Walking While Brown While Looking Black

by R. Benedito Ferrão

On February 6, 2015, an Indian man was left partially paralyzed, following an encounter with the police in Madison, Alabama, USA. News of the event spread on social media and elsewhere online. When it became known that a police car had captured video of the incident on its dashboard camera, an online petition was circulated to exert pressure on the Madison City Police Department to release the footage. But even before the petition hosted by the website 18millionrising.org had acquired the threshold of 1600 signatures it had set itself, the police had made the video public.

Watching the video for the purposes of writing this article was difficult. At the edge of the screen, one sees Sureshbhai Patel (57), with his hands behind his back, possibly handcuffed, being thrown to the ground by Officer Eric Parker. Later, when Parker, along with one of the other officers on the scene, attempts to get Patel to stand up, it becomes apparent that the “suspect” is unable to. He is literally hauled onto his feet before collapsing back down. Patel, it was discovered, had suffered a neck injury that would cause him paralysis in some parts of his body.

As the video spread, the indignation, particularly of South Asians, was instantaneous, and rightly so. It would be revealed that Patel, a citizen of India, had come from that country to help care for his grandson, born prematurely and, to do so, was living in his son’s home in Alabama. As more of the story became known, perhaps we likened Patel to members of our own family. We saw in this grandfather our own parents and grandparents, those transnationals and migrants who connect our lives across continents. In fact, I came to hear of this case from a cousin whose children my father took care of in Texas. Like Patel, my dad and other relatives, like my aunt and uncle, had come to the States to temporarily help out with childcare. And while I appreciate how much coverage the event has received, there is something about the nature of the conversation around this violent incident that leaves me dissatisfied.

This is not an isolated event of police brutality. To regard it as such runs the risk of reducing it to a sign of South Asian American exceptionalism. Consider that the police had been alerted by a resident of the neighbourhood who claimed that a “skinny black guy” they had “never seen … before” was “just wandering around”, and who was estimated to be in his thirties. That the police would be compelled to respond to such a call should make one question who and what they wished “to Serve and Protect”, as the police motto goes. We don’t know who the call came from, but what is unmistakable is that the police reacted precisely because the person being reported was believed to be black. Evidently, it was unfathomable to, both, the caller and law enforcement that a young black person should have any business in such a neighbourhood.

“This is a good neighbourhood. I didn’t expect anything to happen”, Chirag Patel, the victim’s son told the press, possibly explaining why he had thought it would have been all right for his father to walk around in broad daylight as he had become accustomed to doing in their town. Speaking to the The Washington Post for their February 12 report, the younger Patel had said: “It is a dream for me [to live here] because I came from a very poor family and I worked so hard … I’m totally devastated that I might have made a big mistake”.

Even as middle class aspirations and immigrant desires to live the veritable American dream prove to be no protection against racism, there is no doubt that the Patels – just as anyone living in the United States – should not have had to feel that the commonplace act of walking about in one’s own neighbourhood would put one’s life at risk. Yet, it is because of the assurance felt by South Asian Americans, who are often emblematically deemed the upwardly mobile model minority, that some individuals from amongst the community believe themselves to be immune from systemic racism, including the racism that marks contemporary policing in the United States.

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Sureshbhai Patel

In basic terms, Sureshbhai Patel, an Indian farmer who speaks little English, was severely injured by a white policeman because Patel was identified as being black. Following the recent verdicts in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, where the white policemen who were responsible for the deaths of these two black men were tried and found not guilty, I would argue that the incident involving Patel received as much attention as it did because of the growing questions surrounding abuses of power. As crystallized in the trending hashtag “Black Lives Matter”, these questions centre on how racial difference is perpetuated by such abuses, both by the police and the laws that protect them.

