The Skinny Black Man Wearing a Toboggan
Chirag’s job as an engineer demanded he leave early in the morning, so when he left, and Sureshbhai Patel and his daughter-in-law were left to look after the baby during the days, Sureshbhai knew that his alone time would be limited to the mornings. It was a week following his move from India to Alabama, and the routine he followed on his prolonged visits in the past had set in. So on February 6th, 2015, just like any other morning, he set off on Hardiman Place for his stroll. Madison, being a primarily white, and quite racist, neighborhood, was no welcoming second home for Sureshbhai whenever he visited, with the sun-dried grass and mild sun (nothing compared to India, of course). The looks of the neighbors made him feel more and more alien. Not to mention his inability to carry out a conversation in English having only spoken two languages in Pij (a small village in Gujrat, India): Gujarati, and Hindi. Sureshbhai’s knowledge of English could be summarized in a couple of sentences — “I do not speak English. I am from India.” Little did he know that he would be practicing every possible way to express those two thoughts quite a lot that morning.
The Madison Police Department got a call from a man claiming that an unknown skinny black man was walking around a neighborhood, making many neighbors uncomfortable. Officer Parker hopped into his police car, and with a couple of officers, made his way over to Hardimann Place. The neighborhood in Madison, Alabama was a safe, family-like environment. Any threat to the peace had to be stopped. They drove up and down the street, spotting a black man in the upcoming distance. As scrawny as he was, the discomfort was clear as he himself looked like an alien to the area; given the small nature of Madison, you either were from here, or you weren’t. Parker parked the car on the side of the street and he, along with his co-officer, stepped out of the vehicle. They approached the man, clearly elderly but “suspicious”, asking him about his duties here but he refused to answer. Instead, he walked closer and closer. Stop. No answer. Sir, STOP. All they heard was, “I don’t understand English. I’m from India.” Stop. Three more steps. They took action.
On an ordinary February morning, fifty-seven year old, Sureshbhai Patel was attacked on his daily walk in Madison, Alabama by Officer Eric Parker. Not even a minute and a half after being approached did Mr. Patel find himself on the ground, confused and half paralyzed. The reason: he couldn’t understand English. This incident of police brutality not only received less attention than the instances of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin but also was seen as less controversial despite having absolutely no reason to physically touch Sureshbhai other than the preconceived notions that Parker had about the man in the neighborhood being black. South Asians face the intersection of African American and Asian American violence, being seen as Black by an outsider, facing the same discrimination as the black population, and falling victim to the model minority myth with other regional Asian groups. Black Americans see Indians as Asian, while East and Southeast Asians see Indians as their own demographic due to aesthetic differences. All we Indians know, though, is that we are on our own.
The act of aggression displayed against Sureshbhai Patel was far from the first instance of violence faced by Indians in America. The late eighties and early nineties were a time filled with great fear for Indians, especially in New Jersey where the Dotbusters reigned ruthlessly. Founded in Jersey City, New Jersey in the mid-eighties, the Dotbusters were a hate group fighting against South Asians in their immediate area. They published the following in the local newspaper in 1987, coming out as a hate group, claiming to fight for their neighborhoods:
“I’m writing about your article during July about the abuse of Indian People. Well I’m here to state the other side. I hate them, if you had to live near them you would also. We are an organization called the Dotbusters. We have been around for 2 years. We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her. We plan some of our most extreme attacks such as breaking windows, breaking car windows, and crashing family parties. We use the phone books and look up the name Patel. Have you seen how many of them there are? Do you even live in Jersey City? Do you walk down Central avenue and experience what its like to be near them: we have and we just don’t want it anymore. You said that they will have to start protecting themselves because the police cannot always be there. They will never do anything. They are a week race physically and mentally. We are going to continue our way. We will never be stopped.”
My father immigrated to the United States, specifically Newark, New Jersey to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 1986, living in close proximity to the Dotbusters, experiencing the first-hand discrimination. He refused to allow his mother to come visit him for the first fifteen years following his move to the United States due to her status as a Hindu woman. Traditionally, Hindu women wear what we call a bindi, or a red, circular sticker on their forehead indicating their faith. Little did people know that this symbol would become a literal target against these women.
