Sureshbhai Patel just wanted to take a walk through his son’s neighborhood, something our parents would often love to do. Something any- one should be able to do without fear or worry. But now Sureshbhai Patel, a 57-year-old Indian
immigrant who had come to America to help care for his
grandson, lies in a hospital partially paralyzed and the victim of excessive police force.
Sureshbhai Patel’s walk through his son’s neighborhood in Madison, Alabama turned into a nightmare
when cops accosted him on a residential street on a
February afternoon. They were following up on a 9/11
call from someone who claimed that a suspicious looking
‘skinny Black guy’ was walking around the neighborhood. Upon approaching Patel, it became clear that he
was an immigrant with limited English proficiency. The
officers proceeded to question him:
‘ What’s going on sir?’
‘ You what?’
‘ Where you heading’
‘I can’t understand you, sir.’
‘ Where’s your address?’
‘Do you have any ID?’
‘Do you live here.’
‘Sir, sir, come here.’
‘Do not jerk away from me again, or I will put you on the
ground. Do you understand?’
One of the cops did just that.
Officer Eric Parker put Patel’s hands behind his back and
slammed him to the ground in a manner more fitting for a
judo tournament than an interaction with a grandfather.
The Madison Police Department’s first instinct was to
blame Patel for ‘putting his hands in his pocket’ and
‘attempting to pull away.’ They also claimed that there had
been a ‘communication barrier.’ But, Patel’s family, community members and video evidence did not agree.
A civil rights lawsuit was filed. The Indian consulate
intervened. American and Indian Media covered the story
extensively. Organizations such as South Asian Americans
Leading Together outlined a set of demands to the
Madison police department with an eye towards changing
their policing practices. The FBI has since begun a federal
investigation into the cops’ actions. And Officer Parker has
been fired, arrested and charged with third degree assault.
Part of the reason that Patel’s case has received the attention and results that it has is because of the
#BlackLivesMatter movement. This movement, which
gained considerable national attention after the killing of
Mike Brown by Ferguson police last August, made the
killing of mostly Black people at the hands of law enforcement a daily discussion on news programs and dinner
tables across the country.
The Black Lives Matter movement has also shined a
spotlight on how often serious cases of police abuse are
swept under the rug. Indeed, the families of Michael
Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner — all African
American — are still seeking justice. This has been the
case for South Asians as well, such as Parminder Shergill,
a Lodi, California resident and Sikh Army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. His sister-in-law placed a
911 call begging for him to be taken to the VA Hospital.
Instead, police shot him dead.
Working in South Asian and immigrant communities for
over a decade, both of us have found that some South
Asians feel uncomfortable when publicly discussing criminal justice, deportations and racial profiling. Shining too
much of a spotlight on injustice within our own communities is frowned upon by some. South Asians sometimes
reflexively respond to racial injustice in America by parsing
out how different we are from other racial and ethnic
minorities — rather than finding the commonalities in our
experiences with racism. This fruitless emphasis on how
different or special we are as a response to real racism goes
as far back as 1923, when Bhagat Singh Thind floated a
failed argument before an unimpressed Supreme Court
that South Asians shouldn’t be subject to America’s racist
naturalization laws because, he claimed, Indians were really white. In pre-Civil Rights era America, Thind felt he had
to work within ‘whiteness’ in order to seek citizenship. But,
we should know better today.
Even television talking heads like FOX’s Bill O’Reilly hold
up our ‘different’-ness as proof that African Americans and
other minorities should stop complaining about injustice,
often with the implied consent of our community leaders.
These messages can be as unhelpful as they are ineffective.
Highlighting the difference between South Asians and
African Americans hasn’t necessarily prevented us from
being affected by unfair detention policies, or racial and
religious profiling. It hasn’t prevented small businesses
from being targeted by law enforcement, or our relatives
from being subjected to police brutality. The fact is that
American racism never got the memo that it shouldn’t
apply to us.
That is why it is important to connect what happened to
Patel and Shergill within the larger context of racial injustice in America. While the experiences of South Asians are
not equal to or exactly like those of African Americans, we
should highlight how South Asians are uniquely affected by
discriminatory policing practices, especially when factors
beyond race (English ability, faith affiliation, and immigration) are at play.
Racism in America will only concede defeat in the presence of strong movements such as the Civil Rights movement and today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement (which
included its own share of South Asian and Indian participants) that send a message that racial injustice, police brutality and racial profiling cannot be tolerated.
The Civil Rights Movement created the space that
removed racial quotas from US Immigration policy in
1965, allowing many of our parents to finally come to this
country, own property and become citizens. It is the con-
stant demand for justice by the #BlackLivesMatter move-
ment that creates the space today for a police officer to
actually be charged for violating Sureshbhai Patel’s rights
(and another to be charged in the murder Akai Gurley in
But Patel’s case in particular and the epidemic of police
brutality in general is far from over. So what can we as
Indian Americans do? We can contribute to the family’s
relief fund ( www.gofundme.com). We can place pressure on
the Madison Police Department to change their policies
and programs towards immigrants, people with limited-English proficiency and people of color.
While it is true that the cop in question has been fired
and arrested, we need to also press for systemic changes
that will apply to policing at large. Indian American organizations can also contact the Department of Justice’s Civil
Rights Division to request that the federal government
investigate the police department’s practices of interacting
with immigrants and people of color.
And at the same time, Indian Americans must openly
embrace and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
We cannot hide behind the hope of avoiding America’s history of racial injustice by distancing from it. Instead, we
should hold the hard conversations within places of worship and cultural events to discuss Black/South Asian
experiences and how to address the internal racist attitudes
that some South Asians hold towards Black people. We
must also support organizations and individuals within our
community that are proactively building the conversations,
relationships and alliances with all communities to address
When young African American youth say
#Blacklivesmatter, we must say it with them. When
Black lives actually matter in America, our lives and our
families’ lives will matter as well. And then maybe, all of
our grandfathers can take a walk down the street without
fear and in peace.
Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American activist and writer.
She was the former director of South Asian Americans
Leading Together (SAALT). Deepa’s book on post 9/11
America will be published later in the year. Follow her on
Twitter at @dviyer.
Subhash Kateel is a former community organizer and host
of Let’s Talk About It!, a Miami based radio program talk-
ing about real issues that affect the lives of real
people. Subhash has over a decade of experience organiz-
ing in immigrant communities such as the Florida
Immigrant Coalition, Families for Freedom (which he co-
founded) and Desis Rising Up and Moving.
So that all our grandparents walk freely
Deepa Iyer and Subhash Kateel explain why it is important to connect what happened to Sureshbhai Patel within the larger context of racial injustice in America
A videograb of the incident. PHOTOGRAPHS COUR TES Y: AL. COM