My brother died because of a nonviolent offense and for want of competent counsel. The police displayed no empathy toward Ravi's suffering or ours.

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Twelve years ago, at the age of 32, my brother died in the custody of the NYPD.  A few days prior, he had crashed into a parked car while driving under the influence, suffered minor abrasions, and was conscious when admitted to a hospital in Queens.  Five days later, he was dead — when we found him, he was naked and his hands and feet were handcuffed so tightly that his wrists and ankles were still bleeding. It was Father’s Day. A nurse later told us that before he died, my brother cried out for our mother. I often wonder what his last thoughts were. I wondered the same as I watched Derek Chauvin kill  George Floyd.

By chance, I found myself in Minneapolis when Mr. Floyd died, and my proximity to the brutality has forced me to discuss the lessons I learned from my brother’s death. Eradicating violence inflicted on Black communities is the moral imperative of our moment, and uncertainty about how his story fits within this larger movement has kept me quiet for over a decade. I recognize now that silence is not an option because, despite data to the contrary, the disparate impact of systemic racism is still in dispute. I write not to prove these disparities; the data does that. Instead, considering the continued confusion and outright denials, I write about what suffering through systemic racism felt like to my family, and our shared obligation to address the issue. 

Apathy, cruelty and racist stereotypes

My brother was born in Guyana, South America, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Guyana’s culture is the fusion between African and Indian Diasporas, melded together by the colonizing force of the British Empire through slavery and indentured servitude. It is where my grandmother, a single mother, worked as a sharecropper on a sugar cane plantation while raising my father. 

Dreaming of a better life, my parents left Guyana to settle in Queens, New York.  Shielded by the diversity of Queens, I never thought we were poor, and largely unaffected by issues of race; we were living the American Dream. To my family, my brother was a generous, gentle giant, and the successful founder of a tech startup with dreams of revolutionizing the investing world. But to the police, he was an alcoholic and a potential problem prisoner. Years later, I learned from a police officer I knew that the police considered Guyanese immigrants a problem minority group.

Certain snippets paint the larger picture. For instance, after my brother unexpectedly slipped into a coma, the New York Police Department insisted that he still be handcuffed by both his wrists and ankles despite being unconscious and intubated. When my mother begged an officer to unshackle my brother because she didn’t want her son to die in handcuffs, he just walked away.

The lack of circulation triggered by the cuffs caused a blood clot to develop in his leg, and my brother suffered a heart attack. When he went into cardiac arrest, we weren’t able to go to the hospital directly. Instead, we were forced to visit a police precinct to get visitation permits. I won’t ever forget the smirking desk sergeant who deliberately moved more slowly after my parents begged for swiftness, dooming my brother to die alone. Similarly seared into my memory is the sound of my mother shrieking when she saw my brother’s dead body and the image of officers with their hands on their guns threatening to arrest her as they wheeled him away. 

As far as I know, we never contacted a lawyer during my brother’s time in custody and he was never arraigned. My brother died because of a nonviolent offense and for want of competent counsel. His name was Dhruvanand “Ravi” Budhu. 

model minority” construct, and armed with a law degree, I am no longer terrified of my past repeating itself. In essence, my brown skin has allowed me to do something that Black skin cannot: swap out a hoodie for a suit and largely escape the threat of police violence. With this privilege, I have a duty to listen to and help address inequities, especially those that affect Black lives within the circles that I occupy. 

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But this is a duty we all share, and I beg you to do the same. My brother’s death taught me that while tragedies happen, injustices linger. Left unanswered, they fester like open sores and metastasize into relationships of mistrust. Don’t mistake the absence of tension for the presence of justice in your own circles. Inequity preys on our most vulnerable in darkness, shaded by formal policies and informal practices, and covered over by the complicity of the indifferent majority. 

So many suffer in the shadows. We all saw George Floyd’s murder on video, but many offenses — large and small — escape film. To begin to confront racism in this country, those of us with privilege must demand more of ourselves; to first listen, and then to take action, both large and small, that seeks justice for what we hear, and what we see. Anything less keeps us complicit in the plight of those whom privilege has left behind. 

Ryan D. Budhu is an associate at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, LLP and the immediate past president of the South Asian Bar Association of New York.  

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