Kal Penn once starred in a stoner comedy where he ends up in Guantanamo after a woman on his flight mistakes his bong for a bomb.
Now that same Kal Penn has been tweeting his support for New York's stop-and-frisk policy. That's the New York City practice where cops can stop pedestrians and frisk them for weapons and other contraband. New York Mayor Bloomberg says it's keeping crime rates down.
But a judge has just ruled it unconstitutional because she agreed it disproportionately targets African-Americans and Latinos.
Penn obviously feels strongly about it. After Bloomberg stuck his guns and wrote an editorial about it, Penn tweeted "Great op-ed by @MikeBloomberg on the merits of "stop-and-question-frisk."
That has unleashed quite a media storm, especially on social media. Some wondered if he forgot a #snark hashtag. Others said that his account must have been hacked. RinKelly tweeted "Harold and Kumar Kowtow to White A**h****s" dragging his poor co-star John Cho into the tweet-storm."
They have good reason to feel that way. While actors don't have to live up to their on-screen personas, Penn has actually been outspoken about civil liberties.
In a 2005 interview with this author for India Currents, for example Penn recalled:
I was flying back from Nevada Penn recalls. I was with two white guys. We are all the same age, all on the same flight, all on the same kind of ticket, all dressed casually, traveling together with our backpacks and two of them are in front of me. They go ahead. And the guy stops me.
Airport Security: Step over.
Penn: Why? (I think I was channeling my grandparents, who were in India's independence movement.)
AS: Step over the side.
Penn: Why? (Damn. I am not going to be able to get onto the plane, am I? But I already started this.)
AS: Step over the side, sir.
(Repeat exchange for 30 seconds more.)
Penn: Why do you need me to step over the side?
AS: You need to be searched.
AS: Uh huh. Because your shirts are too baggy.
I was like, really, that's all you got? I think it's completely ridiculous. It does happen. It is racial profiling and it's also scapegoating. Though these days the security guy at the end of the line might be younger. And so when I am usually through with the search, he'll say, 'Hey man, aren't you the guy from ...?' And you know what? If you are the guy from TSA, and you are reading this, I am just not in the mood.
And more recently in GQ.
GQ: In HK2, Kumar gets stopped at airport security in a blatant bit of racial profiling. Has that happened to you?
Kal Penn: Oh, many, many times. It's happened to almost every brown dude I know.
GQ: That's infuriating.
Kal Penn: It goes against the notion that something like that makes us safer.
So what happened to that Kal Penn? Clearly being mugged at gunpoint in Washington D.C. in 2010 must have had some impact.
As he tells @CWmsWrites:
@CWmsWrites lol well already been a victim of violent crime. It's a sound policy and we need to stop trying to get rid of it.
Asked about it disproportionately targeting blacks and Latinos, he tweeted "and who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?" That led an incredulous @AnilDash to respond "@kalpenn seriously? You're gonna back stop & frisk with 'black people commit most crimes'?"
Clearly Kal Penn leaves himself wide open to charges of hypocrisy. Whether he intends it that way or not, it sounds like he's saying it's "discriminatory and racially profiling" when he is pulled out of the line at the airport. But it's sound policy when the same happens to blacks and Latinos because once he was the "victim of violent crime." So much for "brown dude" solidarity.
Whether New York's stop-and-frisk is actually racial profiling or whether it's hard to make streets more secure without some element of profiling is a contentious issue. Just because crime might decline while stop-and-frisk is in effect does not mean it declined because of stop-and-frisk. Mike Riggs on Atlantic Cities points out:
Last year the department recovered one illegal firearm for every 688 people its officers stopped. Of more than 530,000 stops, only 10 percent resulted in a ticket or worse, and most of those tickets were for marijuana offenses.
Whether he sees the airport line and city streets as apples and oranges or he's just had a change of heart after being mugged, Penn would have been well advised not to argue the nuances of public policy in 140 characters or less on Twitter.
But the vicious Twitter-storm over Penn's remark which has quickly gotten personal is also out of whack.
Kal Penn is not the US Attorney General. He does not work for the Obama administration any more meaning all those headlines about "Obama supporting actor slammed for tweet defending Stop and Frisk" are just stirring up political mischief. He is not America's civil liberties watchdog or even a lawyer. And despite his filmography he is not an expert on racial profiling or marijuana reform or Guantanamo for that matter.
Basically he's an actor who happened to express his personal opinion about something in the news. What Kal Penn thinks about stop-and-frisk is going to have no impact on the fate of the policy or its legal challenge. It's fine to call him out on it but there's no need to act as if the sky has fallen down.
So when @Atchka! tweet-laments "Another progressive icon goes down in flames" that's going a little too far.
Come on, this is not Rosa Parks! Or Harry Belafonte. Progressive politics can surely do better than find its icons in Kalpen Modi.
Update: After Rinku Sen, Publisher of Colorlines.com, and Deepa Iyer of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) reached out to Kal Penn to express their disappointment and concern over his tweets he issued this response:
"I support the statement from South Asian community leaders on the impact of racial profiling. I have and still do oppose racial profiling in any form. I want to thank SAALT and the Applied Research Center for reaching out and starting to educate and dialogue with me about these issues. I plan on being in regular contact with these great community leaders and allies around the issue of racial profiling, and to dialogue with and engage others about it. It's important for all our communities to be educated, informed and mobilized."
Another version of this blog first appeared on Firstpost.com.