‘Silence Equals Complicity’: Indian-American leaders, organizations call for action to end systemic racism (Update)

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(This is an updated version of an article that appeared June 2, 2020)

People gather at a memorial for George Floyd that has been created at the place where he was taken into police custody and later pronounced dead in Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1, 2020. (Photo: Reuters Lucas Jackson)

Indian-American leaders, from activists to heads of multinationals, have taken to heart the dictum that ‘silence means complicity’, that standing on the fence is the same as endorsing the status quo of systemic racism.

Numerous individuals, media personalities, organizations from the left to the right, religious to secular, in the Indian-American community, have spoken out after the death of African American George Floyd while in police custody. A video showed a white policeman, Derek Chauvin, pressing Floyd’s neck with his knee for nearly 9 minutes as the victim gasped and became unresponsive. His last words, just as those of Eric Garner who died following a police chokehold in 2014, “I can’t breathe” are a clarion call for change.

Chauvin, 44, has been charged with second degree murder and manslaughter. The three other policemen – Alexander Kueng, 26, whose ethnicity could not be determined, but who according to CNN, said in a job application that he could speak, read, and write Russian, Thomas Lane, 37, of Caucasian descent, and Tuo Thao, of Asian descent,  were charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

Coming on the heels of the recent deaths of other African Americans like Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, or the 2014 incident with Eric Garner in New York City,  Floyd’s death appears to be the spark that has brought a wider section of the Indian-American community, and not just its leaders, to recognize the existence of systemic racism.

Indian-American individuals who have achieved great heights in the U.S., — from Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and parent company Alphabet, and Satya Nadella of Microsoft, to Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the largest civil rights organization in the country, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have condemned Floyd’s killing in so many words, and called for solidarity with African Americans in their struggle for social justice.

Professional organizations like the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association have found it necessary to state their positions.

“Silence equals complicity,” said advocacy organizations like Chhaya Community Development Corporation of New York, which outlined steps members of the community could take locally to  end systemic racism and police use of force.

Media

Indian-Americans in media have not remained silent either.

Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, chairman of Parikh Worldwide Media and ITV Gold which brings out News India Times, called Floyd’s death a “very serious” event.

“The Indian-American community should get very involved. This kind of racial hatred and animosity is unacceptable. We empathize. Our own religion, culture and way of life has faced discrimination. By joining this movement against systemic racism, we ensure that all communities are treated equally,” Dr. Parikh said.

In an ironic twist, the New York Times reported June 5, 2020, that foreign governments had called on American authorities to ensure press freedom after attacks on journalists covering demonstrations.

Another media personality, Hasan Minhaj, in his June 3, 2020 ‘Patriot Act’ episode spared nothing in his scathing attack on the community.

“This time we cannot stay silent … because the murder was so heinous …” he said. So heinous, in fact, that “Even my community is speaking out,” Minhaj said.

“We love seeing how high a black person can rise in America. But we have done nothing to raise the floor,” Minhaj declared.

“I can’t speak to what it means to be black,” Minhaj conceded, “But I know how we (Asians) talk about black people. …. It is a microcosm of America.”

Community Organizations

Anil Bansal, president of the Federation of Indian Associations in the tri-state area, said the rest of the Indian-American community cannot use their leaders as proxy for holding up the cause of civil rights.

“A wider section of our community must speak out. We cannot just be happy that Indian (American) leaders are speaking as if on our behalf,” Bansal said, adding, “This is a minority issue and we are a minority, so we are part of it,” said Bansal, adding that FIA was holding an Executive Committee meeting June 4, to discuss how to show support for African Americans.

“In order to improve the quality and future of minorities like us, we must support African Americans in a peaceful way to bring the change about,” Bansal said. “We may forget the past when we were discriminated against more than 100 years ago, but we should not forget that the latest wave of Indian immigrants (in the 1960s and 1970s). We are here because of the African American struggle for civil liberties.”

The Hindu American Foundation in its statement directly addressed law enforcement and lawmakers.

“The Hindu American Foundation stands in solidarity with peaceful protestors across the nation condemning the horrific killing of George Floyd and calling out systemic racism and excessive violence against African Americans by our nation’s police,” said the June 1, 2020 statement.

Suhag Shukla, executive director of HAF, said, “The collective negative karma of our nation’s past and centuries of subjugation has yet to be resolved.” She said there was a dissonance between what founders of the country wanted to create, and a nation “built on the backs of enslaved Africans and the spilled blood of Native Americans.“

The HAF announced it has joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Gupta’s organization, to ask Congress for “swift and decisive legislative action in response to ongoing fatal police killings and other violence against Black people across our country.”

Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (World Hindu Council of America), said it condemned Floyd’s “brutal killing” calling for a ‘national dialogue on rce relations.”

“Currently, as people of faith we feel the pain of injustice and the killing of George Floyd,” Ajay Shah, executive vice president of VHPA is quoted saying in the press release.

“The murder of George Floyd is a reminder that we must reinvigorate our pursuit for euity in our society,” said Utsav Chakrabarti, execuive director of HinduPACT USA, an initiative of VHPA.

