A Brick in the United Front

In the summer of 1997, shortly after the brutal police torture of a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima, a group of friends got together to make a banner and posters for a march against police brutality. Our small group had committed to going and made plans to meet and march together from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We called on other contacts and acquaintances, with the idea that many of us could meet in Brooklyn and march under one banner. Although there was no name for us at the time, that was the seed of what would later become South Asians against Police Brutality and Racism. Even in its early stages, this group was unique. It was a meeting point of both first and second generation immigrants from different South Asian nationalities, of people involved with various and separate community organizations and affiliations, and of people with very different political ideas and backgrounds. There had been other occasions for which this mix of people came together to support each other, most notably the New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike in May of 1997, which brought out a large number of South Asian taxi workers and their supporters. However this march was different. At this point, dialogue and outreach about police brutality had essentially not yet begun among South Asian immigrants. But by 1999, attention to police brutality had dramatically increased. On the front page of the June, 1999 issue of the South Asian community newspaper, India in New York, there is a photo of people carrying a red banner with the words, "South Asians Against Racism and Police Brutality." Inside, there are three full pages dedicated to this issue.

Just a few years later, in the aftermath of the outrageous verdict that acquitted the policemen who killed Amadou Diallo, SAPBR joined DRUM, SAAAC, SALGA and several other groups to organize the first rally and march against police brutality right in the heart of the South Asian community in Jackson Heights, Queens. This rally, held on April 2, 2000, marked the first time South Asians were speaking out against police brutality right in our own neighborhood, with the Stolen Lives Banner (which documents the names of over 1000 people killed by police) as a backdrop to the event. But even more than that, South Asians were expressing outrage against the acquittal of Amadou Diallo's killers in solidarity with all other outraged people. The "Desi Day of Action for Amadou Diallo and other Victims of Police Brutality" was covered in several mainstream newspapers, such as Newsday and Daily News, in the South Asian ethnic press, and in other ethnic press, including The Final Call and El Diario.

It has been a conscious choice for me, as a second generation South Asian immigrant, to become active and visible in the struggle against police brutality. I spent much of my years growing up detached from the community around me, disconnected from their joys and their struggles. As a daughter of recent immigrants who were just trying to make their way in this world, it seems we all lived very much in our own heads, everyone preoccupied with their own issues. When I went to college and had access to more information about American history, I started to contextualize my family's immigration. Joining other activists in South Asians Against Police Brutality and Racism has allowed me to find a niche in an united front with Blacks and Latinos, to lend more voices to their fight against this epidemic of police crimes. And although it has not been a widely discussed issue, police brutality and harassment is not uncommon in the South Asian community, especially against South Asian youth and immigrant workers. SAPBR has provided one way for us to resist the ways in which populations are manipulated in this country, where workforces are shifted at will and "model minorities" are put up as smokescreens to hide the deep inequities and flaws of this system. Immigrants from South Asia, like all immigrants, have very much served the economic and political needs of this country, allowing it to sustain its empire and still portray itself as the "land of the free and brave." We see our oppression, as South Asians in the U.S., as part of the global economic and political system, which feeds off the oppression and exploitation of most of the world for the benefit of a few.

The 1965 Immigration Reform Act attracted scores of middle-class professionals from India and other parts of South Asia. They became a perfect buffer between black and white, rich and poor. Here were dark people, previously excluded, who were coming in large numbers to finally take part in the American dream. By and large, they were successful, providing skills and labor for the post-industrial, service economy.

In the early 1980's, immigration from South Asia decreased, but for the last ten to twelve years, the floodgates have again been open to South Asians. In these years, many more Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have come into the country. There has been a need for a working class population of immigrants to take the place of poor and lower middle-class Blacks and Whites that have moved out of low-wage production jobs. The current massive surplus of labor allows the U.S. to shift people at will and manipulate tensions -- Whites against Blacks and Latinos, Blacks and Whites against immigrants, and immigrants against Blacks. Because Latinos and Blacks have united considerably, the Immigration Reform Act of 1998 has hit Hispanic immigrants the hardest. America has closed that front, and opened the South Asian front. SAPBR aims to add another voice and perspective to the history of struggle and resistance in this country, rather than allowing right-wing and liberal elements of the South Asian community to dominate the recording of our stories.

In 1998, we began to network with other progressive South Asian groups, such as the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Alliance, South Asian Women's Creative Collective, Taxi Workers' Alliance, and Workers' Awaaz. We joined them as part of a South Asian Activist Taskforce, which was designed to create an alternative presence around the India Day and Pakistan Day Parades. We held up placards at the Pakistan Day Parade that said, "Stop the bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan." We got involved with the family of a young Indo-Trinidadian man, the victim of a racist attack in his Queens neighborhood. And throughout 1998, we had been building towards getting a visible contingent of South Asians to participate in the October 22<+>nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation. This is perhaps the process that most contributed to our growth. We went out into predominantly South Asian neighborhoods to leaflet, poster, and talk to people about their experiences with police brutality. In so doing, we realized that police brutality is, in fact, a reality for many South Asians. We also organized a forum to address the issue of police brutality within the South Asian community. Here, South Asians heard from Margarita Rosario, one of the founders of Parents against Police Brutality, whose son and nephew were both shot in the backs by two cops, former bodyguards of Mayor Giuliani. October 22<+>nd was a huge event for us. We brought a large and vocal crowd, and through the organizing for that event, we became South Asians against Police Brutality and Racism. In fact, our main work over the past few years has been to mobilize for the National Day to Protest and to publicize the Stolen Lives Project, an attempt to document cases of people killed by police in the United States since 1990. The latest book has recorded more than 2,000 names, exposing the symptomatic nature of the epidemic.

Protest is an essential part of our work. We believe in the importance of showing the powers that be that people are watching and willing to take to the streets. We have taken our banner to many protests, including the Million Youth March, Racial Justice Day, the April 24th Millions for Mumia March in Philadelphia, the Ten Mile March against Police Brutality in New Jersey, many marches and rallies in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo, and smaller rallies and marches on behalf of individual families. When we first started to create a visible presence at marches and rallies, beginning with the Abner Louima march, we could not have anticipated the impact South Asians joining in this multi-national struggle would have. Not only were we warmly received at all rallies and protests, but we receive support and encouragement from many forces in the struggle. The families of people killed by police were especially struck by the South Asian presence. Several are constantly asking us for updates on the movement, for more information on how police brutality comes down on our communities, and for opportunities to speak to more people, especially South Asian youth.

I am a part of the second generation of South Asians that has grown up here, and although some of us were afforded many privileges, we have also experienced much of the racism and alienation of American society. Many of us have also expressed, at one point or another, a virulent self-hatred that is often directed at first generation immigrants. At the same time, a recent wave of immigrants have grown up in the same generation, but have been politicized by the struggles and uprisings of their home countries. The most exciting part of SAPBR for me is that these two groups of South Asians are meeting, talking, and exchanging experiences and ideas. This is a crucial time for all South Asian activists, first and second generation. We are poised to push the limits and redefine the nature of South Asian political action in this country.

This article first appeared in Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian &

Pacific America. Edited by Fred Ho. San Francisco: AK Press, 2000.


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