What was really on trial in the Sureshbhai Patel case?
In early September, a jury in Huntsville, Alabama, began to hear testimony in the case of Eric Parker, a white police officer who faced federal charges for violating the civil rights of Sureshbhai Patel, a 57-year-old Indian immigrant and grandfather. On September 11th, the jury of ten white men and two Black women reached a stalemate in their deliberations for the third time, leading the judge to declare a mistrial. What happened during the trial should concern all Asian Americans and anyone working on police brutality cases.
The facts in the case against former Officer Eric Parker of the Madison, Alabama police department seemed fairly straightforward at first glance. In February of this year, Parker and another cop were in Mr. Patel’s suburban neighborhood to follow up on a 9-11 call from someone who claimed that a suspicious “skinny Black guy” was walking around. Officer Parker and his partner approached Mr. Patel. Their exchange, captured on dashcam video, shows that Mr. Patel could only utter a few words in English. Video footage also shows what happened next. Officer Parker performed what is known as a front leg sweep, throwing Mr. Patel onto the ground. Mr. Patel was hospitalized for months, and became partially paralyzed as a result.
Once the video footage was released, the city immediately suspended and then terminated Officer Parker. The governor of Alabama even offered an apology on behalf of the state to the Indian government. The Department of Justice began an investigation and found cause to bring federal charges against Officer Parker. Advocacy organizations such as South Asian Americans Leading Together in consultation with Alabama-based nonprofit, Asha Kiran, demanded that the police department make significant reforms, including addressing the gaps in its language access practices.
Given these facts, the announcement of the mistrial in the case sent waves of disappointment and shock through the South Asian community in particular. Over at Medium, South Asian American activist Anirvan Chatterjee noted one of the lessons from this case, that video footage cannot erase implicit bias. He writes, “[t]he mistrial shows us that the video evidence we can plainly see with our eyes isn’t enough to overturn deep-seated implicit bias, structural racism, and our puzzling willingness to forgive the acts of violence committed by government employees.”
Indeed, the jurors viewed the video footage multiple times to determine whether Officer Parker had used unreasonable force in his treatment of Mr. Patel. But during the trial, they were also focused on another set of questions: whether Mr. Patel had a right to be walking around in the first place without identification of his immigration status, and whether Mr. Patel’s inability to speak English was a reasonable factor in assessing Officer Parker’s actions.
Xenophobic comments came up quite often during the trial according to a courtroom blog that documented the proceedings. At one point, the defense attorney, when cross-examining Mr. Patel’s son (Chirag Patel) asks:
Defense Attorney: “Do you understand it is a federal crime for your father to not have his green card in his possession at all times?”
Chirag Patel: “He does not need his green card to just walk 10 minutes down the street.”
Defense Attorney: “That’s your interpretation of the law.”
Why were Mr. Patel’s immigration status and his ability to speak English even relevant in a case of police misconduct? On one hand, we should be prepared for this sort of victim-blaming – especially in police brutality cases. From Michael Brown to Tamir Rice to Sandra Bland, we have seen how Black people are portrayed as being aggressive, insulting, threatening or deserving of punishment – even when they are unarmed and under the full control of law enforcement.
It is no different in the case of Sureshbhai Patel: he was perceived as non-compliant because he spoke no English and was an immigrant. In fact, one of the questions that the jury had for the judge during their last round of deliberations was whether Mr. Patel was breaking the law when he left home without his green card.
“I Speak No English” Doesn’t Mean “I Won’t Comply”
During the trial, Sureshbhai Patel testified through a Gujarati interpreter. He told the jury that he was a farmer in India and that he did not make it past the fifth grade. He had come to Madison, Alabama, to help care for his grandson. He regularly took walks in the neighborhood, but never too far from the house so that he would not get lost.
During the encounter with the cops, Mr. Patel apparently said “No English” five times. In the video footage, Officer Parker himself observes this: “He kept jerking away from me. My thought was he had something in his pockets….I asked him his name and he told me, then said ‘No English.’ It might be a language barrier but I don’t think so.”
At that moment, what should the officers have done? According to Susan Shah, Chief of Staff at the Vera Institute for Justice, Officer Parker should have sought qualified language assistance to ascertain more information. “Once there is a sign that there may be a language barrier, an officer can briefly proceed in the interaction to confirm that the individual has limited English proficiency. This can include asking a few questions that require a narrative response, listening for responses that are fragments, or identifying signs of confusion. If a language barrier seems likely, officers should always err toward providing language access. This means seeking out qualified language assistance through the police department, which could be an authorized interpreter (through a language line) or bilingual staff.”
This isn’t just the right or practical thing to do to ensure safe and humane community-police interactions. It’s also the law. Police departments have an obligation to ensure language access under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Shah notes that there are various efforts underway by police departments around the nation to identify and successfully overcome with language barriers.
During the trial, the defense framed the case as one in which Officer Parker was worried for his safety because Mr. Patel was not complying with his instructions. Apparently, not speaking English, argued defense lawyers, can indicate not “I don’t understand” but “I won’t comply.” In fact, media reports refer to this statement made by the defense attorney to the jury: “[the government] wants you to believe anyone who doesn’t speak English gets a free pass.”
The federal government will retry the case. A preliminary hearing has been set for October 6th and the trial is expected to begin in late October. Bhavani Kakani, president of AshaKiran – a non-profit organization that supports women facing domestic violence in Alabama – plans to carefully monitor the proceedings. “At AshaKiran, we were disappointed and outraged by the mistrial in this case,” she told me. “We expected a different outcome.” AshaKiran volunteers regularly conduct cultural and linguistic trainings for police officers. As a result of the Sureshbhai Patel case, their trainings have expanded to include issues beyond domestic violence.
Nationally, groups like South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) are also closely watching the case, while situating it in the context of state violence against Black communities. “It is critical that South Asians situate our relationships with law enforcement by first understanding the impact of anti-Black racism and then adding the layers of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment directed at our own communities through state sanctioned policies after 9/11,”Lakshmi Sridaran, SAALT’s Director of National Policy and Advocacy, told me.
Indeed, it is important to remember, as Subhash Kateel and I wrote earlier this year in India Abroad, that this case would likely have received little attention and outrage if it were not for the movement for Black lives, which has opened our eyes to the pattern of police brutality that is routinely targeted at Black people. The names of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Freddie Gray, Akai Gurley, Mya Hall, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones make up just part of a distressingly long list of Black men, women, and children who have lost their lives in encounters with law enforcement.
South Asians who are disturbed and outraged by the Sureshbhai Patel case have an opportunity to make connections with the broader efforts around the country to address anti-Black racism, particularly in the criminal justice and law enforcement contexts. We must understand that what happened to Sureshbhai Patel is an example of the insidious and pervasive nature of anti-Black racism. Simultaneously, we must point to how Patel’s immigration status and limited English proficiency were unique and additional factors that influenced the actions of the police officers. We must ensure that any police reforms related to the criminal justice system and community policing efforts include attention to factors such as limited English proficiency and immigration status. And, we must encourage more of our own community members who are outraged by what happened to Sureshbhai Patel to support the movement for Black lives.
As the new trial commences in October, let’s keep our eyes on Alabama. Follow the updates of Asha Kiran and SAALT. Turn up in court if you’re in Alabama. Share statements of support. Hold a workshop or conversation on campus and in your community to raise awareness. Reach out to a Black Lives Matter chapter in your city. It’s time for #JusticeforMrPatel.
Deepa Iyer, an activist and writer, was the former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for a decade. She is currently Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion. Her book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape our Multiracial Future, is forthcoming from The New Press in November 2015.