Life’s weird like that

My sister WhatsApp’d me over the weekend. She’d read about the death of a woman in police/immigration custody in Illinois and found the name a bit familiar.

When she mentioned the name to me, it immediately rang a bell. The woman was a teacher in my school some 30 years ago, though I unfortunately could not recall much about her. No particularly strong or lasting memories associated with her, nothing happy or sad, nothing dramatic or path-breaking. I couldn’t even recall what she taught. What I do recall is that she was young, and despite being thrown into a sea of young teenage sharks eager to draw first blood, she held her own quite well. She was also quite a tall woman, though I can’t recall her face or whether she was attractive or not. She may have been, because she quit teaching a couple of years later to join an international airline.

The news article announcing her death put her age at 52. Young by most standards, and that’s what may have drawn us to her all those many years ago. Or perhaps she was the sort of person who was inherently good natured, kind, the sort who laughed at our antics, commiserated us on our woes and empathised with our new-found teenage angst. Perhaps that’s what kept her alive in our hearts and minds.

When I posted the notice of her death (carried by several newspapers including the Huffington Post and the Daily Herald among others) on my Facebook page, the few who chose to comment remembered her with fondness, followed by a deep sense of anger at the way she met her end. The news reports said that she was charged with resisting arrest by the police… a criminal misdemeanour. She apparently resisted being handcuffed.

The reason for the arrest warrant in the first place, failure to respond to jury summons.

The news reports also stated that she went on hunger strike at the Illinois prison where she was first detained, dying a few weeks later from malnutrition and dehydration. But aren’t most civilised nations supposed to safeguard prisoners in their custody against harm, even if its caused by their own volition? Hospitalising, and perhaps providing her with nourishment intravenously. And I’m not even talking force-feeding, because then the Tokyo Declaration would be thrown back at me… that’s perhaps the reason why no one’s stating diminished capacity as a reason for her otherwise seemingly irrational behaviour. That would warrant force feeding now wouldn’t it. And if Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber could be force-fed when he went on hunger strike, surely a harmless woman who wasn’t a threat to national security could have been hospitalised and cared for earlier.

But I’m no expert on the law in America – federal or state. Here in India the Supreme Court held the use of fetters to be ‘violative of human dignity’, terming the indiscriminate use of handcuffs to restrain prisoners as ‘illegal’. So perhaps this woman, with her ‘lovely English accent’ as the Daily Herald quoted the nurse at the hospital where she passed away describe her… a woman who stood tall and was always impeccably turned out, felt violated at been shoved, possibly manhandled and handcuffed. It’s probably as simple as that.

Now I won’t argue semantics… I come from a country that doesn’t have the greatest human rights record when it comes to police action (at times even the army has been pilloried for excessive use of force in States where there have been prolonged insurgency… and despite the fact that we may say that the conditions warrant the use of force, there’s really no excuse for brutality), but we do have an independent judiciary, and often it is this bastion of ethics that rises up to defend the rights of people, citizens and aliens. And it is this institution that has repeatedly chastised the police wherever the handcuffing of non-dangerous prisoners has been brought to their notice.

So a woman died needlessly… and people may argue that she brought it on herself. But something doesn’t seem quite right with this case… something doesn’t add up. The Illinois P.D. handed her over to ICE since they apparently had an immigration hold on her. And somehow she still got served with a summons for jury duty. Something definitely doesn’t add up.

Unfortunately the truth may stay buried. After all the dead tell no tales.

Rest in Peace Miss L.

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7 thoughts on “Life’s weird like that

  1. Averil – thanks for this piece. I’m saddened as well. Do you have the links to the Huffington post or Herald articles? I would like to look them up. This strikes me as more than unethical. – definitely illegal. I’m so sorry.

  2. Apparently this woman was a U.S. citizen. In a nation founded by immigrants, callousness of this level calls for some action. The police merely stating that they feel sad that a beautiful woman had to die but could do nothing to save her is tantamount to saying: ‘yes I stood by and watched a person hang himself but couldn’t do anything because he wanted to die’. http://www.rediff.com/news/report/mumbai-woman-dies-in-us-after-hunger-strike-in-jail/20120118.htm

  3. I feel so sad and helpless! I dont know how to help from Korea. But I know that Mr. L Gomes was a woman with a lot of dignity, Im proud of her!
    Averil – you write so well! I always wanted to learn how to write well but never could but Im glad my daughter Dheerja (age17) writes very well. Her blog is under her name Dheerja Lakhiani

    • Dinu, yes we all recall her to be a woman of great poise and dignity. Perhaps that’s why she rebelled against being treated like a common criminal. I suppose the least we can do is pray for her, and hope that justice will be served. I am trying to see if anyone, any organisation that deals with immigrant rights can help look into the matter. I have left a comment on the facebook page of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. You can do so as well, and urge them to investigate the matter. Take care Dinu… and thanks for writing in. Do send me the link to your daughters blog, would love to check it out.

  4. Averil,You couldnt have written it better.Yes ,there is a lot of anger….anger at the country that seemingly stands for human rights!!!!!!Its ironical!!!!
    Ms.Gomes was “My Teacher ” and i am proud of the fact!!!!!A well spoken, dignified lady……..am sure many cant put up with such class and panache!!!!
    The fact that she was on a hunger strike tells me that something absolutely wrong was happening with her.I do hope justice is served and quickly atleast by acknowleding that a grave error had been commited and those responsible taken to task…….
    We your students are with you in this fight for dignity ,Ms.Gomes…….n a nation that doles out a lot of talk,better come up with some answers.WE ARE WAITING!!!!!!

    • Thanks for your comment Prasita and I agree completely with what you’ve said. It pains me that people are treated this way, that too in a country founded by immigrants. That she was my teacher and someone I knew, howsoever long ago it may have been, makes me sad and enraged. That she was a woman of principles, great poise and dignity helps me understand why she would object to being manhandled and treated like a common street thug… and so she’s slapped with another charge – resisting arrest.

      I’m glad that finally even the newspapers in India picked it up. I do hope her family/her brother takes it up with the Indian government. Isn’t immigration (U.S. Immigration) supposed to inform governments when there are issues concerning citizens of those countries? Or is it the usual, mutual behind the scenes back-scratching between governments that leaves innocent and helpless people out in the cold, to fend for themselves, unless there’s a stink made.

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