The long-running WorldFest film festival — bearing a self-proclaimed mission to "promote cultural tourism" and "add to the cultural fabric of Houston" — is under fire with a weekend confrontation sparking accusations of ethnic profiling and cultural insensitivity.
As the 46th annual festival entered its closing weekend on Saturday, guests at a professional seminar at the Marriott Westchase were greeted by the an emergency alarm that interrupted WorldFest founder Hunter Todd's introductory remarks.
The class evacuated the room only to find out it was a false alarm.
"To be blunt, the Boston bombings were only five days earlier. It was very much on my mind after the manhunt on Friday."
Both Todd and festival attendee Mike Rudd, a University of Houston communications student, agree that a female University of Houston student with her face covered by a hijab veil and niqab cloth entered the room as people returned to their seats . . . But the agreement stops there.
"From the corner of my eye, I saw this individual in a beautifully colorful hijab. You couldn't see anything but her eyes," Todd tells CultureMap, adding the woman entered the room by herself. (Rudd says she was not alone, just sitting next to an empty seat.)
Todd, a military veteran, says he called a friend in law enforcement for advice and followed a recommendation to check the woman's backpack and credentials. The person showed her Gold Pass, which the festival gives to area university students, and opened her bag to reveal several large bottles of water.
"No words were exchanged the entire time, which was about 60 seconds," Todd explains."I thanked her and told her I hoped she was enjoying the festival. I even saw her at another film screening a few hours later."
As Todd restarted his introduction, Rudd stepped up to angrily accuse him of improperly profiling the woman — who remains unnamed — due to her Muslim background. A brief scuffle ensued with Rudd claiming that Todd tried to take his phone and Todd saying that he deflected a potential punch from Rudd.
Later on Saturday, Rudd took to Facebook to recount his side of the story — a story he tells CultureMap can be corroborated by many other students in attendance.
"I just want people to understand that racial profiling occurred."
"She tried to show him her pass to prove she was supposed to be there, but he demanded to search every single pocket of her bag anyway," Rudd wrote. "I'd like to add he did so with a great deal of rudeness and attitude. She complied and showed him her bag, after this he walked off and didn't ask to search any of the dozens of other bags in the room."
Rudd goes on to say that Todd explained he was searching the woman “because she is a Muslim and a suspicious character.” He says that the festival founder called him an "obnoxious little bastard" and demanded that he take a seat or leave the session.
Another UH student, who wishes to remain anonymous, reached out to CultureMap on Tuesday afternoon to verify Rudd's account.
Meanwhile, Todd says he was only concerned about his festival's guests that morning and that he would have done the same with anyone carrying a large black bag. Todd says he conferred with several Houston police officers and a former FBI agent after the incident and feels he made the right decision given the situation.
As for the media attention in the wake of the confrontation? Todd calls it a "PC tempest in a teapot."
Rudd says he will continue to stand his ground on the matter. At the encouragement of UH officials, he has also filed an official complaint with the Houston Police Department.
"I just want people to understand that racial profiling occurred," he explains. "The girl in question has been very gracious and upbeat about people speaking out on this."