Poet Says He Was Arrested For 'Driving While Brown'
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now, we want to talk tangentially anyway about a story that made headlines across the ocean. This past weekend Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan was stopped at Newark International Airport because he was told his name is similar to one on the U.S. government's terrorists watch list. He was stopped for a couple of hours and then went on to his commitments.
But the incident drew notice because Khan is one of India's biggest celebrities, on power to Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt in this country. And Khan is as common a name is some parts of the world as Smith is in the U.S. It was also noted with some irony that one of Khan's latest projects is a film about racial profiling of South-Asians after 9/11.
But Khan isn't the only person of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent to complain of a heavy handed law enforcement approach toward black and now brown people in the U.S.
Poet Ravi Shankar, who's of Indian-American descent was stopped in Manhattan last month and ordered out of the car for a sobriety test that he passed. But he was locked up anyway. Shankar, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University joins us now to tell us what happen next. Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.
Professor RAVI SHANKAR (Associate Professor, Central Connecticut State University): Well, good to be here. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, take us back to the night of July 10th when you were arrested. Were - you were in the city, what were you up to?
Prof. SHANKAR: Well, it was really a night of contrast because I was there in the city to help celebrate a 10-year anniversary of this online journal of the (unintelligible) I help found, drunkenboat.com. And we had this fabulous launch at a Chelsea Gallery, complete with filmmakers and visual artists and writers. And we went to dinner afterwards to celebrate the occasion, and it was just on my way home, I live about two hours away, and I was heading back to go back to Connecticut when all of this took place.
MARTIN: You were turning onto 6th Avenue from 34th Street, and then what happened? Did somebody approach the car? Did you get out of the car? What happened?
Prof. SHANKAR: Yes, an officer approached the car, kind of wielding a flashlight, and he asked for license and registration. When I asked him what I was being pulled over for, he got a little irate and said, you'll find all of that out later. I need your license and registration now.
And he pulled me out to do a field sobriety test and then to do a breathalyzer, all of which I ended up passing. But he took a little time conferring with one of his colleagues, and he came over after I passed the breathalyzer and said, I have good news for you, you've passed the test. And with kind of comic timing, a second later, he said, I have bad news for you. There's a warrant out for your arrest.
And he proceeded to kind of twist my arms behind my back and put some handcuffs on me and take me and slap me back into the paddy wagon.
MARTIN: Did he ever say what the warrant was about, why you had been arrested?
Prof. SHANKAR: I only found out over an hour and a half later, when I was in the 14th Precinct, and they finally printed a document that they showed me. And this warrant was, in fact, for a 5'10" white guy who weighed 140 pounds and was nearly 37 years old at the time. None of those matched me. I'm a 6'2" Indian man who's about 190 pounds, and when I pointed this out, the officer responded quite rudely and said that I could take it up with the judge.
MARTIN: Well, not only that, but that your ethnicity had been noted, as you described. And I want to mention that you wrote a piece about this for the opinion page of the Hartford Current, and your ethnicity was noted because one of the officers made a comment. Do I have that right? How can we describe it? It's always…
Prof. SHANKAR: Well, it's a pejorative term, yeah, and it was actually something I hadn't even really heard, but it was a sand and then the N-word, which apparently is how people of Middle Eastern descent were called during the Gulf War and then what's followed.
MARTIN: And this is the arresting officer, right?
Prof. SHANKAR: This is the arresting officer, yes.
MARTIN: And as you describe it, he said it's always a good day when you band a sand N-word, and he didn't use the euphemism.
Prof. SHANKAR: Yes, when you can bag - right, exactly.
MARTIN: Well, why do you think that - and I take it that you do think that ethnicity is part of this. Why do you think that?
Prof. SHANKAR: It was a number of different things that tipped me off. First, he seemed really rather suspicious that - if I owned my vehicle and kind of went to check in on that. But the greatest indication was the time that I spent in the precinct and then, subsequently, in central booking.
