There's been an unexpected twist in the story of a metro Denver Muslim mom who says she faced "blatant racial profiling" after being stopped at a Pepsi Center entrance because of her hijab. Argus, the company that handles security for the Pepsi Center, is defending the actions of its employee and has released security footage of the incident.
The woman at the center of the episode is Gazella Bensreiti, who arrived at the Pepsi Center on November 5 with her daughter, whose school was scheduled to sing the national anthem before a Denver Nuggets-Miami Heat game. On Facebook, Bensreiti wrote that "upon entering, a woman named Dorothea put her hand to my face and told me that I would have to 'take that thing off' of my head. I told her that I would not take it off due to religious reasons. I was wearing a turban/cap. I explained to her that it was my hijab and that I would not be taking it off, to which she responded, 'I don’t care, you can’t come in with it on.' I then asked if she’d be willing to take me to the side so that I could remove it and show her my entire head in private. Again, she told me no.'"
Bensreiti, who noted that "more than five white men...with baseball caps on" were allowed to enter without removing their hats, maintained that "my eight-year-old daughter became distraught and was pulling on my arm asking if they weren’t going to let me in to watch her perform. Dorothea then went into an office and came out and waved to me to go ahead through, without making eye contact or even acknowledging me as a human being, but ushered me like an animal." Bensreiti was subsequently told that her tickets weren't ready, and after sitting in her car and crying, she returned to the venue at 5:30 p.m. to retrieve them — and afterward, she said, the woman who had denied her entry "began berating me and yelling at me" before the employee's manager took charge and listened to her complaints. In her words, "He was cordial and left me alone after that."
Prior to a November 14 press conference about the incident called by the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Colorado branch, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, the owner of the Pepsi Center (as well as the Nuggets), issued a release stressing that the "Pepsi Center prides itself on creating a safe and inclusive environment for all patrons regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, disability and sexual orientation," contending that the "security agent didn't recognize that Ms. Bensreiti was wearing a hijab" and divulging that "we are taking steps to modify our screening process and provide additional education for our staff."
The tone of Argus's response is considerably different. Here's the video released by the company; Bensreiti can be seen arriving at the security station at around the 1:10 mark. It doesn't include audio.
The Argus statement shared by president/CEO Dave Brower begins like so: "Argus is aware of a guest interaction with an Argus employee which took place on November 5th at the Pepsi Center. Argus would like to clarify the facts pertaining to the interaction. Our employee is a 71 year old African American woman who has worked for Argus for 14 years and until this incident never once had been accused of discrimination, profiling or harassment. The patron repeatedly pointed to our employee and another Argus colleague while calling them racists. Argus stands behind our employee."
Brower continues: "Our employee was performing her job duties consistent with Pepsi Center and league security screening protocols. She did not recognize the headwear worn by the patron as a Hijab. Once notified by the patron of her religious headwear, our employee immediately sought guidance from her supervisor, who allowed the patron to enter without removal of her Hijab. Our security video verifies that this interaction took a total of one minute and 11 seconds."
In his view, "there has been significant misinformation communicated about this event. To be clear, at no point was our employee motivated by religious or racial bias. She too has been traumatized by the interaction and has a 14 year employment history with Argus working multiple venues without a single patron complaint. It goes without saying, that Argus is committed to treating all guests equally regardless of race, religion, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation."
He adds that "Argus has reached out to the guest to discuss the matter in greater detail, but she has not responded to our request." But he also offers this acknowledgement: "Argus realizes there are always areas to improve or enhance the guest experience and we plan on working to identify if changes are necessary to improve guest interaction."
Bensreiti concluded her Facebook post about the incident by asserting that "I have never experienced this type of trauma in my entire life.... Not only did she traumatize me and my daughter, she infringed upon my civil rights."
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Gadeir Abbas, a CAIR attorney working with Bensreiti corresponding via email, reinforces this theme even as he takes on Argus's defense.
"The fact that the employee who did this is a veteran security screener makes the incident even more concerning, rather than less," he contends. "The NBA and Nuggets have a decision to make to either follow the law and implement policies that respect the rights and dignity of their fans that wear religious attire or to continue telling Muslims that they are not welcome."
Abbas adds: "The idea that it’s okay to humiliate someone and treat them like a second class citizen as long as you do it quickly is shameful and deeply offensive to all Americans that value religious freedom."
This post has been updated to include the complete Argus statement and comments from attorney Gadeir Abbas.