Desi America United
Highlighting a rich legacy of desi organizing in America, Iman Sultan traces her journey with activists and organisers emerging in a new Left movement.
The streets are cold. I can see my breath fog in front of me, and my feet feel like blocks of ice in my black suede Oxford shoes.
I am nineteen and I am marching in a protest through the city — the biggest protest I have ever been to in my life. A boiling rage simmers inside of me, a rage I’ve suppressed for most of my life but dared not express. Tonight, it boils and threatens to spill over—perhaps for the first time.
I stand tall in my black coat listening to people shout, curse, and mourn on Broad Street where we surround the mic, eyes hard, muscles firm. Most of us are black, a couple white, and some like me are of the soil, even if our roots sprang somewhere else.
It is this rage that warms me in these nights of winter protests, not the black coat I wear or my woven black headband or my new shoes, which will soon become muddy and marred with white stripes from the rain and cold. Rainwater and mud. Slush and hail. The Philadelphia cold and the men in blue shirts lined up on the city sidewalks. We showed up for it all.
Tonight, we march against the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Mike Brown. We huddle close and listen to speeches, clutching yards-long banners and screaming so loud our throats hurt. We keep warm by walking briskly through the night, shouting, “HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT!” and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE! FUCK THE POLICE!”
It’s my first year at college. I am part of the youth organization that coordinates this protest the day after the grand jury decision. Two of our members have been arrested for attempting to cross the highway, and we march to the police precinct to set them free.
We march miles and miles, covered with equal parts love and rage. Police follow us on their bicycles, guns passively strapped to their sides. Rage, after all, is just another name for love. It’s the jammed blood of wounds left untended, the bitter tears of children killed before their time.
Growing up in Bush’s America
My earliest memories are filled with graphite suburban roads unfurling for miles on the frosted windshield, chicken nuggets eaten at 4 AM returning jetlagged from Pakistan.
My dad woke up every morning to a night-blue sky and took the I-95 to the hospital in New Jersey. The beeper he strapped to his belt in the day still went off at sleeping hours. Both he and my mother wore scrubs to bed instead of pyjamas.
He’d graduated from Dow Medical College in Karachi and landed a residency in Philadelphia. My mother wed him at 19 for love and soon followed him to America. They lived in West Philadelphia when it was still cheap, the streets lined with mom-and-pop shops and inner-city masjids—but also filled with gang violence.
They survived on his stipend from moonlighting at the hospital. My mother took the green trolley to work as a receptionist. Their time in America was supposed to be brief – make lots of money and return to Pakistan.
But for some reason they stayed.
“Where are you from?”
“I was born here but my parents are from Pakistan.”
I lived between worlds. My grandmother lived in a densely-packed jumble of apartments in Karachi’s Gulistan-e-Jauhar, and we joined her for months every summer. I remember walking down the stairs to the shops, where we bought Ding Dong Bubblegum or Slanty crisps. During the regular electricity outages, we lit candles. When I got lice in my hair, my mother picked them out with her fingernails. I spoke in Urdu and when I returned, I didn’t remember certain words in English.
Children are not supposed to understand the way the world works, but children know what nobody else is willing to say out loud. As a seven-year-old, I understood that my dark skin, the lilt to my spoken English, and the stories of where I came from would not be accepted or understood by the people who surrounded me.
I hid myself from the world I lived in. My shoulders tensed in nervousness; I only spoke when I had to, and quietly, so others wouldn’t remark on my accent or mock me. I was always hunched over a book or scrawling compulsively in my notebook. It was my means of escape, submerged in a reality I created with my mind.
Still, my rage and dissatisfaction, the growing consciousness of being a second-class citizen, began to break through the fissures: classroom debates about Guantanamo Bay, brooding silence over people supporting the Iraq War, stonily correcting the pronunciation of my name when it was messed up for the second or third time.
When I opened my locker in the eighth grade to see sand nigger scrawled across it in black Sharpie, it was only confirmation of what I already knew: racism did not just exist, it was the infrastructure on which America was built, and I had never lived my life without it.
Joining the Movement
I moved into college on an August afternoon, the sun winking on the young bodies thronging the red brick pavement.
I joined Temple University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter that same day, pulling a chair up to the table run almost exclusively by women. I’d recently met some of them at a protest against the Israeli operation on Gaza, which had caused the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinian civilians.
I witnessed crisis on that very first day. A white man began harassing us — calling us terrorists, claiming Palestine did not exist, and that Palestinians are occupying Gaza — leading a student to slap him.
Hours later, the incident was reported in Ben Shapiro’s TruthRevolt as an anti-Semitic hate crime, even though no one at the table had known the individual was Jewish or called him anti-Semitic slurs as he claimed. This triggered an off-campus movement attempting to shut down our SJP chapter. An 18-year-old with an itch to write, I took responsibility to draft the follow-up statement, to report what truly happened and condemn the slap. This was my entry into social justice activism.
