NYC pays prof for wrongful arrest

(NEW BRITAIN HERALD)   CCSU English professor and poet Ravi Shankar has won an undisclosed settlement with New York City for his wrongful arrest and weekend detention in 2009.

Shankar was driving through New York City when he made what he later learned to be a completely legal left turn on 34th Street but was nevertheless pulled over by an NYPD cruiser.

Shankar believes the real reason for being pulled over was his skin tone.

A native-born American citizen, Shankar is of Indian descent.

“The initial traffic stop was a totally bogus claim,” Shankar said Thursday. 

When he was pulled over, the police officer gave Shankar a breathalyzer, which he passed.

The officer then put the professor up against a wall and proceeded to arrest him based on a warrant out for a man of the same name.

When put into the back of the police cruiser, Shankar reported one of the officers said, “it’s always a good day when you can bag a sand nigger.”

Back at the police station Shankar learned that the warrant out for the man of the same name had a physical description of a 5-foot 10-inch white male weighing 140 pounds.

Dark skinned and 6-foot 2-inch, Shankar weighs 200 pounds.

Despite the obvious difference, Shankar was told to tell it to the judge and ultimately spent Friday and Saturday night in a crowded jail cell with an open bathroom and nothing but a cold hard floor to sleep on.

Almost everyone in the cell was a minority. Many shared stories with Shankar similar to his own, of an alleged crackdown in the city that spurred the NYPD to racially profile in a rush to make as many arrests as possible, he said.

Shankar and his public defender finally made it before Judge Ruth Pickholz there were no charges on the alleged illegal turn or arrest warrant and only an unpaid speeding ticket for which an agreement had already been reached.

 The judge refused to hear the case until the professor came back with an attorney he’d hired with his own money.

“I don’t care,” said Pickholz to Shankar’s lawyer when the defender told her he’d already reached an agreement with the prosecutor on the speeding ticket. 

The city settled with Shankar about three weeks ago, during the discovery phase of his trial.

“We are very pleased to have gotten justice for Ravi,” said Shankar’s lawyer, Bruce Barron.

The settlement precludes Shankar from talking about the details, including the amount he received.

The payment was not “a life-changing amount,” Shankar said, but he hopes that the settlement will prove “a testimonial to what happened.”

Rather than the amount, Shankar expressed satisfaction in that the city admitted culpability.

Shankar has never been apologized too. 

“As a respected professor and a distinguished poet, Dr. Shankar is a highly valued member of our CCSU family,” said CCSU spokeswoman Janice Palmer.

“In talking with him, I know the settlement can’t fully compensate him for the humiliation and discrimination he has suffered, but at least some level of justice has been served.”

 According to Shankar, he has experienced racial profiling and other problems in the past.

Particularly since 9/11, he has often been pulled out of line at airports for a more extensive search.

But before the New York incident he had never experienced “this kind of level of racism,” he said.

Shankar has also filed a complaint with the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent organization which investigates complaints against the NYPD.

That investigation is still ongoing, although Shankar expects very little to come of it as, according to him, such incidents are typically a case of he said-she said.

With no witnesses, the police “feel above the law,” Shankar said.   

According to Shankar, he probably could have won far more money had he seen the trial through to the end, but it would have required the Chester resident, family man and CCSU professor to continually commute to New York City for the trial.  

Since the incident, Shankar has been involved in activism and awareness of what he and the others arrested experienced that weekend, writing an op-ed piece as well as several poems  and a work-in-progress essay.

He is trying to be a voice for those men, hoping that while they may go unheard, he will not. “Because I’m a professor people tend to listen to me,” he said.  

‘Sand Nigger Blues’

Thursday night Shankar delivered a poem called “Sand Nigger Blues” during the Battle of the Giant Poets at Szechuan Tokyo in West Hartford, an event supporting First Congressional District candidate Ken Krayeske.

Say I’m just a plainclothes Indian,

not from a tribe but from a high caste,

just driving home past Chelsea on 34th,

trying to find the West Side Highway.

Windows down, thrumming cross-town,

when I see the rearview flashing lights.

Sober as a compass, headed up north,

no mullah or drug mule yet still I’m brown.

Got the Sand Nigger Blues.

“Just a glass of wine with dinner Officer,

and yes I own this car. See my name’s

on the registration. No, I’m not coming

from that far. I live in Connecticut

and was just headed home. Employed?

Yes I teach for a living. I’m a professor.

A poetry professor. No I don’t have

a firearm or any outstanding warrants.”

Sober as a compass, headed up north,

no mullah or drug mule yet still I’m brown.

Got the Sand Nigger Blues.

From the rear of a barred van the city

passes by in streaks. Cuffed in a human

chain, rights unread, and oxford laces

pulled from my shoes. I’m the lightest

one of three dozen or more, all huddled

together tonight on this concrete floor.

Sober as a compass, headed up north,

no mullah or drug mule yet still I’m brown.

Got the Sand Nigger Blues.

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