Why America rallied behind an Indian grandfather but abandoned Ferguson

What changed?
What changed?
Image: AP Photo/Chirag Patel and Charlie Riedel
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Well, this is a new narrative on police brutality.

Alabama’s governor apologised yesterday to the government of India for the police officer who assaulted and injured an Indian grandfather on Feb. 6. Governor Robert Bentley has also ordered his state to investigate exactly what happened, alongside an FBI probe. The use of ”excessive force” left Sureshbhai Patel, 57 years old, partially paralysed. “I sincerely hope that Mr. Patel continues to improve and that he will regain full use of his legs,” Bentley said in a letter to India’s consulate in Atlanta.

What a difference six months can make. While the attack on Patel has garnered sympathy and outrage from all corners of the world (and social media), public support seemed much more splintered in August, when a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the ultimate irony, Americans’ embrace of the victim in the Alabama case seems to have everything to do with the fact that he was a foreigner—and not a black man, as the police had initially believed. These sympathies, coupled with authorities’ vow for swift justice, delineate the hierarchy and complexity of race in America.

Money matters

The background: On Feb. 6, police were called while Patel was out taking a walk, just days after his arrival in America to help look after his grandson, born premature. A caller, who turned out to be Patel’s neighbour, described the Indian man as “suspicious” and a “skinny black guy;” he said he was “nervous” leaving his wife alone because of Patel’s presence in the neighbourhood.

(For the record, Patel weighs 130 pounds.)

In a video of the police response, officer Eric Parker is shown flinging an elderly and frail Patel onto the ground. Played over and over on Indian television, the clip helped prod the Indian government into action. Within days, police apologised to Patel and his family. Parker was arrested on assault charges.

Another lesson from Alabama versus Ferguson: Money talks. To help the Patel family with medical bills, “Sureshbhai Patel’s Recovery Fund“ was created on the crowd-funding platform The campaign’s goal was to raise $100,00, but within six days, it has drawn donations worth nearly $190,000. The page was started by Aakash Patel, who is not related to the victim.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 13, a page supporting Parker was started on crowd-funding platform Indiegogo with the same goal. The page has so far raised a paltry $3,246.

But Ferguson…

That’s the inverse of the economics of giving we saw around Ferguson.

In that case, police officer Darren Wilson raised much more money online than the dead teenager’s family. A Facebook page called “Support Darren Wilson” has more than 100,000 likes. Another Facebook page, “I support Darren Wilson” has nearly 92,000 likes. Supporters of the white police officer created T-shirts and bracelets that had the slogan: “I am Darren Wilson.”

What’s changed?

The near unanimous support for Patel has several reasons. One, it is hard not to sympathise with an elderly man who left his farm in India to help out his family on US shores.

Second, and more importantly, Indians form a wealthy and an influential minority in the US. According to a Pew Survey, Indian-Americans’ median household income is $88,000, the highest among Asian-Americans and way above the US average of $49,800.

In a post on the blogging platform, Medium, activist Anirvan Chatterjee wrote:

Every victim of unjust racist police violence deserves this kind of response, and much more. But this is an exceptional response. Most victims and their families don’t get see guilty officers fired or charged, the FBI brought in, or outside nations showing concern. While this is just one case, this response correlates with the fact that Indians generally sit higher up on America’s racial ladder than African Americans.

Third, geopolitics don’t hurt. US president Barack Obama is keen to build closer ties with India, and his visit to New Delhi last month drew hype and headlines. The diplomatic response to Patel’s beating is significant.

Stand up, speak up

In the last week, the Hindu American Foundation has begun developing a Hinduism 101 training for US police. But as Chatterjee rightly points out, this fails to address the “root cause.” Patel suffered this treatment because his neighbour assumed he was a “skinny black guy.”

Maybe it is time the South Asian community in the US moves beyond self-protectionism and speaks up for the African American community as well. It would not be without precedent: Famous Indians such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Swami Vivekananda, and B.R. Ambedkar have all stood up for African Americans. A new website,, chronicles the stories of solidarity between these two communities. And it’s worth remembering what enabled the passage of so many non-resident Indians to America in the first place: the Civil Rights Movement.

Patel was not attacked because he was an Indian. He was attacked because someone thought he was black. He was attacked because he could not speak English and explain himself. India, its media, and South Asians in the US have no such excuse. Their only obligation now is to shun jingoism, defend other ethnic groups and minorities, and speak up for much more than themselves.

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