Organizing South Asians: Framing the Assault of Sureshbhai Patel

Have you seen the horrific video of an Indian grandfather thrown to the ground during an encounter with police in Madison, Alabama?

Despite the beautiful and growing movement of South Asians for Black Lives, there’s a conversation, and an organizing moment, that we’re missing here around criminalization and South Asian communities. Sureshbhai Patel’s assault in Madison, AL is a moment to have this conversation. If we want to organize South Asians in this country, we need to talk about the stake that South Asians have in combating police brutality and violence.

First, I want to make one point clear: I believe in standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter movements, and in centering Black voices and leadership in the conversation around police brutality. Period. I’m also committed to the project of organizing South Asians in the U.S. And as organizers, we need to talk strategy. We need to meet our people where they’re at. We need to take moments like these to talk not just about anti-Black racism, but also about the real stake that we have as South Asians in combating racial profiling and police brutality.

The conversations I’ve been following, largely spurred by Anirvan Chatterjee’s important article, focus on anti-Black racism as the root of Mr. Patel’s assault. That is certainly one of the roots of this violence: as Anirvan points out, the 911 caller is worried about a “skinny black guy” who makes him worried to leave his wife home alone. However, we’re missing an opportunity here if we don’t talk about racism and xenophobia towards South Asians as part of this story—and part of what allowed a police officer to slam an innocent man into the ground.

While the cops were called on Sureshbhai Patel because he was perceived to be Black, he was thrown to the ground and nearly paralyzed because he was read as brown. Once the cops arrived on the scene, I assume they realized Mr. Patel was Indian—Mr. Patel could not speak English, and simply repeated ‘India’ in an attempt to communicate with the police. He marked himself as brown and as immigrant—and the intersection of these identities rendered him worthless enough to be left with two broken vertebrae, for doing nothing at all.

The “War on Terror,” the war on immigrants, are fought on our literal bodies. Some of us, especially working class South Asian organizations such as DRUM or the NYTWA, have been making these connections for years. The rest of us need to get on board, especially wealthy South Asians who have never experienced class-based violence with the police. As South Asians in this country, many of us are afraid—that we might be one shade too dark, or one beard too threatening. Whether we’re becoming part of a growing ‘model minority mutiny,’ or whether we’ve always felt outside the model minority myth, the time to have these conversations is now. We need to validate the fears that our communities face, and use that as an entry point into conversations about race and policing in which we have a real lived stake.

We also need to emphasize that Mr. Patel was Indian in American—not Indian-American. If Mr. Patel had been an American citizen, would the cop who assaulted him have been fired, and potentially charged with a crime? I don’t know. The chances are higher, certainly, than for the many young Black men who have been killed by the police finding any semblance of justice. There have been many African immigrants killed by the police, in cases that have drawn national attention. Those officers were not immediately fired. Most importantly, despite grievous injury, Sureshbhai Patel is still alive and recovering. I doubt that a Black man in America would be able to say the same. Mr. Patel had a foreign embassy—of a rising power, no less—to back him up. Ironically, his foreignness was both what spurred his assault and what catalyzed a response.

Mr. Patel was assaulted because he was Indian, because he was South Asian. There’s an urgency to this framing. This is an entry point to have conversations at multiple levels. I understand the political project of locating the root of racism against South Asians in anti-Black racism; I’ve worked to do the same. Some of us are making the connections to anti-Black racism and to solidarity work. Some of us know that when Black people get free, we all get free.

For others, we need a different entry point—one based in our lived experiences. Solidarity takes work. As South Asian organizers, we need to be prepared to hear, validate and mobilize the fear that this assault brings up. If we are committed to building a mass movement, we need to recognize that Mr. Patel was brutalized because he was brown, and name the reality of violence that so many of us already fear. We need to draw the connections between this case and the Chapel Hill shootings. We need to name the multitude of ways that brown bodies are vulnerable in this country.

This is an organizing moment for South Asians in the U.S. We need to work to mobilize our people where they’re at, and recognize as valid the fear we so rarely discuss. Terrorism, xenophobia, and racism are drawn onto our bodies. These aren’t theories; they’re our lived realities. Now is the time, more than ever, to draw these connections and to organize with our people—both in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and against our own brutalization.

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