On Friday June 5th, South Asian American rapper and Das Racist co-founder Himanshu Suri—aka Heems—appeared at London's SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) to give a talk titled 'The Policing of Brown Bodies Post 9/11,' hosted by the university's Decolonising Our Minds Society. Weaving together his thoughts on both recent cases of police violence in America together with his personal experience of 9/11 and the policing of Asian communities in its wake, as well as a look at the prison industrial complex, Heems made the passionate argument that South Asian Americans need to stand by their "black brothers and sisters" during this time of extreme police brutality. Read the full transcript of his lecture below.
After Heems' talk, the floor was opened to discussion, at which point he was confronted by the audience on his own use of the N-word when performing onstage. Read about that here.
HEEMS: In typical rapper self-promotion style, I’m going to begin with something someone wrote about me. “The rapper”—this was written by a white man, for the cover of the Village Voice—”the rapper rolls down his windows to smoke a cigarette, allowing frigid air to flood the car. ‘A lot of people expect me to be some fucking funny guy, but that’s not what this album is,’ he says. ‘If you read those high school articles about me, it’s always about how my mom didn’t want to let me out of the house after September 11th, because she was worried I’d get killed by people who thought I was a Muslim"—or the police—"I keep thinking about this in terms of the way black parents felt after Michael Brown. How many parents have to have that conversation with their children?’ The car shoots off the highway, winding through Wiliamsburg. ‘I’ve cried a lot this year,’ he continues, ‘Maybe you’re not supposed to say that, but how are you not supposed to cry when all these things are going on? It really upsets me, man,’ Suri pauses, verklempt”—it’s a white writer—“swallowing his tears.”—I don’t know, physically, how that’s even possible—“'It really upsets me! That’s not why my parents came here.'”
That’s important. It really upsets me, that’s not why my parents came to America, to fucking tell their kids to worry about getting shot by the police or people who don’t like their color. “Oh, maybe they’ll think the ohm tattoo says ‘Allah,’ so don’t get it, they’ll kill you.”
He died of suspected asphyxia as they restrained him on a pavement. But it wasn’t in Staten Island, New York, and his name wasn’t Eric Garner, his name was Sheku Bayoh, this was in Scotland, in Kirkcaldy. A man from Sierra Leone died in Scottish police custody—nine officers, just very recently, over a month after his death rather than the two days it should have happened in, have agreed to give statements. The family are tired of having to fight for answers, their family lawyer, like so many in the US, mentioned in a recent statement; “There are those who claim that this funeral cortege is inflammatory—it is nothing of the sort and should any police officer or member of the public wish to cause trouble then they should stay away.”
Taking their time with the facts, though illegal, is common in cases where police are involved in the death of innocent, unarmed, usually minority victims. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old playing with a pellet gun, was shot by an officer. Two days ago, things finally moved forward with the prosecution of his killers. In the now well-known Mike Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, the police certainly took their time providing information and failed to follow protocol, and he wasn’t the only one either. Mark Duggan—you guys know about Mark Duggan, right? In America we don’t know about him.
The death rate from police violence amounts to 2.6 per day, or about one person every nine hours. At that rate, American police will shoot to death nearly a thousand people this year.
A conversation on prison in America wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the prison industrial complex and private prisons. The term “prison industrial complex” is used to attribute the rapid expansion of the US inmate population to the political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies. People get paid off of prison, basically. The term is derived from the military industrial complex of the 1950s.
In 2010 the Department of Homeland Security adopted a bed quota that required Immigration and Custom Enforcement to detain about 34,000 individuals on any given day. The quota certainly did not benefit immigrants, but it did prove to be extraordinarily lucrative for the private prison companies that picked up the new business. A report released last week by Grassroots Leadership, a Texas non-profit, details how private prison companies have spent five years lobbying the government, not only to maintain that bed quota, but to enact conservative immigration reform that would continue to ensure a steady flow of inmates into its detention centers. So they get paid to put immigrants in beds in private prisons, in America.
62% of all ICE detention beds are operated by for-profit prison companies. Nine out of the 10 largest immigration detention camps are private, with eight owned by only two corporations: CCA and the GEO group. Those two corporations reaped about $500 million in 2014 alone.
To protect their interests, these companies, particularly CCA, have spent millions in conservative lobbying efforts. With regard to prisons in the UK, a very brief introduction to the prison system in the UK shows that 27% of the adult prison population has been in care, and almost 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children. 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders. In the last decade, the women’s prison population has gone up by 33%, with two thirds being in prison for non-violent offences. Over half have suffered domestic violence, and one in three has experienced sexual abuse. 66% of women in prison have dependent children under 18, and it’s estimated that 17,700 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment. Over a quarter of the UK prison population is also from a minority ethnic group.
