Madison Is Not Missouri, But Alabama Beating Is A Wake-Up Call For Asian Americans

Dipka Bhambhani Communications Specialist
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After the brutal assault by Madison, Ala., police on Sureshbhai Patel earlier this month, a number of media outlets lumped this incident of police brutality in with the events of Missouri, New York, and Washington state.

But this incident in Madison is quite different from those.

This is where the discussion on racism should start—when an innocent person, who didn’t provoke police in any way, but thought to be black, was assaulted.

Patel, a 57-year old Indian grandfather, a slight man wearing a winter cap, was assaulted by Officer Erik Parker after a 911 caller said a “skinny black guy” was walking down his street in Madison.

Patel wasn’t doing anything suspicious. But when the two officers came to the scene, one slammed him into the ground, paralyzing him for no reason.

It was obvious from the videos that Mr. Patel could not speak English well. And, it was shocking and embarrassing that Parker continued to question and punish Patel despite the language barrier.

The videos are painful and gut-wrenching.

Parker was fired from the department immediately, and Madison’s chief of police, Larry Muncey, apologized to Mr. Patel and his family.

Parker has neither apologized to Mr. Patel nor explained why he did what he did. Instead, Parker pleaded not guilty. He is facing civil and criminal charges, and the incident has gotten the attention of the FBI.

Muncey told the Daily Caller that the standards of his department are “extremely high,” and Parker “did not meet our standards.”

Muncey also said we should be careful not to throw in accusations of racism so quickly.

It might, however, make the race conversation more constructive if Parker explained himself publically, to the family, expressed humility, showed some signs of repentance.

Since the incident, the South Asian community across the world has mobilized, raised money, posted all over social media the incident, their outrage. And, the government of India criticized the state because Mr. Patel is an Indian national.

This incident has gotten Asian Americans across the country talking about race, and publically, in a way they had not before, and notably, without the violent protests.

One leader at the Hindu Culture Center of North Alabama Harvest told AL.com, “Hindus don’t believe tit for tat or eye for eye, we don’t believe that.”

What happened to Patel is an assault on us all.

And it should spark an honest constructive discussion about race.

But, what happened should not represent racism writ large in the state of Alabama, or chronic racism throughout law enforcement in the state.

The Hindu Cultural Center members suggest the Madison police department undergo diversity sensitivity training, so they learn how to deal with non-English speakers. They were quick to note that the members do not blame the Madison Police Department as a whole.

The South Asian reaction in Madison has been so different from the reaction by protesters in Missouri, New York and Washington State where the suspects were guilty of crimes.

While some attempt to paint Alabama with a broad brush of racism, it seems strange considering the diversity of Madison itself and the growth of the Indian American population in the area.

The population of Madison, Alabama is roughly 45,800. The Indian American population in Alabama has grown 85 percent in about a decade to almost 13,000, and Madison has seen an increase of more than 150 percent in that time period, bringing the Indian population to over 900, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Whites make up 74 percent. Blacks make up 14.6 percent. The town is affluent, with the median income being $94,900.

More than 96 percent of residents have a high school diploma, and more than 50 percent have a bachelors or graduate degree. More than 52 different languages are represented in the school system, and the second most common language after English is Korean.

“We are an extremely diverse community,” Muncey told the Daily Caller.

What happened to Patel has shaken Asian Americans, and their reaction has been very different from their reaction to the other celebrated cases.

Most Asian Americans weren’t enraged when Michael Brown was shot, and many weren’t sympathetic to the protesters.

Ironically, many saw Brown as a criminal who had pushed around another Patel in Ferguson, as he robbed his convenience store, before he ran away with the stolen cigars and things went terribly wrong. Later protesters burned and looted a number of Asian businesses.

Protests broke out again after Officer Darren Wilson was found not guilty.  But if you looked closely, you didn’t see many Asian Americans protesting.

Why? Are we not the target of racism in our own lives?

In a piece called, “Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson,” journalist Liz Lin, explains that Asians Americans believe there’s a better way to combat racism: Study hard, work hard, don’t get involved with criminal behavior, and focus on your family. And you’ll be fine.

In his article in The Daily Beast,Tim Mak wrote that 20 Asian businesses were destroyed in Ferguson when riots broke out. This is a town where Asians comprise less than one percent of the population.

Johnny Wang, president of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of St. Louis, told Mak he hoped the Ferguson riots don’t “devolve into what happened in the L.A. riots … because if that happens, we’re all getting out of dodge.”

I argue there’s something else at play. If you listen closely, Asian Americans don’t see themselves in the race war between blacks and whites.

Even the Association of Asian American Journalists didn’t take a hard line of sympathy for protesters of the Michael Brown verdict.

This is a stark reminder that Asian Americans don’t generally play the “race card.” I grew up in an Asian household. If something goes wrong, it’s usually the kid’s fault, not law enforcement or teachers or other authority figures. It’s a different philosophy, a different way of life that focuses on personal responsibility.

For many Asians, it was hard to sympathize with Brown when his supporters were the ones burning Ferguson down and taking with it the hard work that hundreds of Asians had put into their businesses, their livelihoods.

And, Muncey said officers around the country are increasingly feeling the added pressure of incidents like the ones in Missouri. The New York Times reported in January that the New York Police Department echoed that feeling.

Every 53 hours, there’s an officer killed in the line of duty, Muncey told the Daily Caller.

“It’s a violent job, and if you’re completely inundated with this over and over again, you’re going to be apprehensive.  You’re going to be cautious,” he said.

Muncey, a mild-mannered, straight forward man, added that he doesn’t absolve Parker.

Unfortunately, the city of Madison and the state of Alabama has yet to extinguish the pain.

Parker pleaded not guilty, got off on $1,000 bond and was only charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. And again, he hasn’t apologized. I can only imagine how the Patel family might feel if Parker fell at his feet asking for forgiveness.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley apologized publicly to Patel and his family nearly two weeks after the incident. But what is he really doing about it?

Patel’s supporters have raised money for his medical bills.

Could the state pay for his entire recovery process, including, but not limited to in-home care, a nurse, a housekeeper, a cook?