A flood of images and videos of looting, arson, rioting, and killing, has swept across 140 cities and counting, in America, in the wake of the murder of a black civilian, George Floyd, by a white police officer, in Minneapolis.
It’s brought down even the most righteous of police officers – white, black, brown, yellow, across the country, down to a knee – Colin Kaepernick-style, in abject desperation – symbolically seeking forgiveness and absolution for the barbaric action of one of their own. Police chiefs are hugging protesters. It makes one wonder, though: where to draw the line in supporting the cause of ‘Black Lives Matter.’
Is brazen robbery and arson, inciting violence, assaulting and killing innocent civilians and police officers, in the garb of a protest, to be treated with compassion and accepted as part of an emotionally-fueled agitation?
Or should one say: Enough of the violence. Stop it. It’s ok to protest peacefully. It’s not ok to loot and burn shops; maim and kill people in retaliation.
The relentless images and videos of South Asian-owned businesses ravaged by looters keep ticking in on social media, minute by minute, hour by hour, as night sets in.
A jewelry shop broken into, emptied in Florida; perfume and trading shops in New York City ravaged – its interiors looking like a tornado ripped out its walls and glass windows, contents blown away; restaurants gutted and vandalized, including the Ganga Mahal restaurant in Minneapolis, owned by Bangladeshi immigrants who supported the protesters, fed them, despite their loss. Ruhel Islam, the owner of the restaurant was quoted in The New York Times, saying: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.”
Most of the Indian American community, those who have lived for decades in America, to recent arrivals, are well versed and aware of the history of racism that has dogged and shaped America over the centuries.
Swami Vivekananda, who was identified as an African American when he landed in America, has been quoted as saying, on racism, in 1900: “As soon as a man becomes a Mohamadden, the whole of Islam receives him with open arms as a brother…in this country, I have never seen a church where the white man and the negro can kneel side by side to pray.”
Nico Slate, writing in Colored Cosmopolitanism, says Vivekanada showed “a recurring hostility to American racial prejudice,” and that he used “the struggles of African Americans as a touchstone to criticize caste prejudice” in India.
Blackdesisecrethistory.org has recorded that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in a secret memo to the first Indian ambassadors to the US and China, was frank about how “Our sympathies are entirely with the Negroes,” even as his new government struggled to handle the white American government as it approached the height of its post-Cold War power.
Freedom fighter and Member of Parliament in India, Ram Manohar Lohia, went to jail in May, 1964, to fight Jim Crow, that infamous set of state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by blacks during the Reconstruction period.
In 1951, Lohia lectured at Fisk University and at the Highlander Folk School activist training center, encouraging African Americans to use nonviolent civil disobedience, says Blackdesisecrethistory.org
Slate writes that US State Department promptly sent a formal apology to the Indian ambassador, after Lohia’s arrest. Decrying his treatment as “tyranny against the United States Constitution,” Lohia told reporters that both the State Department and the Indian Embassy “may go to hell.” Segregation was a moral issue, he stressed, not a political one. When told that the American ambassador to the United Nations…would offer his apologies, Lohia replied that Stevenson should apologize to the State of Liberty.
Over the decades, though, since the immigration floodgates opened in the 1960s, to allow professionals and skilled workers from India to emigrate to the United States, a sea change in perception and sensibilities followed.
Especially, as the Indian American community prospered, gained acceptance in the higher echelons of society, served in White House administrations. The community is today known as a wealthy, model community, stickler for rules and regulations, teach their children to respect and adhere to law and law enforcement personnel; work hard for success. The concept of looting and committing a heinous crime for profit are antithetical to their way of life, thinking.
The Indian community, despite facing at times brutal racial discrimination of their own from white America, in time, began to be further and further removed from the cause of racism perpetuated against the black community, who in contrast to them, lay at the bottom tier of society, economically, and, especially, in the sphere of education.
Vijay Prashad, in his book, ‘The Karma of Brown Folk’, published two decades ago, traced the history of black and South Asian solidarity, discussing joint struggles in the US, the Caribbean, South Africa, and elsewhere. He looked also into the complexities faced by the members of a “model minority” – one, he claims, that is consistently deployed as “a weapon in the war against black America.”
Activist and lawyer Deepa Iyer, author of ‘We Too Sing America’ and host of ‘Solidarity is This’ podcast, writing in Medium, this week, gauges succinctly the dilemma of the community: “For those South Asians who are privileged by virtue of class, caste, or immigration status, the stories of South Asian shop owners in Minneapolis and Ferguson may not resonate. Many South Asians take the “racial bribe” and climb the racial ladder in a futile attempt to reach the status of whiteness.”
Iyer adds: “They are the ones calling protesters “looters” and differentiating themselves as model minorities. Still others remain indifferent to understanding the history of Black liberation struggles that paved the way for their own families to immigrate and enjoy benefits in America. Some are silent and apathetic, seemingly oblivious to the civil unrest happening around them. Getting more South Asians to understand the importance of dismantling the systems of white supremacy is not easy…”
Yet, there is no doubt that the issue of discrimination of blacks in America resonates deeply with the South Asian community. Some respond emotionally to it, on an instinctively humanitarian level.
The Washington Post reported the story of a resident of Washington, DC, who gave shelter overnight to some 100 protesters feeling from police action and chemicals hurled at them to enforce a curfew, near the White House.
Rahul Dubey, the ‘Good Samaritan’, was quoted as saying, of the protesters running on his street, taking evasive action from the police: “It was a human tsunami. I was hanging on my railing yelling, ‘Get in the house! Get in the house!’” Later neighbors of Dubey too reportedly helped some of the protesters clean up from action taken by law enforcement personnel.
Dubey told a local TV station that it was an “amazing group of people” in his home. He said protesters left when the curfew ended at 6 a.m. “They were doing nothing wrong other than to build a future that they want and that I want,” Dubey said.
Ultimately, for the Indian community, the words of Ella Baker, the African American civil rights and human rights activist, would be of import, in their support of the ongoing struggle to remove overt and covert racism and police brutality in America: “Who are your people?”
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)