Y’all still fucking with me?
Detailed in the Safety In Custody Report from January—March 2012: in the past year, there were over 211 deaths in custody, 5,611 self-harm incidents and 3,725 assault incidents. The rates of self-harm in women being approximately 11 times higher than for males. Y’all heard that, right? That’s crazy.
Although the numbers aren’t even comparable, US police shot and killed nearly 400 unarmed people during the first five months of this year. According to a front page report published Sunday [May 30th] by The Washington Post, the death rate from police violence against the people they allegedly serve and protect amounts to 2.6 per day, or about one person every nine hours. At that rate, American police will shoot to death nearly a thousand people this year. Britain’s numbers are nowhere near this. While we’re talking about math, black Americans killed by police are twice as likely to be unarmed as white people.
I’m a poet, I’m a musician, I love words, I love sounds: malfeasance. Cool-sounding word, terrible phenomenon.
Police brutality has been described as the wanton use of excessive force, usually physical but also common in the form of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation by a police officer. When used in print, or as the battle cry in a black power rally, “police brutality” can by implication cover a number of practices: from calling a citizen by his or her first name, to a death by a policeman’s bullet. What the average policeman thinks of when he hears this term however is something midway between these two occurrences...The wanton, vicious beating of a person in custody, usually while handcuffed, and usually taking place somewhere between the scene of the arrest and the station house.
That last sentence being interesting considering the current American case of Freddie Gray. A 25 year old black man who died on April 19th from a spinal injury suffered in police custody, [prompting] protests or “rioting” as they call it in a largely black city. It came amid a national debate on police brutality, the Baltimore police—six of whose officers are now being prosecuted—claiming Freddie Gray broke his own spine, while handcuffed, on the way to prison.
Here’s some more math: in the US, according to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2003 and 2009, at least 4,813 people died in the process of being arrested by local police in America. Of the deaths classed as law enforcement homicides, 2,876 deaths occurred, of which 1,643—or 57.1% of the people that died—were people of color. In 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture condemned police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement in the US, and highlighted the frequent recurrent police shootings [...] pursuit of black individuals.
What do Desis have to do with this? Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Afghanis, all of us brown people. Desis can help, but very few do. As if the entire civil rights movement—before our quotas were raised—didn’t help make it possible for our arrival in larger numbers to America. This year, we celebrate 50 years of quotas being raised since 1965, [when] more than a handful of Asians were allowed into America. Their wives and children weren’t invited, as the point was to up our science game against the Soviets during the Cold War. In 1975, families like mine, with less education and money, could come to America and drive cabs and bag groceries, and get paid to speak in the—much less beautiful, may I say—language forced on my ancestors.
When Michael Brown was innocently shot by officer Darren Wilson, the springboard for a series of large protests throughout America last year were focused on the convenience store clerk, pushed aside—at least, among the Desi community. Not Michael Brown, but the Indian man who owned the store that he pushed aside. "Stop snitching" is the code in the motherland too, but more people need to snitch on cops. Although, do so at your own risk: because many of those recording recent police murders of unarmed black men have been “coincidentally” prosecuted shortly afterwards for unrelated crimes.
More recently, Alabama’s governor apologized to the government of India for the police officer who assaulted and injured a grandfather [Sureshbhai Patel] on February 6th...The use of excessive force left a 57 year old Indian man partially paralyzed. To help the Patel family with medical bills, there was a fund created that raised $190,000. While these kinds of donations give me hope, $225,000 [was] raised for the officer who killed Michael Brown. He wasn’t even prosecuted.
Patel wasn’t attacked because he was Indian, he was attacked because someone thought he was black. He was attacked because he couldn’t speak English and explain himself. Indians don’t and never will have it as hard as African-Americans, and even Latinos in America. Over 90% of the Indians who came to America between 1965 and 1975 have PhDs and MAs. That’s not like American slavery...but it is a divide of class that created wealthy South Asian Americans who not only ignore the hard work of African-Americans before them, but the hard work of their own community’s working class. Besides Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s beliefs in non-violence, there was Horace Cayton Jr, who in 1942 said, “It may seem odd to hear India discussed in pool rooms in South State Street in Chicago, but the possibility of Indians obtaining their freedom has captured the imagination of the American Negro.” The organizer of the 1963 march in Washington was also a founder of the Free India committee.
My man Vivek Bald just wrote a book called Bengali Harlem, about Bengalis who jumped British ships to settle in Harlem with Puerto Rican, West Indian and black American women as the west coast Punjabis had with Mexicans....There was also the Nation of Islam and their debates with Bengali Muslims on where in the Qur’an it is written that the white man is the devil—this being one of my favorite moments in Vivek’s book.
