U.S. Customs Service inspectors targeted African-American women at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, took them into search rooms, stripped them naked and handcuffed them to a cold bench for five to six hours.
That’s what former U.S. Customs inspector and whistleblower Cathy Harris told a crowd of roughly 70 faculty and students Thursday, Feb. 21, at Lowder Hall. Harris told tales of abuse and discrimination in the U.S. Army, and at U.S. Customs Service jobs in El Paso, Miami and Atlanta. Harris’ visit is part of the Auburn University College of Business’ Diversity Series, a program designed to recognize importance of diversity in the workplace.
“They (the women) would look me in the eyes as if to say, ‘You’re a worker. Can’t you do something about it?’”
For years, Harris watched the abuse: African-American women targeted for detention, strip searches, demoralizing pat-downs, and cavity searches.
“My story is about pain and power,” said Harris, now an activist and public speaker who has authored 18 books. “I stood back and witnessed it, but I couldn’t believe it. They’d tell the women to go into the search room, strip, spread it and grab their ankles. Then they would perform a cavity search. I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it.”
But she did in 1998.
“I realized that I was going to have to blow the whistle,” she told the crowd. “I planned it for a year.”
Harris said she fed her story to the national news media and a local television station in Atlanta – even going undercover to provide six months of documents, “who they (agents) were pulling over, their race and gender,” to an attorney.
The attorney fed the documents to the media. By March of 1999, Fox 5 in Atlanta began a six-week expose.
“I knew that when they showed me that things were about to get really ugly,” Harris said. “When they (co-workers) figured out it was me, they assigned two male supervisors to stand behind me to intimidate me.”
Harris said that supervisors claimed she violated federal law by feeding documents to her attorney.
“They are going to try to put you (whistleblowers) in jail,” Harris said. “I did not violate a federal law. I violated a customs law. Instead of terminating me, they gave me a 10-month suspension.”
But Harris’ willingness to come forward eventually led to legislation that would ensure that international travelers have more legal protections and stronger avenues of recourse if abused by U.S. Customs officials.
A whistleblower is someone who exposes mismanagement, abuse of authority, fraud, waste and acts of corruption.
Harris said she grew up near Carrollton, Ga., and was taught by her mother to “be kind to people and take care of people – especially the elderly.”
“At an early age I had a value system instilled in me,” she said. “Everyone should be treated fairly.”
Harris advised students who blow the whistle to follow the course.
“A whistleblower is someone who exposes mismanagement, abuse of authority, fraud, waste and acts of corruption …,” she said. “You guys are getting ready to get into the real world. It’s going to be rough out there. They did all kinds of things to break my spirit. They are going to do things to break your spirit. But you’ve got to persevere and move forward.”
When asked if she would do it again, Harris said, “Yes, I would do it again the exact, same way. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Phil Ehart, drummer for the legendary rock band Kansas, will discuss the business of music, March 21 at Lowder Hall in the next Diversity Series event.