THE BLOG

Why the Case of Police Brutality Against Sureshbhai Patel Is Not a Question of Brown vs. Black

02/16/2015 10:46 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015

A 57-year old Indian immigrant grandfather was handcuffed by police and thrown face-first onto the ground for the crime of walking in his son's Alabama neighborhood last week. The now infamous video provoking outrage from New York to New Delhi shows Sureshbhai Patel being cuffed for no discernible reason, standing inert, only to be thrown face forward while his hands are still bound behind him. After Patel's injuries were likely exacerbated by officers forcing him upright to stand impossibly on what we would learn were paralyzed legs, emergency trauma surgery required spinal fusion.

The incident -- as egregious as it was harrowing -- elicited an outpouring of sympathy, and thousands are donating to a fund created to defray medical and rehabilitation expenses Mr. Patel faces immediately. And after Patel's police officer assailant, Eric Parker, was arrested and fired, Indian Americans found themselves asking again why law enforcement is too often veering from lawmaking to lawbreaking. The line from Eric Garner to John Crawford to Sureshbhai Patel is too linear for smug complacency that this only happened to African Americans.

Even as outrage was building, and the South Asian community was processing the attack, a blogger, Anirvan Chatterjee, and later Sandip Roy posted retorts of sorts. Reproducing tweets by motivational speaker and author Shaun King, Chatterjee posited three "secrets": a) Patel was attacked because ex-Officer Parker was fueled by a report that the perpetrator was black; b) Parker was fired and arrested while cops accused of anti-black attacks remain free; and c) the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) was errant in suggesting cultural sensitivity training in association with the Department of Justice, since the real culprit is anti-black racism.

But as it happens, the facts are contrary to Chatterjee and Roy's contention. The police in Madison, Alabama were responding to a 911 caller that spoke of a man wandering around his neighborhood allegedly peering into garages. Asked for a physical description, the caller did describe a "skinny black" man, "very skinny," he emphasized, and in "his thirties." True. But before Parker threw Patel to the ground, the dashcam audio captures Patel offering up "India" as the only identifier he could articulate in that moment of panic. Then listen to the 911 call transcript at minute 3:13 as the officer clearly describes his "suspect" on the ground as an "older Indian male."

While the 911 caller was wrong on age and race, the officer was acutely aware and accurate on both descriptors. Patel was not thrown to the ground because the officer thought he was black. He was thrown to the ground because of any potent mix of racism, xenophobia over a man who spoke no English, and it must be said, Hinduphobia.

Chatterjee and Roy would do well to speak to Hindus and Indian Americans in Alabama to hear countless stories of being targeted for their color, ethnicity, and religion in their motels and stores or in their schools, and perhaps hear testimony of how they face down Hinduphobia and aggressive proselytization before asserting that Parker was immune to the context in which he worked. It is hard to miss those pesky signs on highway motels throughout the South touting "American owned" as a not so subtle dig against that Indian owned motel across the street, or the Confederate flag bumper stickers that don't distinguish between black and brown.

Despite the facts, once PBS's Hari Sreenivasan and comedian Hari Kondabolu tweeted Chatterjee's piece, a different narrative was emerging on social networks. Indian Americans, most of whom are Hindu, were processing their own vulnerability to be objectified and targeted, but an instant later, prominent South Asian voices were belittling their voicing outrage. The implication was stunning: it is okay for Sikhs and Muslims to call out racism against their community, but when Hindus do it, they are failing to address anti-black racism.

Sunando Sen may have been pushed off a subway platform to his death for standing while Hindu (or Muslim) as the assailant later claimed, but for the "South Asian" advocates, Patel's attack was just a case of mistaken identity, his injuries, his story tangential to the central narrative -- anti-black racism."

In a prescient piece last week preempting the "South Asian" trope he knew would come, Prof. Vamsee Juluri called out the hypocrisy that would later be articulated by Chatterjee and Roy:

"But how can we be so sure that the racism that Indian-Americans sometimes face has nothing to do with prejudices about the major religion they are identified with? How can we be sure that one kind of racism is independent of another? We cannot. And yet, for several years, every single time we have talked about the brazen misrepresentation of Hinduism in American media, pop culture, and most all in academia, we have been shouted down by the same concerned south Asian activists and commentators. We could not even talk about Hinduphobia without being rudely told that no such thing exists, or that it is a figment of Hindu extremist paranoid fantasy."

With the now viral dashcam footage and audio evidence showing Patel driven to the ground, it was hardly a surprise that Parker was stripped of his badge and arrested. The same should have happened in Garner's case in Staten Island, but must Chatterjee and King really claim that a paralyzed Patel lying supine on a hospital bed enjoyed Indian privilege because his perpetrator was punished -- and that his pain was meant for someone black? That the outrage of his son and community was misplaced and a false equivalency? The self-flagellation in this repudiation of agency and claim of privilege is stupefying.

Chatterjee goes on to present a baffling choice to Indian Americans: educate local police departments with sensitivity training and cultural competency training [Chatterjee and Roy disparage HAF's initiatives here], OR work with other ethnic and religious minorities to fight for change. But why this false binary? Why must Hindus and South Asians choose? Why not thoughtfully do both?

"Thoughtfully" is key to any coalition building, and HAF's Murali Balaji rightly rejected the binary that Chatterjee and Roy propose when he wrote:

"Instead of a one-size-fits-all social justice approach, maybe dialogues that confront our own prejudices would work better to address some substantial gaps that exist across socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic lines within these communities. In the meantime, what some are proposing (and groups like the Hindu American Foundation are backing) -- including the addition of body cameras to police officers and accountability measures for law enforcement agencies -- can help address some of the problems, but need to be done in tandem with a more holistic approach."

And cultural competency training is not something HAF proposes only because of what happened to Patel -- it is one tool in an armamentarium to prevent what happened to him. Why belittle this critical education component that HAF has long offered?

There are many steps that the community must now take. HAF consistently works in diverse coalitions representing every faith and none to combat bigotry and hate -- with the Department to Justice, Department of Homeland Security, State Department and through education reform at local levels -- and the Foundation is uniquely positioned to fill the extant Hinduism knowledge gap within government agencies. Even if the attack on Patel was not prima facie anti-Hindu, are Chatterjee and Roy arguing that the community would not be better served if law enforcement was sensitive to possible language barriers, cultural practices, or body language in its dealing with Hindus?

While the initial call to law enforcement that led to Patel's felling stemmed from a neighbor's anti-black bigotry, the police clearly responded to Patel as a non-English speaking other. The point should not be whether neighbors conflated Sureshbhai with a black man, a Middle Eastern man, or a foreigner to evoke a perverse suspicion, but that in Patel's plight, South Asians saw how easily and brutally their turn could come.