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Hands Up: Indian-American artist generates empathy for US police gunbattles victims

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"Hands Up," an interactive digital video project by Roopa Vasudevan and Atif Ateeq in New York sparks discussion of encountr killings of minorities in the United Sttes. Credit: Humai Mustafa
"Hands Up," an interactive digital video project by Roopa Vasudevan and Atif Ateeq in New York sparks discussion of encountr killings of minorities in the United Sttes. Credit: Humai Mustafa
“Hands Up,” an interactive digital video project by Roopa Vasudevan and Atif Ateeq in New York sparks discussion of encounter killings of minorities in the United States.
Credit: Humai Mustafa

New York: An Indian-American digital artist and educator has produced an interactive multimedia installation to explore the problem of killings in police gunbattles in the US. according to a media estimate these gunbattles result in at least two deaths every day.

The “Hands Up” digital exhibit is about “generating empathy”, said Roopa Vasudevan, who created it with fellow Pakistani American artist Atif Ateeq.

“Obviously, there is no way to fully understand what a confrontation like this is, unless it happens to you,” Vasudevan said. “We hoped to allow our visitors to get a degree of understanding of how charged and emotional the situation actually is.”

“Hands Up” simulates the high-adrenaline gunbattle situation in a cacophony of shouts, commands and sirens in a dark scenario ripped by sudden flashes of blue, white and red police car beacons, invoking a sense of dread and foreboding.

As the intimidating voice of the law orders “Hands up,” and a visitor responds, bursts of light simulate gunfire and sounds of explosion ricochet. The viewers are plunged into the virtual reality of split second decisions that become the arbiters of death and life.

It was on display recently at Flux Factory, a community of artists in the city’s Queens borough, an area that is home to a large number of Indians and South Asians.

Asked if she saw police brutality as an issue for Asians and Indians in the US, Vasudevan said: “Absolutely.”

“This is an issue of an imbalance of power,” she explained. “Obviously, most of the focus in the media recently has been on interactions with African American men, but it’s worth noting that this speaks to a larger story of how minorities are looked at and treated in this country.”

In February a visitor from India, Sureshbhai Patel, was left partially paralysed after being roughed up by police in Alabama, although he was not shot.

Last February, an Indian American who had served in the US Army in Iraq returned home to California only to be shot dead by police. Police claimed that Parminder Singh Shergill had charged at them with a knife, but eyewitnesses asserted that he was unarmed.

The Washington Post reported recently that its analysis found that 385 people have been killed in police shootings so far this year.

A disproportionate number of those killed were minorities. Among the unarmed victims, two-thirds were African Americans or Latinos, the newspaper said. When adjusted for proportions in the population in the areas of shootings, African Americans were three times as likely to be killed as other ethnic or racial groups, its analysis found.

Vasudevan said that after grand juries refused last year to indict the white police officers involved in two separate incidents – the choking death of an unarmed man, Eric Garner in New York, and shooting death of a teenager, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – she and Ateeq wanted to see “how we could productively contribute to the conversation and movement for change.”

“As artists, both of us strongly felt that generating empathy for someone placed in the situation of being confronted by the police was key to the path to understanding, and that the best way to do that was by creating a large, immersive art piece,” she said.

Facing mounting criticism over police conduct, Pat Lynch, the head of the New York City police union, denounced the exhibit, saying “it perpetuates a falsehood about police officers and their use of force”.

The atmosphere of chaos and tension created in the exhibit, however, also illustrate the conditions that police operate under.

Vasudevan, denying it was anti-police, said: “It’s not such a cut and dry thing, so-and-so was right and so-and-so was wrong. There’s a lot happening in the moment. It’s our hope that our work can add to the discussion of what can be done to change things.”

Vasudevan has been a director for MTV’s Emmy award-winning series, “True Life,” and her digital work has been featured by the American Museum of Natural History, National 9/11 Museum, and The New York Times. She also teaches at Fordham and New York universities.

