The Sureshbhai Patel Police Incident: Keeping it Real
Civil Rights activist Shaun King is happy for Sureshbhai Patel. Happy for a man who lies paralyzed in a hospital after being unjustly and violently knocked down by an officer of the law? How’s that, you ask?
To be sure, King is not happy that Mr. Patel is one of the latest victims of police brutality. Rather, it is what has happened after the incident that leaves him spellbound. As an activist, King, it appears, is on the frontline of the crescendo of angst seen in the agitations in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere in the nation. It’s the anguish and helplessness felt by African Americans who believe they have no recourse or remedy in cases of police brutality against African Americans—and that police seem to enjoy a great degree of impunity in such cases.
From such a reference point, the speed and quantity of the remedies, recourse, and justice that Patel has received is inconceivable to him and others: (i) Eric Parker, the police officer in Patel’s case, has not only been fired but also arrested and charged with third-degree assault. (ii) An independent FBI investigation of the case has been started. (iii) The Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, apologized to India and the Indian community for the use of “excessive force” by police in his state.
King has a point. The corrective actions by the authorities were indeed swift and decisive in this case. However, King and even some South Asian commentators attribute this to community activism, fund-raising by Indian-Americans, and official involvement. They highlight how the Indian government sent a consular officer to Alabama, putting pressure on local authorities. And how close to $200,000 was collected for the Patel family within just a week through an online crowd-funding platform.
While these actions would have certainly helped, to say that community activism, official involvement, or money was responsible for the swift action by the authorities is to undermine the righteous merits of the case. Would sending a consular officer have helped if the video surveillance showed a belligerent Mr. Patel fighting with the police officer? Rather, would the consular office even send anyone in such a case?
I feel the primary reason we saw swift action is that this is perhaps the first time the video evidence shows the absolutely gratuitous nature of the police action. In every other high profile incident from Michael Brown to Eric Garner there has been at least one or more of the following alleged actions on the part of the victim: resisting arrest, arguing with an officer of the law, aggression, brandishing a weapon, etc. Not by a long shot am I saying that Brown, Garner, or the others had it coming! The circumstantial evidence and the video (where available) is quite conclusive that whatever their alleged infractions, the police response to it was completely out of proportion and unwarranted.
And yet that crucial difference exists between those cases and that of Patel. While the attorneys of Eric Parker will like to make a case that Patel was resisting arrest, it’s a position that falls flat in the face of the communication barrier that was well established in the video footage. Combine that with the fact that Patel was frail, meek, submissive, did not challenge or insult the officers, did not (could not!) argue with them, wasn’t absconding, and did not even make any sudden involuntary moves that could have alarmed the officers—and it leaves the police with absolutely nothing to justify their actions. And all of this is captured starkly in the dash cam videos of two police cars, unlike in many other high profile cases where we have only the word of the police against those of the witnesses, some corroborating the police and some contradicting them.
It is this abject violence in the face of absolute innocence that may be the reason for swift corrective action, more so than all other reasons that King and others are attributing.
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