The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), in a statement, “condemned racial discrimination and violence.”

Dr. Suresh Reddy, president of AAPI said, “As American Physicians of Indian-origin, we are unanimously outraged by George Floyd’s death and the long history of racial discrimination that lives in this country.” He was joined by several executive committee members of AAPI, who noted that solutions were needed, “that ensure everyone in this nation receives fair and equal treatment and that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.”

The Indian American Muslim Council, in a May 31, 2020 statement said it was “outraged” by Floyd’s killing and urged police reforms and retraining, and for perpetrators to be brought to justice.

“The treatment of minorities, especially blacks by police officers in the United States of America is a systemic problem that should not be tolerated or normalized,” the IAMC said.

The National Federation of Indian Associations citing Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience movements, said, “Bias exists, it may or may not be on the conscious level, however, its existence cannot be denied. Black race is oppressed. We collectively have to make an effort to not perpetuate bias and economic inequities but to overcome consciously by diligent ways to eliminate the prejudice and bias against all minorities in our daily dealings.”

The Indian American Forum for Political Education president Dr. Sampat Shivangi, said Floyd’s death was “one of the biggest tragedies in American history.”

Corporate Responsibility

While everyday news about hate and bias is not new, “It’s far too often the experience and reality in daily lives, particularly for the Black and African American community,” Nadella of Microsoft said in a note to employees reported in several media outlets.

“There is no place for hate and racism in our society,” Nadella tweeted June 1. “Empathy and shared understanding are a start, but we must do more. I stand with the Black and African American community and we are committed to building on this work in our company and in our communities.”

Nadella acknowledged that it was not enough to just have empathy. “It’s incumbent upon us to use our platforms, our resources, to drive that systemic change, right?”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Today on US Google & YouTube homepages we share our support for racial equality in solidarity with the Black community and in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery & others who don’t have a voice. For those feeling grief, anger, sadness & fear, you are not alone.”

Nevertheless, Pichai’s tweet garnered critics who called it “hypocritical,” on grounds that  alleged racist websites had not been removed from company’s ad network.

 Advocacy Organizations

“Nearly six years after Eric Garner cried out ‘I can’t breathe,’ another unarmed Black man uttered the same words as he was choked to death over several minutes by police officers in Minneapolis. George Floyd should be alive today — and there is no justification for this inhumane and lethal use of force,” the LCCHR, Gupta’s organization, along with The Native American Community Development Institute, and UNIDOS MN said in a joint statement.

Gupta, who from 2014 to 2017, served as Acting Assistant Attorney General and Head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, led on issues such as constitutional policing and criminal justice reform, prosecuting hate crimes etc. She led investigations of Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago police departments. Now she is challenging Attorney General Bill Barr’s handling of the latest case. On Twitter June 3, 2020, she noted that her organization, along with hundred of groups, sent two letters to the Justice Department requesting investigations into two deaths in police custody and investigations into the Minneapolis Police Department.

South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT, came out swinging following Floyd’s death, calling it “state-sanctioned police brutality. ‘

South Asians For America, previously South Asians For Obama, said, “We encourage others in the South Asian American community to speak out against violence and police brutality. As fellow minorities, South Asians are in a unique position to understand and support the African American community. … South Asians who immigrated to America after 1965 benefited from the civil rights movement started by African Americans.”

Lawmakers & Law Enforcers

Indian-Americans “need to stand in solidarity against injustice and racism while urging nonviolent action,” Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, told News India Times. “We must all condemn violence of all kinds whether it’s done by a policeman against George Floyd, or whether it’s done by looters or others.”

New Jersey State Senator Vin Gopal urged Indian-Americans to speak out, organize, build links with local police departments, and do that in ways that still observes COVID-19 protocols in these dangerous times.

“It could happen to an Indian-American,” Gopal told News India Times referring to Floyd’s killing. “Remember 9/11? after which Indian-Americans were targeted.”

“We need to empathize. By joining up to speak out, putting our views out on social media,” he said, because for now, public meetings under COVID were not the best idea.

“I cannot, and should not pretend that I have ever experienced the plight or experiences of America’s black community—but I want to understand, and I stand with our black community in their fight for justice. Watching this video was sickening, inhumane, disgusting and horrifying. Point blank – it was murder sanctioned by individuals sworn to protect us,” Gopal said on Facebook.

“We cannot afford to let this tragedy pass into yesterday’s headlines. America needs healing, and our black community deserves justice for the bigotry and systematic prejudice that many black Americans face every day,” Gopal added.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, in a thread on Twitter, noted the steps taken by his department to avoid an event akin to Floyd’s killing, among them – requiring an independent grand jury investigation every time a civilian dies in police custody; overhauling the disciplinary process; organizing hundreds of listening sessions; requiring every police department to implement an “early warning system” to identify personnel at risk of harmful behavior; imposing new statewide rules “governing law enforcement interactions with historically marginalized communities.”

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