On July 4, as many Americans celebrated the country’s independence day, the family and friends of Bangladeshi-origin student Arif Sayed Faisal in Boston commemorated six months since the police shooting that took his life.
Faisal’s killing has catalysed important conversations among Southasians on policing, racism as well as mental health, often a stigmatised issue in many households.
South Asians are directly affected by the policing of poorer neighbourhoods, associations with Islamophobic stereotypes, lack of cultural awareness, language barriers, and perceptions of security threat, including through associations with Blackness. Anti-Blackness among the community, too, remains a cause for concern.
Shot during mental health crisis
Faisal was killed on January 4 after the police responded to a 911 call about a man jumping from an apartment window with a knife and inflicting self-harm. The Cambridge police officers who arrived pursued Faisal, initially fired sponge bullets, then lethal shots, claiming failed de-escalation.
The officer who fired the shot that killed Faisal has been sent on paid administrative leave while the others involved remain on duty.
Since Faisal’s death, organisations have been protesting regularly under the banner of “Justice for Faisal”. He was a student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and was home for the winter break.
The Justice For Faisal coalition on January 29 marched to the “Mystic Mural”, a community art project on the environment that Faisal had contributed to as a student at Somerville High School.
“Victims of police killings are not just another statistic,” said Suhail Purkar, an organiser with the Party for Socialism and Liberation Boston, and Boston South Asian Coalition. “It is important to remember their humanity.”
The organising in Cambridge for police accountability may signify a new moment of anti-carceral organising, activism and coalition-building, bringing together the Southasian diaspora with local activists fighting systemic racism and police brutality. On July 8, the Justice For Faisal activists held a rally at Harvard Square.
Criminalisation of mental health crises
Faisal is not the first person of colour to be shot dead while undergoing a mental health crisis in the US. There is a long history of criminalising people suffering mental-health emergencies.
Between 2015 and 2018, almost a quarter of those killed by the police had a known mental illness. A database compiled by The Washington Post shows that there have been over 1,700 cases of mental illness-related police shootings since 2015.
Only a handful of such cases get public attention. In 2016, Hope Coleman, the mother of Terrence Coleman, had called 911 asking support for her son who was having a schizophrenic episode. He was, instead, shot and killed by the Boston police. “Had I not called 911, my baby would be alive,” she said. Coleman has been attending the Justice for Faisal rallies where she shares her own story.
In 2020, the Boston police shot and killed Juston Root after wounding him. He had been suffering from a schizoaffective disorder and had been carrying an unloaded plastic BB gun, a replica gun. The 41-year old was lying “defenceless, on the ground, semi-comatose, and bleeding profusely”, according to a statement from the lawsuit filed by his family against the city of Boston. “Juston was not brandishing a firearm nor did he have any firearm in his possession,” said the lawsuit.
Purkar pointed to the “dehumanising difference” with which the media tends to portray Faisal compared to the policemen who killed him. This feeds the misperception of Faisal as an “armed man”, prompting some to justify his killing.
CBS News Boston ran the headline “Man armed with a machete shot and killed by the police” without mentioning Faisal’s mental health crisis or that he was inflicting self-harm. Another media report noted that the police official who shot Faisal had seven years of experience on the force, with no complaints.
Activists say that Cambridge police set the narrative because they do not wear body cameras. Of the 1,717 cases of police shooting mentally ill people, only in 17.8% (306) of the cases, the police had body cameras, said The Washington Post.
South Asians and policing
The relationship between South Asians and policing reflects the racist structure of US policing and internal differences among South Asians in their experiences with policing. Southasians in the US are stratified by caste, class, religion, language, nationality, ethnicity, and documentation status.
The effects of and responses to policing follow similar lines. Some South Asian individuals and communities, who live in areas similar to the public housing block that Faisal lived in, are more policed than others.
Last November, police in Austin, Texas, killed Rajan Moonesinghe, a Sri Lankan American entrepreneur. The police were responding to a report from Moonesinghe of a possible burglary at his home. The police mistook him for the burglar and shot him before he had the chance to lower his gun.
In 2015, the Alabama police acting on a report about a “skinny Black man” apprehended Sureshbhai Patel, a 57-year-old Indian visiting his family, who was walking around the neighbourhood. Unable to understand what the police were saying, Patel did not follow their commands.
“My South Asian friend gets regularly stopped at traffic lights because the police assume he is Black,” said Purkar.
