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Internet rallies around flier accused of groping TSA agent

AP

Yukari Miyamae, 61, is seen in this undated booking photo in Phoenix provided by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

The flying public has chosen its new folk hero and it is Yukari Miyamae, a 61-year-old Colorado woman who was arrested for allegedly groping a female Transportation Security Administration agent at Phoenix's international airport.

Miyamae is accused of grabbing the left breast of an agent at a security checkpoint last Thursday and was facing a felony count of sexual abuse. After reviewing the case, prosecutors for the county declined to file felony charges against Miyamae, according to the Associated Press.

One Facebook page titled "Yukari Miyamae Legal Defense Fund" at first described Miyamae as "the 'Rosa Parks' of US aviation." It later changed its description to "Support Yukari Miyamae, wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a TSA agent." The comparison didn't end there, though. On the "Acquit Yukari Mihamae" Facebook page, which had nearly 2,600 likes as of press time, commenter James Kress wrote, "Yukari is a 21st Century Rosa Parks!"

If the comparison is overblown, if not offensive, it seems to reflect the widespread public anger about aggressive airport pat-downs and the frustration of fliers who don't feel they can speak out against what they see as invasive screening methods.

Since the story broke on Saturday evening, a groundswell of public support for Miyamae has emerged online. Many of the 700-plus comments on the original msnbc.com story about the altercation were also supportive of Miyamae. The commenter Bob in Oklahoma wrote, "Why is it 'sexual assault' when Ms. Mihamae grabs a TSA agent's breast, but perfectly hunky-dory when the TSA agent does the same thing to a passenger? Ms. Mihamae didn't check the agent's diaper, did she?" The commenter was referring to a recent episode in which the TSA checked a 94-year-old woman's adult diaper before permitting her to fly.

The "Acquit Yukari Mihamae" Facebook page has dozens of posts, most of them supportive of Miyamae. G David Hawkins wrote, "you just did to them what they're doing to us all. you are a hero for the people, and i stand with you!!"

Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who last year became famous when he deployed an emergency chute on a grounded plane after an altercation with a passenger, said that a reverse-groping incident was bound to happen. 

"Violence is violence and we can’t condone it," he said. "But in my own situation, and I think it’s apt here, something created this. This was a long time coming."

Slater, who had never experienced a pat-down until April of this year, said the episode was humiliating. "I was like, 'Wow, you want to buy me a drink first?' The guy was very gracious about it, but it was very, very thorough. There wasn’t much that went untouched."

Related: An interview with a 'mad flight attendant'

Of course, not everyone views the pat-downs as rage-worthy. Don Atkinson wrote on the "Acquit Yukari Mihamae" Facebook page, "This whole incident is a joke. If you don't like TSA, don't fly. There is no right to fly. Don't like the rules, don't use flight as a mode of transportation."

On Saturday, TSA spokesperson Kawika Riley condemned the incident: "TSA officers work every day to protect the traveling public, and the agency will not tolerate assaults against its workforce."

The agency would not comment further when asked about the public support for Miyamae.

Slater urges frustrated fliers to pursue activism over lashing out. "It’s so important that we be vocal, we communicate, and do grass roots activism before we have another Steven Slater going down the slide or another [flier] fondling back. Left to its own devices, it’s only going to get worse."

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report. An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of the flier's last name. It is Miyamae, not Mihamae.

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Rebecca Ruiz is a senior editor at msnbc.com. Follow her on Twitter.