I learned quickly that our SJP chapter was embedded strongly in local networks of resistance and progressive politics, which came together to extend support and solidarity at this incident. We had forged strong ties with socialist organizations, the Northeast Palestinian community, Jewish Voice for Peace and importantly, the black community in Philadelphia.
Temple is in North Philadelphia, an overwhelmingly working class black area, where according to some sources, the largest university police force in the US is deployed. The university provided the backdrop for our activism — SJP was part of the coalition fighting Temple’s gentrification of the city, and protesting fee hikes and cuts to the liberal arts department.
In the city, I also joined the Campaign to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist and political prisoner, and I showed up for MOVE, a black organization whose communal residence was firebombed in 1985 leading to the deaths of 11 people, five of whom were children.
I went to the National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) conference in Boston that winter, hopping on a tram to the snow-laden fields and pillared buildings of Tufts University. Masses of young people poured into the building, dressed in trench coats and leather jackets, keffiyehs from Nablus draped across their shoulders. White radicals, black students, and Arab and South Asian young people gathered to discuss and strategize on racism, imperialism, and the fight for Palestine.
Our visions overlapped with several other campaigns and organisations. Together, we were called the movement – an umbrella term used by all Left activists in the US – socialists, anti-racists, feminists, LGBTQ+ rights activists. A Palestinian woman working for the rights of undocumented people was the first speaker that opening night, followed by a Skype call from Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a pastor from Ferguson.
For the first time, I felt that I could talk about the issues affecting me as a woman of color, a Muslim, and the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan. It didn’t matter where the world placed us for how we looked, how much money we had, or how we traced our bloodline. We wanted a better world to live in, and we were changing it through our politics.
In fact, many South Asian young people attended and organized the conference on this same principle of solidarity; almost every SJP chapter had at least one South Asian. We understood that nobody was free until everybody was, and that we needed to build a united front to defeat the system that faced us.
Later in the conference, a workshop on Kashmir proved the importance of South Asian organisation to the Palestinian cause. Hafsa Kanjwal and Inshah Malik spoke about the history of Kashmir, and the need to raise awareness of Kashmir in the student movement. Inshah, who had lived in Indian-occupied Kashmir and studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, spoke about violence against Kashmiri women and their place in the resistance. Hafsa, who had grown up in the diaspora, had analyzed the US government’s Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) program and its impact on the American Muslim community. At the workshop, she examined lobby support for India and Israel and the way US dollars and military assistance were integral in funding both their occupations.
On November 22, Tamir Rice, a 12-year old black boy in Cleveland, was killed by a police shooting. A day later, the jury decided that Darren Wilson, the cop who had murdered Mike Brown in Ferguson, would not even go on trial.
The protests that followed were the biggest I have ever seen in America. They marked the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, and forged several key organizers who have since led the charge of mainstream progressive politics in America.
South Asians for Social Justice
While desi America is a map still slowly coming into focus, the popular understanding is that desis are middle class doctors and engineers, not in tune with the movements for social change that have gripped America ever since Trump was elected president.
The truth, however, couldn’t be farther from this reductive depiction. While a large section of desis is indeed middle class, successful and apolitical beyond Modi banquets and drawing room fundraisers for mosque boards, a young, working class, and politically conscious desi America has always existed and is steadily mobilizing.
The year after the Ferguson protests, I met Muhammed Malik, an organizer from Miami who had moved to Philly and was working with the Philadelphia South Asian Collective. His involvement began as a student, working with Take Back the Land against the eviction of low-income residents in Miami and protesting Gitmo. He then became one of the youngest directors of the Council on American-Islamic relations (CAIR) in Florida at the age of 27. Muhammed had also worked with Dream Defenders, an organisation dedicated to ending prisons and the school-to-prison pipeline, which had emerged in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
I also met Darakshan Raja, a Pakistani-American woman who had grown up in the Bronx, New York. She had done rape crisis counseling in New York City, where most of the women she assisted were of colour, and now worked against Islamophobia and war in Washington DC. Darakshan strategized to put Muslim women on the frontlines in the fight against racism, a radical divergence from their typical depiction as oppressed, and the uncle-dominated drawing room advocacy of the Muslim community.
A picture of Desi America slowly, but surely, filtered into view. Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) has been organizing South Asian immigrants and workers in Queens (New York) for labour and civil rights, gender justice, and efforts against deportation and ICE. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance of 21,000 cab drivers, many of them immigrants of South Asian origin, and taxicab drivers’ unions in other cities similarly rely on participation from working class South Asians. Muslims for Social Justice in North Carolina coalesced to organize black and immigrant communities for racial and social justice, and was part of the response network after the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting, which left three young Muslims dead.