Asked about artists of Indian and Pakistani descent working together, she said: “The piece was more about being a minority in the United States than anything else. We didn’t necessarily keep the specifics of our backgrounds in mind when collaborating.” (IANS)

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NY to make Medication-Assisted Treatment Available to all Jail Inmates Struggling with Opioid Addiction

Laura Levine says she never smoked a cigarette or touched a drink until age 35. Then the mother of five tried heroin, and she was hooked

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Laura Levine prepares to dispense drugs at Vocal NY, an organization that works with addicts, where she is the health educator and coordinator for the opioid reversal drug Narcan, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, March 15, 2019. VOA

Laura Levine says she never smoked a cigarette or touched a drink until age 35. Then the mother of five tried heroin, and she was hooked.

After some brushes with the law — petty larceny to support her habit — she was booked into Nassau County jail and withdrawal started kicking in. As the nausea, shaking and sweating grew worse, she began pleading with guards for help.

“They kind of laughed and said, ‘You’ll be fine. Nobody dies from heroin withdrawal,’” said Levine, who is in recovery and now works to help others struggling with opioids. “I would rather give birth to all five of my children again without medication than go through withdrawal again.”

More help for people like Levine could be on the way, as lawmakers in New York are considering a measure to make medication-assisted treatment such as methadone or suboxone available to all prison and jail inmates struggling with opioid addiction.

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FILE – Family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn., Aug. 17, 2018. VOA

States across the country are considering similar approaches amid research that shows that the drugs along with behavior therapy can help addicts reduce the withdrawal symptoms and cravings that drive many addicts to relapse.

Federal statistics suggest more than half of all inmates in state prisons nationwide have a substance- abuse problem. New York officials say that percentage could be as high as 80 percent in state and local lockups, which at any given time have about 77,000 inmates.

Drug policy experts point to the success of a similar program in Rhode Island, which has seen a sharp drop in the number of former inmates who died of overdoses, from 26 in 2016 to nine last year.

Other successes have been reported in local jails in Louisville, Kentucky; Sacramento, California and in Massachusetts.

“It makes no sense that people who have a public health issue don’t have access to medicine,” said Jasmine Budnella, drug policy coordinator at VOCAL-NY, a group that advocates on behalf of low-income New Yorkers on such issues as criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. “In the U.S., we talk about human rights but we are literally torturing these people.”

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FILE – Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter speaks at a news conference in Oklahoma City, April 26, 2017. Oklahoma is one of at least 13 states that have filed lawsuits against drugmakers, alleging fraudulent marketing of drugs that fueled the opioid epidemic. VOA

Two years ago, 24-year-old Matt Herring died of a drug overdose after years of struggling with addiction and bouncing in and out of correctional facilities. His mother, Patricia Herring, said Matt once tried to smuggle suboxone into jail in order to avoid the horrors of withdrawal. Guards found the medication and took it away.

Patricia Herring has now become a self-described “mom on a mission” to push for greater resources for addiction treatment in correctional facilities.

“If he had been given medication-assisted treatment when he entered, I don’t know, maybe things would have been different,” she said.

With no organized opposition, the debate over supporting medication-assisted treatment in correctional settings comes down to dollars and cents. Some counties have paid for programs in their jails; others have not. A total of six state and local lockups in the New York City area, for example, have limited drug-assistance programs for opioid addicts.

Albany County became the first county in the state outside of New York City to offer medication-assisted treatment. Sheriff Craig Apple said he’s become a believer.

“It took me a while to get on board with this, but we’re already seeing early success,” he said.

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Drug policy experts point to the success of a similar program in Rhode Island, which has seen a sharp drop in the number of former inmates who died of overdoses, from 26 in 2016 to nine last year. VOA

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A state budget proposal from Democratic Gov. Andrew would spend $3.75 million to expand access in county jails, and use more than $1 million to expand its use in state prisons. Democratic leaders of the state Legislature have called for more, and advocates say they want to see at least $7 million in the annual budget.

A decision is expected before April 1, when the new budget is due.

“Addiction is a disease,” said New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who is sponsoring the drug-treatment legislation. “We should treat it like a disease.” (VOA)