Support for police reform is growing among South Asian Americans. A 2017 NPR report said that 44% of Bangladeshi Americans, 50% of Pakistani Americans and 49% of Asian Indians did not believe that the police treat all racial and ethnic groups equally. In 2020, among Asian Indians, 51% strongly agreed and 24% somewhat agreed that local governments should reallocate police funds towards welfare programs, according to AAPI Data. AAPI refers to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“There is still need for more political education,” said Sharmin Hossain, a Bangladeshi-American artist and former Political Director at Equality Labs, a US-based Dalit civil-rights organisation.
She said that conservative politics uses Southasian Americans and Muslim Americans, including through “anti-immigrant views that are responsible for policing of other Southasians”.
Hossain noted that a primary way South Asians experience policing is through immigration, referring to police apprehending as many as 63,927 Indians at US borders in 2022. Today, many among the older generation of Southasians no longer see the police in America as benevolent.
Community bridges, ‘anti-Blackness’
There is clearly a greater need for consciousness raising among the Southasian diaspora, said Cambridge community organisers. Part of the work is “to reflect upon anti-Blackness in our own communities so that our aunties and uncles are not the ones calling the cops on Black folks and on each other”, said one activist who did not want to be identified.
Some of those organising in Cambridge said that the South Asian community needs to understand “being a good immigrant does not protect us from racist police violence”. The focus, they said, should be on showing up and joining the Black, Latinx and indigenous folks doing this work for decades.
The Justice for Faisal movement is also a movement seeking justice for Tyre Nichols and Terence Coleman, said the organisers. Unnecessary deaths, like in the case of Faisal and others, are due to continued bad policy choices informed by racist structures. Political will can make all the difference.
The organisers also highlighted the need to connect the dots transnationally, as people protesting Faisal’s killing in Dhaka have been doing, and to recognise how policing disproportionately affects some communities “back home”.
In America, ongoing discussions among the community are highlighting the imperial and military connections of US civilian policing, such as the 1033 program, which transfers Defense Department military equipment to local, state and federal law enforcement.
The community continues to demand the release of names of the police officials involved in Faisal’s murder, the release of the unredacted police report. They have also demanded that the police officials be charged and prosecuted.
“The only reason it would matter if the police official is a South Asian/Black person is to reiterate that bad policing is not an issue of application or representation,” said Payal, an activist. “It’s systemic.”
On May 12 , City Councillor Quinton Zondervan filed a policy order joining the protestors’ demands that the names of the officers be released. Their names cannot be released because of a judge order until an inquest is completed.
The Cambridge police prides itself as being one of the best trained forces in interpersonal dynamics. People, thus, are divided on more police training or changing the nature of training, including training not to shoot at centre mass, or the torso. In June, the city council moved to vote down without discussion a proposal to turn the Police Review and Accountability Board into an elected body.
The Justice for Faisal community has also asked for structural changes: disarm and demilitarise the police (including dismantling the 1033 programme), funding an alternative emergency response system separate from the police, and reallocate the budget into community safety and support.
Small wins, ways forward
The activism and solidarity of Black and Brown communities in Cambridge has contributed to Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang announcing that the police will use body cameras.
Proposals on ways forward include the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, or HEART, an alternative response system formed after demands to delink police from mental health emergency responses. Elsewhere, non-carceral response teams such as Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets are working with local communities.
These initiatives, centering unarmed but trained civilian crisis response to 911 calls, represent a way forward. However, such initiatives only go half way if they continue to operate as nonprofits and are not built into the public-health system, said Purkar.
Currently, HEART is a subcontractor with the Department of Public Health, substantially underfunded at less than $2 million. In contrast, the Cambridge Police’s 2023 budget is to increase by 7%, from $68.7 million to $73.5 million. Organisers note that under current regulations, situations like Faisal’s would be categorised as violent and still go to the police.
“At the very minimum, mental health emergency care has to be completely de-linked from incarceration,” said Payal, who works in the healthcare system.
What emerges in these debates about effectiveness and better alternatives is a consensus across the South Asian diaspora against racist policing, and an emerging allyship with the fight against systemic racism in America.
Upasana Goswami is a PhD candidate in Sociology at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research interests include South Asian feminisms, indigenous movements, and social change in North East India and the South Asian diaspora. Her email ID is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.
Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to update the names of the groups involved in the #JusticeForFaisal movement.