February 18, 2015
It’s hard to not wince at this video of the police brutality inflicted upon Sureshbhai Patel. A frail 57-year-old Indian man who does not speak English, Patel, a recent immigrant who came to join his son’s family, was walking around his new neighbourhood of Madison, Alabama. Someone called the police, insisting that a “skinny Black guy” was wandering around and looking at garages. The caller said he was nervous about leaving his wife alone while this mysterious and imagined Black man was wandering around.
It’s a story as old as this country: A Black man is instantly identified as a sexually rapacious intruder and looter, a threat to the virtue of white women and the homesteads of upstanding white citizens. The twist here, for the Indian and Indian American communities which erupted in fury and indignation over the incident, is that Patel is not Black; he had been mistakenly identified as such.
Patel, who suffered traumatic injuries including two snapped vertebrae, remains in the hospital, and his prognosis is not encouraging at this point. But justice, in his case, was swift. Eric Parker, the officer who is seen slamming Patel to the ground in the video, has had his employment terminated; the Indian Consulate has sent a representative to help the family, and none other than the Governor of Alabama, has issued an apology.
The speed of the actions in response to Patel’s case, and the great difference in responses to innumerable instances of police brutality towards Black bodies has not gone unnoticed. Anirvan Chatterjee, Diksha Madhok, and Sandip Roy are among those who have pointed out the discrepancy. Writing about the Hindu American Foundation’s decision to create a “Hinduism 101 training for first responders”, Chatterjee points out that “[t]his fails to address the root cause: Mr. Patel’s white neighbor asked the police to protect his wife from the “skinny black guy” on the street. Patel wasn’t attacked because he was Indian, or a Hindu — he was attacked because of anti-Black racism, compounded by utter disrespect for those with limited English proficiency.”
The HAF’s response is symptomatic of a larger cultural attitude prevalent in the larger South Asian community. In the wake of 9/11, Sikhs were terrorised or killed as Arabs/Muslims, and the Sikh response continues to be a desire to prove their exceptionalism and that they are not Muslim. Last week, vandals painted a Swastika on a Bothell, Washington Hindu temple and the internet snarked about their lack of historical knowledge about the symbol, going so far as to call them “stupid.” This sort of class contempt makes easy scapegoats of lower-class Americans (implicitly and explicitly coded as “white trash”), while ignoring the widespread and often more insidious forms of racism that pervade everyday life in the US. This is the same kind of contempt readily echoed by white lefties and progressives who relentlessly mock Sarah Palin, long after her viability as a candidate for anything ended, while remaining silent on Obama’s policies.
None of this is necessarily surprising. Immigrant communities are, by definition, bound by a predetermined desire for class mobility or, as in the case of wealthy South Asians who are an increasingly powerful constituency in the US, a shoring up of the status quo presented as a quest for the American Dream. In that, they naturally collude with class interests in the U.S, interests which ignore the deadening grip of capitalism on the lives of the poorest Americans, of any colour.
This is not to place any blame on Sureshbhai Patel, or to imply that he and his family do not deserve justice. But the shockingly quick response to rectify what happened to him stands n stark contrast to what happens to Black bodies faced with similar treatment.*
I want to point to several matters that have been so far left unquestioned, including the drive towards exceptionalism that undergirds so much of the coverage of this story, even in the most progressive retellings. For starters, there is the constant emphasis on the fact that he was a grandpa, as if this somehow makes the brutality worse, as if his grandfatherly status should automatically exclude him from violence. I’ve been critical of such politics, and I’ll repeat what I wrote in “Death and Exceptionalism”:
During an Occupy Oakland event, many protested the violence faced by a woman in a wheelchair and other disabled people or, as one commenter put it, “The world needs to know that Oakland PD is tear gassing the elderly, the disabled, children, and the press.” Surely, I would argue, what “the world” needs to understand is that violence and repression are the first tools of State machinery, that police are not going to stop in the midst of quelling a response against that which feeds them and gives them their pensions in order to first construct escape routes for the disabled, children, and the press (and even as a member of the press, I'm unclear as to why the last category deserves special treatment). In aiming its outrage at who the police are repressing, progressives fail to analyse and, in the long term, end the systems of oppression they claim to fight.
We might also ask why a relatively well-off engineer in the U.S should need to import his parents as, essentially, unpaid labour to take care of his child, and why we never question the ways in which elderly Asians are often brought to the US as such, wrenched from the lives they have known in their old age. I have no idea what the particularities of the Patel family might be, but I’ve always been struck by the ways in which the importation of what amounts to free childcare and/or homecare via aging grandparents and other relatives has been relatively unscrutinised.
We might ask about the backdrop of Indian-US relations, one where neoliberal deals of capitalist expansion are being made on a daily basis and which are in fact the prod behind such a swift rallying of justice.
We might ask: What if Patel had in fact been guilty of wanting to steal? Given all the cries about his innocence as an exemplary grandfather, would anything else have justified such brutality and force?
But we don’t. Instead, we roll on with our relentlessly affective discourse about grandpas and exceptionalism, and insist, as Roy does, that this is all somehow a “sad comment on [a] nation built by immigrants,” when in fact this country has been built by genocide and slave labour.
Patel’s case calls to our attention the historical and recent calls to pay attention to anti-Black culture and violence. To insist, and to echo a recent campaign, that Black lives matter is to point out that Black lives are constantly on the edge of violent, brutal erasure. Let us follow the Patel case through to its end and pretend that he had in fact been Black. Let us view, again, this video, of Eric Garner first refusing to be cowed by law enforcement and then being choked to death, and acknowledge that this is nothing less than the use of plantation-style force and the disciplining of the Black body.
In recent months, Black activists have, rightly, criticised the appropriation of the Black Lives Matter campaign and hashtag, taken up by a range of groups and reformulated into ones like “All Lives Matter” or “Brown Lives Matter.” There has, subsequently, been a backlash against this criticism, and a call for more supposed solidarity.
But cases of violence, such as the kind faced by Patel, prove why we need to continue with a focus on the singularity of a larger, prevalent, and insidious anti-Black culture, one that exists with such force that it does not simply manifest itself in the physical violence towards those identified as Black but in the violence of exclusion practiced by immigrants whose biggest fear is that they might be identified as Black. **
My thanks to Santhosh Chandrashekar for discussing the case with me, and for helping me to refine my thoughts.
** To be clear, I’m not on board with a number of badly articulated positions on anti-Blackness, often propounded with guilty fervour by white “anti-racists,” and which demonstrate nothing more than than a desire to shut down more complicated discussions about the historical and material trajectories of anti-Blackness as we see it today. For a complicated set of discussions that defy the logic of sameness imposed by most “anti-racist” campaigns, see Adolph Reed on anti-racism and Project NIA.
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