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DEA frames Georgia’s South Asians

Published Jan 12, 2006 8:47 AM

Several hundred protesters, mostly South Asian, rallied here Jan. 8 in a mall parking lot to denounce selective prosecution and racial profiling by federal authorities.

South Asians protest racist DEA repression.
WW photo: Alka Roy

In June 2005, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) launched Operation Meth Merchant in several counties in north Georgia. The Agency used informants convicted of producing and selling methamphetamine (meth) to make purchases at convenience stores of the common, legal items used to make the drug. These ingredients include cold medications, matches, charcoal and anti-freeze. The white, English-speaking informants were promised reductions in their prison sentences if they assisted with the successful prosecution of store clerks and owners who sold them these items.

Although the number of convenience stores owned by South Asians in the north Georgia mountains is relatively small, it is these stores, not the large-scale, chain drug stores, grocery stores or Wal-Marts that were targeted.

Forty-four of the 49 people arrested in Operation Meth Merchant are South Asian, many with the last name Patel. Most of the cases rest on the testimony of a single informant.

Present at the rally were several Indian men and women who have been arrested and jailed for days on the basis of this informant’s accusations.

McCracken Posten, a Ringgold, Ga., lawyer, described the cases of Shirak and Malvika Patel. The informant identified them as selling him cold medicine on specific days at a certain convenience store. However, Shirak was in India at the time on a month-long visit to family. Malvika is not the store clerk heard on the tape telling the undercover buyer that she can’t sell him the number of bottles of cold medicine he asks for. At the exact time the informant claims Malvika Patel knowingly sold him cold medications for meth production, she was an hour away picking up her child from daycare. She has never even been in the store where the sale took place.

Yet despite the glaring inaccuracies of the informant’s identification of them, it took months for the charges against Shirak and Malvika Patel to be dropped. In the meantime, their personal and business reputations were harmed, legal expenses mounted and their children and family suffered.

A key element of the government’s evidence against the many immigrant clerks is that the undercover buyer used drug-related slang when making the purchases of these everyday products. Attorney Posten remarked that most people would not recognize these terms, much less people whose English was not fluent.

A few of the arrested clerks—when threatened with up to 25 years in federal prison, forfeiture of family stores and fines up to $250,000—pled guilty to lesser charges. They now face deportation to India.

Trials for some of the others begin Jan. 10 in Rome, Ga. Rally participants were urged to pack the courtroom to show support for the defendants.

Several speakers at the protest explained how the so-called “war on drugs” started by President Richard Nixon in 1971 has been a war on communities of color. Billions of dollars have been spent enforcing increasingly harsh drug laws, resulting in huge increases in the prison population. Of the estimated 14 million people in the U.S. who are drug users, the vast majority—approximately 10 million—are white. The overwhelming percentage of those convicted of drug offenses, however, are African-American and Latino. Money for rehabilitation and treatment programs and preventative education is routinely cut while repressive, often racist police tactics expand.

Deepali Gokhale, coordinator for the Racial Justice Campaign Against “Operation Meth Merchant” which organized the rally, pointed out that this type of racial profiling and selective prosecution is experienced by many others in U.S. society and she urged unity among immigrants and with other marginalized populations.

With fists in the air, the rally was punctuated with chants that translated to “against every injustice and oppression, we will fight.”

Local media covered the protest, and news papers throughout India reported on it.

The Campaign asks that letters demanding that the selective prosecutions be stopped be sent to David Nahmias, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Georgia, 75 Spring St. SW, Suite 600, Atlanta, Ga. 30303.