David Lawrence had just settled into seat 22F on a Ryanair flight on Thursday when he heard a commotion brewing on the other side of the plane.
A few rows behind him, a ruddy-faced man with gray hair and dark-rimmed glasses was yelling at a black woman seated along the aisle.
“I heard this man shouting at this woman, saying, ‘You’re in my way, get out! I don’t want you here next to me!’ ” Lawrence told The Washington Post in a phone interview Sunday. “I couldn’t believe what I heard.”
Lawrence grabbed his phone and started to record the encounter, which took place before a flight from Barcelona to London Stansted Airport. By then, the woman’s daughter had come up and confronted the man.
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“She said, ‘Who are you talking to? Don’t shout at her, that’s my mother, she’s disabled,’ ” Lawrence recalled, noting that the elderly woman had boarded the plane in a wheelchair. “He then was saying, ‘I don’t care.’ ”
In the video, the man can be heard yelling back at the younger black woman, all while other passengers continue shuffling down the aisle. A male flight attendant with his back to Lawrence’s camera apparently attempts to calm the situation, to little effect.
“I tell you, I hope somebody sits there,” the man tells the elderly woman, gesturing toward the empty middle seat between them. “‘Cause I don’t want to sit next to your –…” The rest of the sentence is unclear, though he appears to call her “sickly,” “fat” and “ugly. ”
The flight attendant then asks the woman whether she would like to sit elsewhere.
“Put her to another seat!” the male passenger shouts, before turning to the woman. “I tell you this. If you don’t go to another seat, I’ll put you to another seat!”
The elderly woman says something back at him, prompting the man to retort angrily: “Don’t talk to me in a f—ing foreign language, you stupid ugly cow!” and then “Ugly black bastard!”
The shouting had a mixed effect on surrounding passengers. One man, wearing a black T-shirt and sitting in the row directly behind, physically tried to intervene, sticking his hand between the seats in front of him and telling the irate passenger to keep his voice down.
“Stop,” the man in the black shirt pleads. “There’s no need for that at all. Just stop. It’s really easy to close your mouth. ”
Lawrence, while recording the video, can be heard saying, “Throw him off the flight. Throw him off the flight. Get rid of him!”
Eventually, the elderly woman asks to sit next to her daughter and begins to move out of the row, visibly fed up.
To his surprise, Lawrence said, the flight took off shortly afterward, with no apparent repercussions for the male passenger, who effectively enjoyed “extra leg room” in a row to himself.
“I thought the flight attendant was going to call someone and escort the man off the flight,” Lawrence told The Post. “They moved the woman instead of moving him. That was shocking to me. ”
He decided to upload his video to Facebook the following day out of frustration.
“It was just so disturbing,” Lawrence said. “Because there was no response from the other passengers on the flight at the time, I thought, OK, well, somebody needs to know what happened here. That’s why I kept the video running and captured as much as I could.”
Over the weekend, the video garnered nearly 3 million views and has been shared tens of thousands of times. Lawrence later uploaded the video to YouTube, where it has more than 100,000 views.
Scores of commenters expressed outrage over how the matter was handled and demanded to know why Ryanair’s flight crew didn’t remove the male passenger before the plane took off.
Representatives for Ryanair did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday. However, the Dublin-based budget airline company said in a Twitter post Sunday that it was aware of the video and had reported the incident to Essex Police.
“We operate strict guidelines for disruptive passengers and we will not tolerate unruly behavior like this,” Ryanair told BBC News. “We will be taking this matter further and disruptive or abusive behavior like this will result in passengers being banned from travel. ”
Essex Police confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it was investigating the matter and encouraged people with information to contact them.
“Essex Police takes prejudice-based crime seriously and we want all incidents to be reported,” the police department told the news site. “We are working closely with Ryanair and the Spanish authorities on the investigation. ”
The woman’s unnamed daughter told HuffPost UK that her mother, identified only as “Mrs. Gayle,” is a 77-year-old retiree who immigrated to Britain from Jamaica in the 1960s. They were returning from a vacation to mark the anniversary of the death of Gayle’s husband, the daughter added.
“She’s been feeling really down and depressed, so I thought the trip would raise her spirits,” Gayle’s daughter, 53, told the news site. “The underlying reason behind the man’s abusive behavior comes down to the fact that my mum is a black woman and he didn’t want her sitting next to him. He says it in the video. ”
Gayle’s daughter said the encounter left her outraged and her mother “upset and very stressed, on top of the grief that she’s already experiencing. ”
Lawrence, 56, told The Post that he spoke with the mother and daughter after the flight and said they were both disappointed and disgusted. His parents also were part of the “Windrush generation,” immigrants who moved from the Caribbean to Britain from 1948 to 1971, so Lawrence said he could understand why the elderly woman agreed to switch seats rather than escalate the situation.
“The racism they suffered on a daily basis is historic. Our parents have learned over the years – because they have never received any kind of justice – they’ve just learned to live with it,” Lawrence said. “They kind of have this attitude, like, ‘Well, what can we do?’ sort of thing. The lady was like, this has happened so many times. I just want to go home. ”
Lawrence has since posted multiple more times about the incident on social media, urging people to put pressure on Ryanair for turning “a blind eye to racial discrimination.” The airline’s acknowledgment of his video was hardly a sufficient apology, he said.
“It’s not good enough,” he said. “It certainly falls so short of what we expect an airline to provide for, in terms of protecting their customers. It’s shameful. It’s shameful. “