To put this in more recent pop culture terms, for my crowd—let me pander!—recently, as Red Bull Music Academy interviewed the rapper Skepta (who I think has no idea who I am, so that collab won’t happen), he mentioned that an adversary rapper referred to him as a “Somali or a Bengali black,” and the supposedly hip liberal crowd started chuckling in their seats, prompting Skepta to ask, “What the fuck is funny about that?” And I still can’t figure it out.
Although I know throughout history there have been times when South Asians and our West Indian/African black American brothers have ordered one another to enact change, this time with intense police brutality would be another one of those times where we should assist our black brothers and sisters.
Some of the worst racism I’ve witnessed has been Indians against Nigerians in Delhi and Bombay, or Indians from the north, like me, putting down darker Indians from the south. No promo: my recent video “Sometimes” has to do with inter-racial dating, skin lightening creams and the size of that industry in India, and the fetishization of dark black men.
After 9/11, I remember hearing people say, ‘brown is the new black.’ ‘Brown’ meaning South Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino and more. I like the term as one of unity, although what I am here today saying is, brown is not the new black.
I was blocks away from 9/11 when it happened. It’s no secret. I wrote an album about how I found my way to addiction: a lack of access to mental health resources in the mostly minority working class neighborhoods of Queens, New York. Probably the huge Indian taboo hanging over my head left these issues unaddressed until I recently made an album and got stuff off my chest.
I still can’t figure that day out. My friend Milos is here with me, we went to high school together, we were 15 years old when we saw 9/11 happen three blocks away and we’re still trying to figure out what the fuck all of that meant. The people I saw jumping, the sounds I heard, the soot and ash, the man who yelled at our friend in the hijab. He told us to "go back where we came from"—we were all clearly headed back to Queens, what the fuck.
People began looking at us different. As a frequent brown traveler, my anxiety grew at airports...many innocent men, even juveniles, were thrown into jails at Guantanamo Bay. This is a tragedy dear to my heart, after having been affected deeply by what I saw that day as a New Yorker and a Tribeca kid, and spending the next 10 years treated as a perpetrator of those heinous crimes—though after 9/11, I remember hearing people say, “brown is the new black.” “Brown” often meaning South Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino, multi-racial and more. I like the term as one of unity, although what I am here today saying is, brown is not the new black. There is no new black. That sounds like a few South Asian Americans—like me, sometimes—wanting their cake and eating it too.
Since 9/11, with programs like the Patriot Act and different law and intelligence forces infiltrating mosques for information, we’ve seen a terrible increase in officials targeting Middle Easterners and South Asians, although the techniques they use started with the history of the CIA keeping tabs on America’s black population during the civil rights movement, and even prior. I don’t want to underplay the very real violence against my own people, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus—we had our temple shootings in Wisconsin. February 10th, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were killed in their home in Finley Forest in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A man in Detroit was recently killed while taking pictures of the snow to send home to Iraq—if you’re an immigrant in a place with winter, you know, those pictures with snow you send back home. But if there was ever a time to stick together, it’s now.
Before I ended, I wanted to share a passage from my friend Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. This is about a man that was prosecuted for terrorism: “But he was working towards his GED, the test that would certify that he had high school-level academic skills. He had added, 'I just reading books many kind. I am learning science of insects and biology book basic of becoming doctor these kind of books have a lot of knowledge. I am trying my best to stay strong against stress. Mom, I miss you a lot. I miss your food a lot.’ This letter, touching on dreams and ambition, had cheered Parveen, the mother, especially because just a couple of months earlier, her son had complained that he had not been given the medication that a visiting psychologist had said he needed for anxiety and depression.”—And this is when I started crying, when it was spelled “anzaity” and “depration.”—“And then, in another letter written to his lawyer, just one day later, a copy of which had been mailed to his mother, he spoke happily of how he had celebrated his sister’s birthday in prison.”
There’s an anti-terrorist, anti-Muslim bill being passed [in the UK]; I read an article where it said there was growing anxiety in the Muslim community about tests for children on this anti-Islamic bill, and I just thought that was so funny. As a sufferer of mental health, as a person who speaks about mental health, that they would even use the word “anxiety” to describe how we feel about laws like this that hold us down. If words like “anxiety” and “depression” were in our vocabulary earlier on—we don’t even talk like that, so when you talk about anxiety and depression, that’s a vocabulary of mental health that’s associated with classism. So I don’t know if we have anxiety about the police locking us up, or if we’re just scared of getting fucking locked up. There’s a certain way to speak about mental health that’s extremely classist, and ignores people of color, and minorities, and working class communities.