Last week, a viral video of a Seattle police officer sent shockwaves around the United States and India. It captured a conversation between Daniel Auderer, vice president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, and its president, Mike Solan, as they joked about a fatal crash that had killed Jaahnavi Kandula, a 23-year-old Indian student, earlier in January. Officer Kevin Dave was driving at 74 mph while responding to an overdose call when his car hit Kandula as she was crossing the street. Her body was thrown more than 100 feet, and she later succumbed to her injuries. Auderer, a drug recognition expert, was assigned to evaluate whether Dave was impaired. As he was reporting what had happened, the union leader was heard laughing and suggesting that Kandula’s life had “limited value” and the city should “just write a check.”
“Eleven thousand dollars. She was 26 anyway,” Auderer said, inaccurately stating her age. “She had limited value.”
Kandula, a graduate student at Northeastern University’s Seattle campus, hailed from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. She is survived by her single mother. There was little media coverage, perhaps only locally in Seattle, after her death, but the video has brought international attention to her case and once again shone a spotlight on police violence and abuse in the U.S.
It prompted the Indian consulate in San Francisco to intervene and demand a probe. In a statement released on X (formerly Twitter), it said, “Recent reports including in media of the handling of Ms. Jaahnavi Kandula’s death in a road accident in Seattle in January are deeply troubling. We have taken up the matter strongly with local authorities in Seattle & Washington State as well as senior officials in Washington DC for a thorough investigation & action against those involved in this tragic case. The Consulate & Embassy will continue to closely follow up on this matter with all concerned authorities.”
Local leaders in Seattle had a meeting with the South Asian community in the city to engage on the way forward. Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and chief of police Adrian Diaz also apologized for the incident.
“Effective public safety is built on trust between City government and the communities we serve. When that trust is breached, it is the City’s obligation to do the work necessary to restore and rebuild it,” Harrell said in a press release. “The City and SPD owe it to our residents and neighbors — especially communities of color, immigrants, those who haven’t always had a seat at the table — not just to promise them they are valued and welcome, but to prove it, day in and day out through our actions and services.”
Responding to the video, Kandula’s uncle, Ashok Mandula, told the Juggernaut, an American publication dedicated to the South Asian diaspora, “It is truly disturbing and saddening to hear insensible comments on the bodycam video from an SPD officer regarding Jaahnavi’s death. Jaahnavi is a beloved daughter and beyond any dollar value for her mother and family. We firmly believe that every human life is invaluable and should not be belittled, especially during a tragic loss.” Her Houston-based relative Vanisudha Chilukuri had initiated a crowdfunding campaign in January to help Kandula’s mother make student loan repayments and raised over $160,000. It was deactivated last week on the request of her mother. Moreover, Northeastern has decided to award Kandula a degree posthumously; she was three months short of completing the program.
While police violence and its racist undertones are not new issues in the U.S., Kandula’s death has become a rare case in recent times when dehumanization by American police has impacted a foreign national — a young international student whose death and the subsequent response to it has created outrage in another country, in this case India. Indian media at large has been closely covering this case since the video came to light.
Moreover, it has created outrage within the Indian diaspora in the U.S., which totals a little under 5 million. Indians also account for the second-highest number of international students in the U.S. In 2022, the U.S. government issued nearly 125,000 visas to students from India.
Several members of the Indian-American community, organizations and politicians, including, among others, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, whose district includes most of Seattle, released strong statements condemning the incident. Krishnamoorthi said that “the scale of her loss should not be diminished or mocked by anyone,” while Jayapal said that this happens “when we normalize xenophobia and racism.” Manka Dhingra, deputy majority leader of the Washington State Senate, called Auderer’s comments “revolting.” The National Federation of Indian American Associations called upon all relevant authorities to prioritize the investigation.
Popular Indian celebrities such as actor Priyanka Chopra, chef Vikas Khanna and singer-songwriter Sid Sriram also took to social media to register their outrage. Chopra said it was “appalling” that an incident that happened nine months ago was coming to light only now. Sriram, who grew up in California, invoked the “model minority” descriptor often used for the Indian diaspora and said that the expectation has been that “we will be a quiet, passive and well-behaved bunch who keeps their head down.” While the Indian community in the U.S. a “privileged” one, he said, the “limited value” remark “is a direct reflection of how we as a population are viewed by many here.”
The Indian community deals with a double-edged sword when it comes to dealing with and speaking about racism in the U.S. While Indians face discrimination, they’re also privileged and are the highest-earning migrant group in the country. Many who moved to the U.S., from the ’90s to today, are high-skilled workers who have well-paying jobs in fields like tech, finance, medicine and law, among others, and are often cited as examples of immigrant achievement in the West.
Because a large proportion of the diaspora are not U.S. citizens, and dependent on work visas, the community has not mobilized in the past to talk about their experiences. It has started to change only recently, prompted by the widespread protests led by Black Americans following George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
Moreover, there has been little research and data into the extent to which the community faces discrimination. But a 2020 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which looked into the social realities of Indian Americans, said that “one in two Indian Americans reported being discriminated against in the past one year, with discrimination based on skin color identified as the most common form of bias.” The study further stated that “somewhat surprisingly,” Indian Americans born in the U.S. were much more likely to report being victims of discrimination than their foreign-born counterparts.
Furthermore, whenever the issue of racial discrimination comes up in the Indian community, there is resonance. But people are also criticized for holding double standards: They speak up about racism in the U.S. but not about the internal fault lines within their own communities. The majority of the Indian diaspora is Hindu, belonging to dominant caste communities in India who historically have not acknowledged discrimination on the basis of caste and religion. Nonetheless, within the diaspora in the past few years, there has been active discourse and discussion about privilege, caste discrimination and religious bigotry.
Those debates have come up once again in the aftermath of Kandula’s death as Indians, and South Asians at large, mobilize to demand justice for the Indian student.
The epicenter of protests and dialogue has, of course, been Seattle. The region has a strong Indian community, as the headquarters of tech giants Microsoft and Amazon are located there. More than 200 people gathered in Seattle last week and held a rally at the intersection where she was struck to demand justice for Kandula. Another group of Indians again gathered over the weekend to register their protest, apart from multiple vigils.
But in a statement released late last week, the Seattle Police Officers Guild noted that Auderer’s comments were only one side of the conversation and have been shared without proper context. They shared a letter written by Auderer to the Office of Police Accountability last month in which he said that the two union leaders were talking sarcastically about the way lawyers negotiate the value of human life in incidents like Kandula’s death and that without context, the comments “could be interpreted as horrifying and crude.”
“I intended the comment as a mockery of lawyers — I was imitating what a lawyer tasked with negotiating the case would be saying and being sarcastic to express that they shouldn’t be coming up with crazy arguments to minimize the payment,” he wrote. “I laughed at the ridiculousness of how these incidents are litigated and the ridiculousness of how I have watched these incidents play out as two parties bargain over a tragedy.”
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