Local and federal authorities say Diffly was questioned because of what he was doing.
Diffly, a 23-year-old University of Georgia student, is publicly complaining that he’s the victim of profiling because of his dreadlocked hair and long, dark beard.
"Sometimes my friends joke about me being Middle Eastern," said Diffly, who is not. "But I definitely didn’t feel like it was a joke coming from the police. It kind of felt more like profiling."
Diffly spoke with The Times on Friday, a day after an FBI agent
interviewed him about photographs Diffly took outside the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant off U.S. 129.
Diffly said he came to Gainesville on March 11 to work on a field project for his Georgia history class that focused on the region’s poultry industry. After trying to gain admittance to a few plants with little luck, he decided to snap some photographs from Industrial Boulevard of the Pilgrim’s Pride plant and the adjoining train tracks.
"I figured, I had my camera with me, I might take some photos for the professor, for the project," Diffly said. "I’m just a college student, trying to get some stuff for this project."
He said he snapped photos for perhaps 10 minutes at two locations at about 3:30 p.m. when two patrol cars pulled up and three officers got out and started questioning him.
Diffly was uncertain of which agency was involved, but Hall County Sheriff’s Maj. Jeff Strickland confirmed that sheriff’s deputies questioned Diffly.
Diffly said he was asked about his dreadlocks, and that a deputy said, "What’s up with the beard?"
"I just found that kind of ridiculous," he said.
Diffly said he explained to the officers his reason for taking pictures and was allowed to go on his way after about 20 minutes.
Diffly said he filed no formal complaint with the sheriff’s office, a standard option for someone who has a grievance with law enforcement.
"I didn’t know I could," he said.
Strickland said the deputies responded to a report of a suspicious person and that Diffly was questioned not because of his appearance, but because he was photographing a potential terrorist target. Authorities believe that large industries in the nation’s food supply are at risk of what officials term "agriterrorism."
"We regard all calls that could possibly involve agriterrorism as serious," Strickland said.
Asked about the remarks that Diffly attributed to a deputy, Strickland said, "We do not profile anyone under any fashion. Looks don’t have anything to do with it. Our officer was doing his job. He was responding to a call and trying to make a decision on whether it warranted further investigation."
The report was turned over to the sheriff’s criminal investigation division, which in turn forwarded it to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. On April 2, an FBI agent phoned Diffly and requested a face-to-face interview.
"When I got the call from him, I was like, ‘Is this a late April Fool’s joke?’" Diffly said.
Diffly said he was asked over the phone whether he was Middle Eastern. The following day, he met with a FBI agent for a 20-minute interview at his job at an Athens pizza restaurant. Diffly, in an act of defiance, wore a camouflage T-shirt emblazoned with a bright yellow AK-47 to the interview.
"I just thought, if they want to profile, they can profile this," Diffly said.
The agent also spoke with Diffly’s professor, who accompanied his student to the interview, and came away convinced that Diffly wasn’t up to anything nefarious.
"He told me that my name wouldn’t be put into a terrorist database, and I’m like, ‘Well, thank God,’" Diffly said.
Diffly called the interview by the FBI agent "a huge waste of his time."
Steve Emmett, a spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta office, confirmed an agent interviewed Diffly "as part of an agriterrorism awareness program."
"The individual checked out that he was taking photographs for a school project and that concluded the inquiry," Emmett said.
Emmett said "the FBI respects the civil liberties of everyone, and profiling was not an issue in this incident."
Diffly isn’t so sure.
"I’m upset about it because the way I look got me into this," Diffly said. "Just because I have a beard. And I don’t want to cut my beard — I’m a college student."