ANNAPOLIS – A Capital News Service reporter, covering the closing of the Black & Decker plant in Easton, was approached Friday by three police officers who said she was reported to be “a suspicious-looking person of Middle Eastern descent.”
Ayesha Ahmad, a 24-year-old North Carolina native, was wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf, called a hijab, as she held up a sign requesting employee interviews across the street from the plant. The sign identified Ahmad as a reporter. After little response, Ahmad added to the sign that she would take an employee to lunch to talk about the impending layoffs.
Black & Decker announced Tuesday that the Easton plant would begin shutting down early next year, affecting about 1,300 workers.
“I just stood there for a half an hour,” Ahmad said. “People would slow down to read the sign.”
Ahmad said she identified herself as a reporter to the worker at the plant’s gate, and was told she could be in the area, just not on Black & Decker property.
Three Easton Police Department officers later approached Ahmad, who had a media badge but was not wearing it, and told her about the complaint. She said the officers were courteous and friendly.
“They just told me they’d been having issues all week with the media,” Ahmad said. “They didn’t tell me to leave, but I just thought it would be better if I did.”
Sgt. Rhonda Thomas, one of the Easton Police Department officers who responded to the complaint, said the caller was concerned because Ahmad was standing near a water treatment plant, one of the places President George W. Bush has said terrorists could target.
“Ever since the 9-11 incident it seems like everywhere around the world you’re getting calls about the Muslim people,” Thomas said, likening the situation with last month’s sniper attacks and the targeted white trucks.
Easton is located in Talbot County, which has a population of about 34,000, with only a few dozen being of Arab or Middle Eastern ancestry. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said she thought both the police and Ahmad handled the situation appropriately.
“That’s unfortunate and outrageous, but in today’s climate the cops obviously have an obligation,” Dalglish said. “It sounds like the cops did the right thing.”
Thomas Kunkel, dean of University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, which oversees Capital News Service, said he is surprised he has not heard of more incidents like this occurring since Sept. 11.
“I guess I’ve been somewhat surprised that we haven’t seen more reports of backlash,” Kunkel said. “People are on edge these days. It’s one of the reasons I think people like Ayesha are especially courageous to do what they do. Journalism is hard enough without all the baggage that is being piled on (her).”
Despite the seriousness of the incident, Ahmad said she did not take it personally.
“It’s the funniest thing that’s happened to me since someone mistook me for a nun in high school,” Ahmad said. “I couldn’t stop laughing on the ride home.”