Sureshbhai Patel went for a walk in Huntsville, Alabama. He ended up paralysed, beaten up not by muggers or hoodlums but by the city’s own policemen. The story caused an international furore. A 57-year-old grandfather thrown down face first by the police because he spoke no English. Officer Eric Parker was arrested and charged with use of “excessive force”. The Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, personally apologized to India and in a letter addressed to the Consul-General in Atlanta hoped that “Mr. Patel will regain full use of his legs” and assured the Indian government as well as Indians living and working in the state that “we will see that justice is done".
Neither that wish nor that assurance came true.
Sureshbai Patel is unable to walk or grip his hands and a vertebra in his neck has been replaced by a metal cylinder. And after two attempts at a trial ended in deadlock, the judge has dismissed the case this week and decided there will not be a third trial. “The government has had two full and fair chances to obtain a conviction,” she said. “It will not have another.”
Parker had been charged under what is called the “color of law” statute which holds public officials like police officers to a higher standard of performance. A conviction was never going to be easy despite the reassurances from the governor. As Deepa Iyer writes in RaceFiles “(w)hether it’s the hate crime laws or the color of law statute, the standards of proof that federal investigators must meet in order to bring charges against public officials are too high.”
Even the US Attorney General Eric Holder had admitted that and said that standards of proof needed to bring charges might need to be lowered. And it remains dishearteningly unusual for a police officer to actually be convicted for excessive use of force in the line of duty. At least Eric Parker was charged. Many cases do not even get that far and that is the anger that fuels the Black Lives Matter movement.
But what is even more disheartening about the Sureshbhai Patel case was that his immigration status was what ended up being in the dock as much as the policeman’s use of excessive force that left him paralysed. The defence attorney said bluntly, “When you come to the US we expect you to follow our laws and speak our language. Mr. Patel bears as much responsibility for this as anyone.”
It is an astonishing statement and one wonders if the defence attorney would apply the same “speak our language” test for an American abroad with equal fervour.
On top of that the judge pointed out the Patel had himself violated US law by being a resident alien who had left his son’s house without identification. That is indeed the law but if that law were applied to everyone who happened to step out for an evening stroll in their son’s neighhourhood, the police force in America would be able to do little else but deal with those misdemeanours. And surely the punishment for that should not mean never being able to walk again.
This case laid bare not just the issue of police violence but America’s festering racial faultline. A neighbour had raised an alarm against Patel by referring to him as the “skinny black guy”. The first jury that deadlocked, split on racial and gender lines. Only the two black women wanted to find Parker guilty. The ten white men wanted him acquitted. Racial stereotypes about the criminal black coupled with hostility towards the immigrant who struggled with English proved to be a double whammy that day in Alabama. As Iyer points out “Mr. Patel’s encounter with law enforcement was sparked and catalyzed by anti-Black racism, but his nationality and limited English ability had much to do with the assault as well.” If one sparked the assault, the other delivered the knockout punch.
It seems that after the first jury deadlocked, the defence sharpened its attack on Patel the immigrant as a way to defend Parker the aggressive policemen. He went from the hapless immigrant with a poor command of English to an obstinate immigrant who did not play by the rules. “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t speak English. But in America that’s the language we speak,” said the defense attorney.
One must remember Patel was visiting his son. He did not live in Alabama. He claimed that he had managed to say “no English” five times and “India” three times. It is as if the lawyer was arguing that no visiting Indian grandfather, no Chinese grandmother, no Spanish aunt should dare go on a morning walk in America until they have passed their TOEFL examination. Otherwise the law will not be responsible for what might happen to them. “If you act like a criminal you are going to be treated like one,” opined the defence attorney.
Judge Haikala has said that Mr Patel has the “right to be free from excessive force as every citizen of this country” and that it is “appropriate to grieve his injury”. But what is also appropriate to grieve is the fact that in a country which prides itself more than most about being built by immigrants, an immigrant who could not speak English should have to pay such a terrible price. In a country where Nikki Haley talks about “being the proud daughter of Indian immigrants”, and Barack Obama says “America is every immigrant”, Sureshbhai Patel finds no justice, and his sin ultimately is that he is an immigrant who does not understand English.
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