 20- to 50-percent decline in the birth rate of Ethiopian Israelis from about 2003 to 2013. Israel is home to an open-air prison for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers, whom Prime Minister Netanyahu has called “infiltrators.” There have also been racist rallies against non-Jewish Africans supported by government officials.

I was targeted at the intersection of Israel’s Zionism and anti-Blackness. I was targeted at the intersection of the global War on Drugs and the War on Terror. I was targeted for being a young Black male. The international marker of “Blackness as criminal” superseded the global mobility of a U.S. passport.

And while the racism I experienced didn’t surprise me, I was traumatized. I’ve spent much of the last two months withdrawn from my family and friends. I feel defeated in the sense that racist Israeli border authorities and police stole time and opportunities that I will never get back.

Whether intentionally or not, authorities stopped me from delivering messages about Black internationalism to the conference I was supposed to attend. Having confiscated my phone, computer and passport, police limited my ability to communicate, visit people and use my platform as a writer to amplify the stories of Palestinians facing immense repression.

I felt silenced from the moment I was arrested. I knew that because of my skin color, no amount of indignation or protest would free me and could actually make things worse. After my release, I was afraid to publicize my case because I thought it would interfere with my legal process and my exit from the country.

But while my arrest and interrogations were large on the scale of my personal experiences, they are insignificant compared to the suffering of Palestinians.

For all my mistreatment, I was released from jail at a time when, according to the Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer, Israel is holding more than 600 Palestinians indefinitely under the policy of administrative detention without charge or trial. These “administrative detainees” were among the 6,800 Palestinian political prisoners being held in December 2015—including almost 500 children.

At press time (February 24), Palestinian journalist Mohammed Al-Qiq has been on hunger strike for 92 days, protesting his indefinite detainment by Israel. Even on his deathbed, he refuses to eat. He demands freedom in this life or the next.

I was also able to enter and travel freely across Israel and the West Bank. This same right is denied to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

According to the human rights organization Badil, 67 percent of the global Palestinian population is made up of refugees. Some are banned from all of Palestine. Some are internally displaced, living in the West Bank or Gaza but aren’t allowed to enter Jerusalem and what is currently called Israel. Most of these refugees or their ancestors fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding in 1948 or during the 1967 War.

To put this in perspective, a Palestinian friend I met while he was pursuing his master’s degree in St. Louis could travel 7,000 miles from the U.S. to Palestine, but he could not go 70 miles from his refugee camp near Bethlehem to visit me in Haifa. And in the two weeks I was in the area in December, Israel arbitrarily banned two Palestinian-American friends from entering the West Bank for 10 years by labeling them as “security threats.” One lived in the West Bank through high school and both are scholars.

The grave indignities of racism and colonialism are the reason I will keep fighting for Palestine and it is through the encouragement of Palestinian comrades that I begin to share this story now.

Over the past two years, I have found my voice as a journalist and organizer by documenting and building connections between the Black and Palestinian struggles for self-determination. I may have been momentarily silenced, but I refuse to be intimidated.

As the “Assata Taught Me” hoodie I wore throughout my time in jail, court and police custody reminds me, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”