United Airlines continues to deal with an escalating public relations nightmare after having a passenger forcibly removed from an overbooked flight. But amid the chorus of criticism of the airline has come a media backlash against the victim.
The airline itself attempted to justify Chicago airport police beating and dragging passenger David Dao, claiming he had "raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions." He then "became more and more disruptive and belligerent" when selected for removal from the overbooked flight to make room for some United employees.
Now, in a move that the media has used with other high-profile victims of abuse, Dao's own history has now been dredged up and used against him. On Tuesday morning, the Louisville Courier-Journal published a story that exposed Dao's "troubled past" in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
"Dao, an Elizabethtown doctor, is familiar to many Kentuckians who recall his convictions on drug-related offenses in 2004," the paper's Morgan Watkins wrote.
Watkins wasn't the only reporter trying to dig up dirt not on United or the police he dragged their passenger, but on Dao.
Many people also brought up the fact that the media response bears the hallmarks of the victim blaming used to tar young black men killed by police. Michael Brown was referred to as "no angel" after being shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin was portrayed as a thug for wearing a hoodie when he was killed by George Zimmerman. It's also common for victims of rape and sexual abuse to be blamed for wearing certain items of clothing, not fighting back, or doing something to suggest "they were asking for it."
In the case of Dao, his past offenses only add to the perception that the Chicago airport police were justified in the level of force they used on him, and that Dao was a danger, despite having no history of violence.
The Chicago Police Department's own past is one of the most checkered in U.S. law enforcement, with the Justice Department releasing a scathing report in January excoriating Chicago police for civil rights abuses.
Law enforcement at Chicago's two major airports is split between armed police and unarmed Aviation Police officers who operate independently of the CPD. However, as the Chicago Patch points out, "Chicago Aviation Police are security officers who graduated from the Chicago Police Training Academy... many are military veterans, and some work in suburban police departments." Previous investigations have pointed out they have a poor relationship with the CPD, suffer from low morale, and have complained about a lack of leadership.
The Aviation Police, who are barred from carrying firearms, have also been criticized by local politicians as too expensive for what they do. When talking about a bill to arm airport police, the alderman who chairs the City Council’s Aviation Committee told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I’m not against people making a decent salary. But if you’re not gonna put a gun on them, we should get somebody cheaper."
If one were to expose the police like some journalists have tried to expose their victims, one could say Aviation Police "have a checkered past" and that its officers "became more and more disruptive and belligerent" when Dao asserted his right to not be beaten.