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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Wenasak: Reflections on the Sri Lankan Election from a Diaspora Kid

This time last month, as I cobbled together news from thousands of miles and a couple of oceans away, I was elated. Mahinda Rajapakse, the man who ‘won the Civil War’ with brute force, built a seemingly unstoppable political dynasty, eliminated presidential term limits  to stay in power, was losing. I imagined that Rajapakse’s clan would rule Sri Lanka for the majority of my lifetime; instead, he was being slowly ousted from office by Maithripala Sirisena, once considered both a cabinet member and a trusted ally, one slow vote at a time.

Halfway around the world, I held my breath with Sri Lanka, felt the collective tension wrap tendrils around my shoulders as we waited for something–gunshots, screams, tears–the sounds of a country breaking. I texted my parents. Are you watching? Is this real? They reflected back my own fragile hope, struggling to breathe beneath overwhelming cynicism. It’s not over. He’s not going to give up. Just wait.

And wait we did. We waited with bated breath as the hours became days, weeks, and now a month. We waited as rumors flew that Rajapakse had ordered a coup, and that the army had refused to comply. We waited and watched in sheer disbelief as he left Temple Trees, as people piled into the street to watch Sirisena be sworn in.

It’s now been one month since the Sri Lankan presidential elections, and I’m finally attempting to explain what this means to me, a 2nd generation American a continent or two away. My relationship to Sri Lanka has always been fraught with the trials and tribulations of a diaspora kid, and a queer one to boot. For most of my childhood, Sri Lanka was a memoryscape–a place where stories, lives, people existed in a living contradiction of the present and the past. As an adult, I’ve made an effort to reconnect, and yet: the longest time I’ve spent on the island is four months; the longest I can imagine living there is a few years. I struggle to speak broken Sinhala, and am generally disconnected from the day to day goings on in Colombo.

#IVotedSL

Yet somehow, this election felt…intimate. As twitter began to buzz on January 8th, I struggled to explain why I couldn’t pull myself away–from twitter, facebook, Groundviews. I gave up any pretense of doing work and simply endlessly refreshed my twitter feed, and any live updated poll I could find. In an articled titled “It’s Personal, It Should Be To Us All,” Subha Wijesiriwardena explains:

If you think that it couldn’t be just as personal for you as it has been for me, I believe it just means you haven’t thought about it for long enough – if you feel you weren’t personally, directly affected by the Rajapaksas, then I ask you to just look around yourself. Someone you know, perhaps even someone you love, was. They took something from each one of us: freedom, money, courage. We came up against dead-ends trying to build normal, every-day lives. They took our vitality, our identity. They took away our right – and our urge – to think, to speak, to resist, to demand better. For me, Sri Lanka under the Rajapakses was a lie – not a country.

Even worlds away, in the frigid temperatures of Madison, WI, this election felt personal. I couldn’t find the words to explain that I could feel the world breaking. I didn’t know how to translate that the lump in my throat, illegible in American English, meant that I’d waited unknowingly for this moment for years.

It’s taken me years to understand just where Colombo lives in me. My parents left a country so that we wouldn’t grow up in fear, and by and large, their sacrifice succeeded. And yet, fear and trauma find ways to be passed down. I’ve heard the stories of white van assassinations; of bodies floating back from the ocean; of people suddenly lost and never found.

When I left for Sri Lanka in 2010, I remember my dad pulling me aside. He warned me that being politically outspoken in the U.S. was one thing, but that speaking out in Sri Lanka was still dangerous. He warned me that the walls have ears: you never know who is listening, and retaliation is a constant threat. Though I would be in an American program, my brown skin, my brown name, my brown history rendered me unsafe.

I’ve watched Tamils in Sri Lanka continuously treated as less than human, and wondered when the next civil war would begin. Sri Lankans invented suicide bombing, and it worked. The civil war entered the otherwise privileged space of the capital. Though without nearly the level of intensity as the north and east, the whole country became a viable battleground. I’ve waited for that phone call–the bank was bombed again, the phone lines are down, we can’t find so-and-so.

This is what it means to come from the diaspora of war, even from the privileged Sinhalese side.

On the other hand, this is a moment of deep pride. It’s been an exceptionally hard few months in the U.S. As I join students, friends, and fam out in the streets to demand that #BlackLivesMatter, I’ve felt the cynicism in American democracy, often held at bay by my privilege, take hold like never before. I’ve never felt less American, more convinced that we live in a country that wants our labor and our culture, our music and our art, our bodies and our heartbreak–but not our lives.

In a twist of irony, I’m looking to Sri Lanka for hope. This election is a compilation of small acts of unbelievable courage. Courage to cast a vote, knowing that violent repression or retaliation is at stake. Courage to refuse military orders for a coup, despite the ex-President’s brother being the Secretary of Defense. Courage to run against an incumbent with a violent history, knowing that losing an election could cost your freedom or your life.

As America runs herself into the ground, I’m looking South for hope. There’s a long road ahead, and only time will tell if Maithripala Sirisena can be the leader that Sri Lanka needs, if he will actually have the courage to address the rightful grievances of Tamil people before, during, and after the war. But for now, I’m claiming this victory as my own, at least in small part. And I’m taking pride in a place too often seen as backwards, primitive, and undemocratic. I’m going to let my heart swell as I imagine the power of individual acts of incredible courage to reclaim not just an election, but a country.