A month following the publishing of this letter, a man named Navroze Mody was assaulted in a local Hoboken cafe by a few young men, under the name of the Dotbusters. It wasn’t until Mody was in a coma, passing away four days later, did the group receive negative media attention and legal enforcement against them. In the legal preceding, a large qualm was the fact that the Hoboken Police were so indifferent towards the act of violence until a legal lawsuit was filed. A few days after the assault against Mody, Kaushal Sauran was also beaten into a coma by three men. Both Mody and Sauran lost their cases, despite clear evidence of hate crimes. The institutionalized discrimination against Black Americans was no longer unique to just Black Americans anymore. The Dotbusters unexpectedly finished their reign of terror in 1993, making South Asians in New Jersey hopeful for a more peaceful future in the United States, but, as evidenced by low-profile attacks against Indians in 2006, racial slurs passed in interviews in Edison in 2010, and then Sureshbhai, the hatred has not ended.
When we first learned about the Civil Rights Movement and Slavery, my classmates would ask me if Indians would be discriminated against with the Black Americans considering the discrimination was based on skin color. I would laugh and say no because South Asians are privileged. Having grown up less than an hour away from Jersey City and an hour away from Wayne, where in 2006, Indian men were hurt, it’s clear to me now that I was so unaware of how privileged I was based on my neighborhood being accepting, and that I was so naive to think that all South Asians experienced this same privilege. That being said, I think that it is just as absurd that if we talk openly in New Jersey about the lynching trees in Basking Ridge and the factory work history of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. All this reaffirms that Sureshbhai, Navroze, and Kaushal’s lives do not matter to the New Jersey government and the media nearly as much as other lives do.
This exclusion is heightened in American culture. Ignorant Americans differentiate us from Black Americans based on the texture of our hair, our “necessary competitiveness”, and, of course, the smell of curry that follows us everywhere we go. It doesn’t take much to differentiate us from East Asians considering our looks are the complete opposites. And now, with Islamaphobia seeping through the cracks, we are now to be feared, just as all Muslims are to be feared due to the acts of a few. Affirmative action (not that it doesn’t have it’s benefits), dismiss us as another number filling another top tier university. TSA sees us as another brown body needing a harsher security check. But all of this is based on the grouping of Indians with others, and the inability to see us on our own. And that’s the problem; we see police brutality as a monolithic problem against the Black community, so this would be added to the list of grievances against them. The only way to resolve the issue is to understand have multifaceted discrimination is, and be inclusive of all identities within these discussions.
In January of 2016, Eric Parker was acquitted by U.S District Judge Madeline Haikala. In September of this year, he was put back on the job. In other words, Eric Parker was let off, scotch free and the Indians in Madison are stuck concerned for their lives, staying inside out of fear that they would be mistaken as threatening. Eric Parker made a mistake, that others are facing the consequences of. Meanwhile, Sureshbhai Patel’s life has changed forever. Will he ever be able to use his legs, his hands again without the support of a walker? Will he ever be able to eat on his own? Will he be able to look straight? Will he be able to hold onto spoons and pencils? Will he be able to walk without feeling like a toddler crawling at less than a mile per hour speed? All that he knows is that Madison is a danger zone, not home.
“Alabama Officer’s Excessive Force Case Tossed.” Alabama Officer’s Excessive Force Case Tossed | Al Jazeera America. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2016.
McCormack, Simon. “Cop Charged With Assault After Unarmed Grandpa Left Paralyzed.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. Dec. 2016.
McCormack, Simon. “Grandfather Left Paralyzed After Encounter With Alabama Police.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. Dec. 2016.
Roop, Lee. “Officer Eric Parker Back on the Job, Takedown of Indian Man Did Not Violate Policy.” AL.com. N.p., 06 Sept. 2016. Web. Dec. 2016.