When Christian Alexander Pean walked into the AMC movie theater at 84th and Broadway in the late afternoon on Sunday to see The Martian, he had to kill time before his friend showed up with the tickets. So he pulled out his phone to text friends and possibly read some reviews of the film. Tapping away while he waited, a middle-aged white man in a black turtleneck approached him.
“This guy comes up to me out of nowhere,” Pean recalls. “He gets about a foot and a half away from me and says, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” Pean, 28, figured he might’ve been an AMC employee. He replied that he was simply waiting for a friend. The man raised his voice. Pean soon realized he was a fellow patron.
I went to watch “The Martian” yesterday. I was standing in the lobby waiting for a friend who had the tickets and was running late. I was there maybe 5 minutes, standing, texting my friends, and looking up reviews for the movie (everyone loves Matt Damon in space). Then this guy came up to me. He was maybe two feet away from my face and asked assertively, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I’m going to watch the Martian. I’m waiting for my friend. She has the tickets.” I thought maybe he worked there, or was just striking up a conversation. Then he goes on and gets louder, “Is that really what you’re doing? Stop standing there and texting. You know what happened in Paris. Guys like you texting and standing…that’s suspicious.” I was paralyzed by shock and disbelief at first. I looked around and saw multiple people standing around texting. “Everyone is texting man, it’s what people do when they’re waiting. Why don’t you leave me alone”. He gets more aggressive, “I have my daughter here, how about you get off your phone and stop texting?!”. He takes a step closer, “Take off your jacket. Open it up and show me what’s inside.” And he starts to try and REACH in my jacket. I back up and tell him “Do not do that. Get away from me.” He kept yelling at me and motioning for me to take my jacket off. I continued,”No. Leave me alone. That’s what the terrorists want. They want you to be afraid and do this to me. Don’t profile me and think you’re a hero. I’m a medical student. I’m an American just like you!” Then he walks away but keeps staring at me and yelling, “Stop texting!” And that’s when I recorded this short video and my friend showed up. She was scared and wanted to leave the theatre. There was no way I was going to stop living MY life to coddle this guy’s paranoid mind. We bought popcorn and watched the movie (pretty good movie). Ironic, that we watched The Martian, because when this was going on I was the one who felt like he was on another planet.We’re all scared because of what happened in Paris and Beirut. I understand that. I’m scared too. But now, in addition to being scared of actual terror threats, I also have to be scared of “vigilantes” like this because of the way I look? If he thought he was reasonable in accusing me of being some threat to national security while standing there texting, would he have thought it reasonable to physically assault me? If concealed carry was legal in New York, and this was a “responsible gun owner” who wanted to “protect his family”, would he have felt justified in shooting me there in the theatre for not opening up my jacket quickly enough and putting down my phone? All these thoughts went through my mind while this guy stood there berating me. These are the “good guys”? With friends like these…To the guy who wouldn’t stop badgering me in the lobby of the movie theatre for texting while being Black and wearing a jacket for 5 minutes: You are setting a terrible example for your daughter, and you are NOT a patriot. You are not a brave man; you are a coward for giving into fear and targeting an innocent person in a public space trying to live their life the same as you. You dishonor the victims of Paris and Beirut with your actions. I was just trying to find a sliver of escapism and peace in an otherwise daunting world the same as you. Thanks for ruining that for me. You are a paranoid bully. Your bravado, bluster, and prejudice are reflective of so many things wrong with this world. I’m ashamed that you’re one of my countrymen, but more than anything I feel sorry for you. I pray you learn to live your life without such unwarranted fear and hate in your heart. I hope that you don’t teach your daughter the ugliness you showed yesterday in that AMC theatre lobby. Next time, I hope you pause, and use some common sense instead of frightening everyone, including your daughter and me, so that you can feel “safe”. #WhoDoYouThinkYouAre #ThisisAmerica #TheMartian #NightAtTheMovies #Xenophobia #Paris #Beirut #shame
Posted by Christian Alexander Pean on Monday, 16 November 2015
Then, getting louder, the man said: “You know what happened in Paris.”
“He had an accent,” says Pean. “It sounded French, so at first I thought he wanted to talk about what had just happened in Paris.” But the man quickly expressed that he felt threatened — by Pean, a fourth-year medical student at Mount Sinai who grew up in Texas. He’s a U.S. citizen whose lineage traces to Haiti and Mexico.
” ‘Guys like you texting and standing,’ ” Pean recalls the man saying. ” ‘It’s very suspicious.’ ” The man then demanded that Pean stop texting, asked him what he was texting, and mentioned that he was there with his daughter. At one point, he reached toward Pean’s jacket and motioned for him to open it.
“I was so shocked, my first instinct was to reassure him,” says Pean, who has found himself at the center of racially charged encounters before. “I started to tell him I was a medical student, that I’m American, I’m Catholic — ”
But Pean stopped himself.
“If I were a law-abiding citizen of Muslim faith standing there texting, I’d have every right to [do so] in a public space,” he says. “It struck a chord with me and made me realize so many innocent people get targeted like this every day. How dare he make assumptions about me?”
Pean began videotaping the man.
“If he’s going to make me feel this uncomfortable, he’s going to have to explain himself on camera,” Pean reasoned. He asked the man why he wanted him to stop texting and whether he, Pean, somehow looked suspicious — as seen in the video, the man nods his head yes.
In the clip, Pean tells the man, “You shouldn’t let them, with their bombings in Paris, make you afraid of someone like me.” But the man cuts Pean off, saying, “Better safe than sorry.” The exchange continues for what Pean says was “an agonizing ten minutes — he kept staring at me, saying, ‘Stop texting, stop texting’ and came very close to assaulting me.”
Pean posted the video to Facebook, where it quickly got passed around, having been watched, at press time, more than 7,000 times. “Next time, I hope you pause, and use some common sense instead of frightening everyone, including your daughter and me, so that you can feel ‘safe,’ ” he wrote, addressing the man, who never gave his name. The comments on the post have been overwhelmingly supportive.
Pean acknowledges that following the horror of the attacks in Paris, it is understandable that mounting fear and outrage should emerge. But attitudes of discrimination, particularly toward anyone with an ethnically ambiguous background, are unwarranted and detrimental.
“It’s so twisted and sad, because he’s probably like so many people in this country,” says Pean. “Hopefully, people who feel the need to react this way will think twice and take into consideration that we’re all scared, we’re all human, and most of us are American, too.”