I was actually in jail for nearly 36 hours. And during that time, 99 percent of the people that I met were either African-American, Hispanic-American or Asian, and that disparity which was so glaring throughout the course of my entire stay, combined with the evidence of the kind of psychological brutality I saw the cops applying, really opened my eyes to a lot of things.
MARTIN: Like what? What do you mean by psychological brutality?
Prof. SHANKAR: Particularly - and none of this, what was happening was ever really very clearly communicated to me. I had to really agitate in order to get my one phone call. I was told that I would be out of there in a few hours or see a judge, and it turned into quite an ordeal.
In fact, I was taken in on a Friday night. I didn't get out until Sunday afternoon. And the majority of that time I spent in a kind of communal jail cell in central booking. And some of the officers there, there was shifts of officers that would pass in and out, and some of them wanted to kind of display in an overt way their authority over people. And they would yell at some of the supposed criminals, and particularly in the center of 100 Center Street, which is this vast subterranean space I didn't even know existed in Manhattan, there the cops were particularly vulgar in the kinds of things that they said and the kinds of things that they did.
MARTIN: But why do you think - again, you think this is a matter of ethnicity, it's because of who else you saw down there, or is just you felt because you were a brown person that there was no sense that you needed to be treated with any modicum of respect or courtesy? You know what I'm asking: Why do you think ethnicity played a role in the way you were treated?
Prof. SHANKAR: I think that I was approached with initial suspicion from the very fact of my ethnicity, and I was questioned about where I was from and what I was doing. And to me, it feels very much like a vestige of this post-Patriot Act environment. I know certainly after 9/11, I was living in New York at the time and was devastated, as most New Yorkers were. But since that time, I've often encountered profiling in airports.
I kind of expect to get pulled out of lines, running joke in our household that we should leave an hour early because I'll certainly get pulled out, which happens more often than not. And so I think maybe some of that fear and paranoia plays into this, but I think the racial profiling of Asians is a subject that hasn't really very much been discussed, and it seems to me more and more prevalent.
MARTIN: What do you think you're going to do about this particular incident? You still have to go to court. Is there anything else that you think you plan to do in response to what happened?
Prof. SHANKAR: Yes, you know, the really heartening this is that after I wrote this piece, I've gotten an outpouring of support, and I've heard from a number of different people, and I have been talking to the ACLU.
I certainly plan to file a complaint with the CCRB, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, about the arresting officer. I don't know if I have the militancy or the psychic energy to pursue a civil case. But right now, I'm in the process of just having conversations. I haven't really decided where to take, except I do know that I want to shed as much light on what happened to me and this larger phenomenon as I possibly can.
MARTIN: And finally, Ravi, I wanted to ask you this. I understand this is a very unpleasant experience for you, but there are those who will say, well, if this is who the police are pursuing, then this must be just like with the watch list - with Shahrukh Khan, as unpleasant as it may have been for him, that if these are the people are most likely to be engaged in certain conduct, then the law enforcement has an obligation to pursue people who happen to fit this profile, if you will. To someone who has that point of view, what would you say?
Prof. SHANKAR: Well, I would say that it's just erroneous on a number of levels. I mean, first of all, I'm an American citizen. I was born in the U.S. and I feel as much an American as anyone else, but I also think that it's very shoddy police work. That oftentimes to approach something from this kind of deductive mode of reasoning, from the outside in, really clogs up the justice system and doesn't help find those who are truly guilty.
Instead of using the resources to kind of pinpoint those, I think painting everyone with this broad brush, particularly innocent Americans, is a travesty of individual liberty and, in fact, of our Constitutional rights as citizens.
MARTIN: Ravi Shankar is an associate professor of English and poet in residence at Central Connecticut State University. He was kind enough to join us from member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut. If you want to read the piece that we are talking about, where he described the experience he had last month, we'll have a link on our Web site at the new npr.org. Ravi Shankar, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Prof. SHANKAR: Wonderful, thank you so much, Michel.
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