Why the United incident sparked more outrage than this alleged police beating

USA TODAY - The outrage was widespread and immediate after a video surfaced showing a passenger being forcibly — and violently — removed from a United Airlines flight on Sunday by airport security officers in Chicago.

In the wake of the incident, United was slammed by late-night television hosts, derided on social media and chastised by politicians. CEO Oscar Munoz did not help extinguish the controversy with his ham-handed response to the outcry over the passenger's "re-accommodation," as he called it. (Munoz did eventually apologize, and the Chicago Department of Aviation is investigating the officers involved in the incident.)

It isn't the only violent encounter with authority caught on camera this week to go viral. Did you hear about what happened in Sacramento? Maybe not.

On Monday, a Sacramento police officer purportedly beat an African-American man after the officer stopped him for jaywalking. The officer allegedly told the man to stop several times, but the man ignored the officer’s commands and continued walking away. At one point, the man challenged the officer to fight him, according to police.

A video of the incident posted on Facebook shows the officer suddenly throw the man to the ground and begin beating him.

"For an unknown reason, the officer threw the pedestrian to the ground and began striking him in the face with his hand multiple times," read a statement released by police. The department also released dashcam video. The officer in the video has been placed on leave while the incident is investigated.

The Facebook video had more than 1.1 million views as of Thursday morning.  Though it received coverage, particularly in local media, it did not generate anything like the level of national furor sparked by the action of police on the United flight.

So why does one incident of aggressive behavior tap into our national indignity while the other gets little more than local attention?

Identifying with the victim

It mainly comes down to our identification with the victim, according to Jonathan Bricker, professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Bricker has been researching air travel-related stress since 1998.

"I think we resonate with his experience because that could have been us," said Bricker of the removal of David Dao, a physician, from the United flight.

"We feel a visceral and in our gut connection to his suffering," Bricker said. "We feel that fear and vulnerability of having to be that unfortunate person that's randomly selected and forced against our will to leave a flight that we had bought a ticket for."

In the case of police violence like that captured on film in Sacramento, people don't necessarily feel that sense of identification, in part because of the man's race.

Bricker attributes this to "implicit bias," which he defines as "the unaware bias we have, a split-second bias, toward our own race, and negative biases we have also toward African-Americans. And I think that it's operating in the background in why there has been less sympathy" toward African-American victims of police brutality, Bricker said.

But Dao, an Asian-American, is also a member of a racial minority and questions have been raised about the role race played in his treatment.

We all feel vulnerable when we fly

So what, in addition to race, might explain the wider reaction to Dao's removal?

For one, the airplane represents a particularly vulnerable space for most Americans in today's collective unconscious, Bricker said. The psychologist called the Dao incident a "sick and stark reminder of how powerless passengers are" when they fly.

"When you are flying you are in an environment where you have had to give up a lot of control," said Bricker. Loss of control is one of the main drivers of a fear of flying, but even for travelers who don't suffer from that fear, giving up your control over where you sit, your personal space, when you can get up, when you can use the restroom and sometimes when you can eat or drink, leaves people feeling very vulnerable, Bricker said.

Bricker created what he calls the Air Travel Stress Scale. The degree to which people trust the airline, and how well they feel the airline cares for them, are key factors in determining how calm a passenger remains during a flight. The violent removal of a ticketed passenger goes a long way in undermining that trust, Bricker said. For that reason, the incident touched a nerve, not just for the passengers on Dao's flight, but also for the millions who saw the video of his removal.

Trust in the police vs. hating the corporation

A third reason Dao's rough treatment resonated so widely is the unpopularity of large corporations, airlines in particular. Big business ranks as one of the institutions Americans have the least confidence in, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, just below the news media and just ahead of Congress, which ranked dead last. In contrast, the police ranked as one of the institutions in which Americans have the most confidence.

And airlines are consistently one of the least popular industries, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Most years, they rank just above cable providers in the index.

Bricker shares a negative view of the industry in terms of its treatment of its customers. "This is just how they do business," he said. "It's how most of the large airlines do business. They don't understand the basic psychology of travelers."

The airline's CEO handling of the matter only fueled the public's fury over the Dao incident.

"Munoz has completely been tone deaf and completely clueless about the suffering that this man has experienced," Bricker said. Munoz's denial of Dao's mistreatment only compounded travelers' sense of powerlessness, he added.

"We feel bad for the man already and we feel even worse, enraged when the perpetrator of this suffering denies the reality of the suffering," said Bricker.

Bricker said it is too soon to tell if the Dao incident will give rise to a movement to reform the airline industry, or if the video was simply the latest shimmering object to catch the public's attention.

And the video of the police beating in Sacramento may not have gotten much national media attention, but it is part of an ongoing conversation about race and policing that has led to increased transparency and accountability in many police departments around the country.

Copyright 2017 USA TODAY


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