While the Garner and Brown cases were the most high profile ones, in a recent spate of incidents involving black men and the police, there have been several other cases that have received less attention, and especially those concerning black cis-gender and trans women. All of these cases lie within a longer history of anti-black police violence, and the protection of racist police action, as was amply demonstrated in the 1992 Rodney King case. In her article “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia”  (1993), Judith Butler takes stock of how watching the video showing King being beaten by the white policemen could result in the jury believing that the defenceless black man was “threatening the police”, thus causing them to act “in self-defense” (p.16). The parallels to the more recent incident involving Patel are palpable in that the video illustrates the Indian man’s defencelessness as he is beaten by Parker. As Butler concludes, “white paranoia” functions to allow violence to be cathected to black bodies. Being identified as a black man, Patel was similarly at the receiving end of white paranoic violence. To the jury, Butler explains, King’s body was made synonymous with a threat that required policing to ensure white safety, a contention echoed by Margarita Aragon who refers to the “long discursive pedigree” of “[justified] white violence against black people” in her essay “Police Violence and the Discourse of (White) Fear”.

While Parker was swiftly charged with third degree assault, the attack on Patel should not be seen as an outlier to forms of racialized violence that have been manifesting increasingly through the involvement of the state, be it from the police or even politicians. Note the lack of irony in Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s declaration in a January radio interview with the Family Research Council’s Washington Watch that the United States was under threat of a Muslim invasion because immigrants of that faith “want to use our freedoms to undermine that freedom in the first place”. An Indian American who converted to Christianity from Hinduism, Jindal’s opinions are those of the garden variety Republican, but the danger lies in those views emanating from a politician of minority racial origins. They serve to obfuscate the very real threat to the lives of Muslim Americans, such as Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, the three young relatives who were executed by a white gunman in Chapel Hill a week after Parker attacked Patel.

In so far as South Asian American immigrants are of many faiths, Jindal’s callous statement, made for political gain, diminishes post-9/11 Islamophobic violence and hostility. Being oblivious to xenophobia, coupled with a sense of insulation that can emanate from being considered a model minority, especially because one is not black, can easily lull us into being complacent about institutionalized racism. As Vijay Prashad avers in The Karma of Brown Folk  (2000), the South Asian American model minority is used as “a weapon in the war against black America” (p.6), where the economic success of the racialized immigrant class of technocrats is used as a false measuring stick against underprivileged blacks. But, interestingly, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which paved the way for skilled immigrants from South Asia to come to the United States, was itself a legacy of the civil rights era, championed by such black leaders as Martin Luther King. That movement, too, was not devoid of state violence against those seeking rights that feel so self-evident today. In looking back from the contemporary moment where bodies of colour have increasingly become the target of police brutality, the connected histories of immigration and black disenfranchisement reveal an overlap, but also the continued threat of state violence against bodies that may jeopardise white safety. Rather than suggest that the darkness of black and brown bodies are interchangeable, even if rendered as such through police brutality, what such mutability should evoke is the pervasive danger of a police force that seeks to violently manage difference by racializing it as the dangerous other to white civility. After all, when the mere act of walking about in the vicinity of one’s home, as Sureshbhai Patel did, gives cause for the police to be summoned, it becomes clear that the racialized fear of the other runs deep even in “good neighbourhoods”, because the colour of civility is only constrained to certain hues.

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Benedito Ferrão is a Mellon Faculty Fellow in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the College of William and Mary, Virginia. A former resident of the United Kingdom, he completed his Ph.D at Birkbeck College, and went on to be an Endeavour Fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He is a writer of fiction, op-eds, and literary criticism. In 2014, he was awarded San Francisco Peninsula Press Club’s Analysis Prize. Find his writing at thenightchild.blogspot.com or on Facebook at The Nightchild Nexus.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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1 reply

  1. This current moment is a moment that feels like a shift is taking place where brown & black progressive people are acting in concert and in solidarity. The other equal reality is the ways that some conservatives in minority groups hide from these realities. Thank you for bringing our attention to this case. I honestly did not see much published about this case, so I’m appreciative of the care & time you take.

    Like

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