Prof. Ravi Shankar is a published poet, and a faculty member at the Central Connecticut State University. On July 10th this year, he was arrested on false charges, and detained for more than 30 hrs in a NY detention facility while being hurled with racial epithets. His record only had an unpaid speeding ticket, but he was being arrested as he ‘fit’ the description of a 140 pound caucasian male, while being a 200 pound, East Indian male.
After being produced before a magistrate after 30 hrs of detention and being denied access to a phone call or a lawyer, he was let go as the original lookout notice was for a person of different physical description.
While, we do sympathize with Shah Rukh Khan being stopped for questioning because of his name, or race, or Prof. Gates fiasco – which was not anywhere close to a case of racial profiling (in my view, after reading the facts of the case in the media), the case of Prof. Ravi Shankar can be judged the worst possible experience among the three, and something we need to understand and analyze, because of the unjust experience he had to face, for no fault of his and the insults that a few cops intoxicated with their power in the situation took unnecessary advantage of.
We decided to follow up with Prof. Ravi Shankar and fire him a quick set of questions, to see what his thoughts were and how his experience could help from avoiding someone else go through a situation like this. It’s also quite disturbing to see no media focus on an individual whose basic rights were completely ignored by the cops, and someone with a respectable job and background had to spend 30 hrs in a detention facility.
If there was one thing that you would do differently, on the day you were arrested on false charges, something that you have control over – what would you do differently?
I think I would have reacted both initially and subsequently differently towards the police officers. Feeling like I had done nothing wrong, I was still being completely cooperative. Nonetheless I was perhaps struck subconsciously with a sense of righteous indignation that coupled with longstanding apprehension of cops based on my experiences with them as a youth in Northern Virginia made me come off as less than completely deferent. This feeling was not helped by their bellicose manner and barked commands, which veered ultimately to racial slur. I called them ’sir’ and ‘officer’ but once I tried to give them my card, a new dimension of disgust crept into their dealings, and some class quotient seemed to enter. They were, if anything, more barbed and authoritarian after they found I was a professor, as if they wanted to put me in my place. I should have perhaps kept my head down and pleaded, but I’m not really even sure if that would have helped. One other thing I would have done immediately is call a lawyer. With my one phone call to my family, I should have instructed them to contact an attorney right away to help get me out of there. I had no idea that another thirty-odd hours was waiting to ensue.
What could your family have done to prevent you spending nearly 30-hrs in detention?
They did all they could because they were not given any information. My wife kept calling Central Booking and was told that I hadn’t been processed yet and that they wouldn’t take any request seriously until it had been at least 24 hours. They can keep you for up to 72 hours for “investigation,” so a day is nothing to them. They should have contacted an attorney who would have gotten me out earlier. It’s obviously one of those things that you don’t want to broadcast until you know the circumstances, but in a case like this, you need to be sure that you know what you’re allowed legally. Once inside there was little I could do and we were privy to such subtle moments of psychological barbarism as the officers telling us sometimes the files were dropped or shuffled intentionally, that the only order down there was lack of order and indeed in such chaos, in seeing those who had been brought in after me be called and leave for their arraignment while I waited and waited and waited, my perception of time altered forever and I grew despondent. At that point, there was no one I could communicate to except myself and even the occasional two hours meditation sessions only went so far. I wanted to keep my wits and senses about me anyway, being in there with 35 other guys.
Assuming that, you did not have communication problems (related to accent), were the cops fair enough to give your explanation any weight, or was there no opportunity to express yourself?
No – my attempts at explanation were taken as subordination and they didn’t want me to ask any questions or defend myself in any way. I was told to be quiet and listen, was made to go through a sobriety check that I passed only to be administered a breathilyzer as if they were always going to give it to me, and was called an “idiot” and a “sand nigger.” It was beyond shabby treatment but in that situation you have no rights and anything you say to provoke or further inject rancor into the encounter will only result in bad things for you in the short term.
Have you received a formal apology from anyone or any invites for beer summits with Mayor Bloomberg?
No – many friends contacted the NY Commissioner of Police and I will lodge a formal complaint with the CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board) but I have received no notice from any NY institution or person. Even the NY Times demurred on running the editorial. I am weighing my options now and having conversations. Mayor Bloomberg is surely too busy basking in Plaxico Burress being put behind bars than to have beer with me, but I would accept any invitation, for beer, wine or chai. I would be glad to discuss my experience with any politicians or social organizers who are willing to listen, especially if it can result in a change in this policy of racial profiling. According to the Rand Corporation , 89% of traffic stops by the NYPD in 2006 were for non-whites. Nearly 90%! That’s mind-boggling. I would love to help investigate why this is and what part Indian-Americans and others can play in making this less the case. What happened to me happens regularly to a mostly African- and Hispanic-American underclass and they don’t have the chance or venue to advocate for themselves. Having experienced this, I do and I want to shed light on this epidemic. From Professor Gates to Shahrukh Khan there’s something happening that needs to be openly discussed.
Are there any important lessons you learned from this ordeal?
Keep an attorney’s number in my wallet. Count each moment as invaluable because hours yawed into days while I bid my time on a concrete bench and I never missed those I love more that time. And Metro North is always, always the better option.
Ravi Shankar is Associate Professor and Poet-in-Residence at Central Connecticut State University and the founding editor of the international online journal of the arts, Drunken Boat .
He has published a book of poems, Instrumentality (Cherry Grove), named a finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Awards, and with Reb Livingston, a collaborative chapbook, Wanton Textiles (No Tell Books, 2006).
He currently serves on the Advisory Council for the Connecticut Center for the Book, reviews poetry for the Contemporary Poetry Review and along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he edited Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond (W.W Norton & Co.). He is a recipient of a Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism (CCT) FY09 fellowship in Poetry, an occasional commentator on NPR and will have two chapbooks of poetry coming out in 2010.