Bindu Poori, an artist and organizer with Chicago Desi Youth Rising (CDYR), grew up in India and came to the United States to study. While always imbued with a sense of civic service, she found CDYR to be a home where she could organize with other desis.
“We’re involved in year-round mobilization efforts,” Poori said. “So we work with young people [who train at our annual conference] and allied organizations across the city to be a voice for the progressive South Asian community in the Chicago area, and to lend our bodies and energy to the causes we know are most important for our collective liberation.”
CDYR supports and sponsors No Cop Academy, and many of its individual members remain active in efforts against police violence, gentrification, and a gang database which profiles black and brown people in the city. But its strength remains in training young people in the local desi community, and exposing them to an organized network of anti-racist activists.
“We’re interested in building with our cohorts, what it might be like for CDYR to be on the frontlines for deportation defense, providing translation services for undocumented immigrants who are South Asian and need assistance,” said Poori. “We’re organizing these young people and equipping them with the skills to go back and organize within their high school and college communities.”
Manzoor Cheema, a veterinarian and founding member of Muslims for Social Justice, first tasted activism in socialist circles challenging Nestlé in Pakistan. When he immigrated to America, the invasion of Iraq and increasing racism against Muslims pushed him to get involved. Today, he works with Project South to protect Muslim communities from FBI surveillance and empower black and immigrant workers.
“Just to give an example of this oppression, there are 10,000 FBI agents who are spying on Muslims, and there are 15,000 paid informants within the Muslim community to spy on Muslims,” Cheema said. “Every mosque has an FBI agent, and that is also not something new. That is a legacy of COINTELPRO.”
In response, Cheema educates vulnerable communities on their rights, which is sorely needed as individuals targeted or approached by the FBI often face these attacks in isolation or with a surrounding community that may not always empathize.
“My particular role is on an area called ‘protect and defend’,” he explained. “Increasingly, we’re seeing attacks on Muslims, but it’s not a unique thing, it’s a history [related to] anti-black racism. [In response], we do Know Your Rights and Defend Your Rights workshops in black and brown Muslim community centers throughout the US South.”
For Cheema, Islamophobia does not occur in a vacuum but is embedded in a history predicated on racism, particularly against black and Native American peoples. As a result, he operates from the black radical tradition—an ethos of resistance I also learned in Philadelphia, which finds its roots in the South.
“[We’re] rooted in the black radical tradition, which we define as a tradition stretching from slave rebellions and the black freedom movement in the US South to the global black freedom movements in Africa and other parts of the world. One of the first victories of the black radical tradition was in Haiti, which was a slave rebellion led by freed black people. But they also supported the revolution and anticolonial movement in Latin America. South Africa has historically supported Palestine but also the Irish liberation movement,” Cheema explained.
The black radical tradition provides the foundation for much of the current resistance in America, and rests fundamentally on the principle that no oppressed individual or group in the world will truly be free if another group remains oppressed under different conditions. South Asians will not be free until black people are freed too.
At the same time, it is important to understand that desi organizers face structural difficulties in organizing the South Asian community, specifically the upward mobility that Asian immigrants are seen to utilize at the expense of black and Native American communities, and the vicious class divides within the desi community itself.
Darakshan, a working class South Asian from the inner city, often pointed out to me the wide disparity in class between South Asians like herself and those who live in higher-income suburbs. Living in the Bronx also meant facing a different kind of racism: Raja was often profiled and harassed by police because they racialized her as Latina.
Cheema agrees and says that while there is growing awareness of Islamophobia among even wealthy South Asians, respectability politics prevents them from getting involved.
“I’ve been trying to organize [South Asian] folks, which is a challenge often times in the South because an overwhelming number of South Asian immigrants are highly educated and mostly in the middle class...” Cheema said. “They see the consequences of Islamophobia but because they’re in the status quo, they’re not willing to shake [it] up.”
The weaponization of wealthy, educated immigrants against black and working class Americans finds its roots in an immigration law passed in 1965. South Asians initially came to the US in the early 20th century as labourers in lumber mills and railroads, or traders of textiles and handmade products. Indo-Caribbeans, descended from indentured laborers brought by British colonists in Trinidad, Jamaica, and Guyana, also migrated north to Florida and New York. South Asian migrants on the East Coast and Midwest assimilated into black and Puerto Rican communities in Detroit and Harlem, but labourers on the Pacific Coast faced nativist hostility, culminating in the Bellingham riots in Washington state when fascist groups attacked their homes and forced them to leave town.
Eventually, immigrants who came directly from South Asia faced exclusion, not just from the white populace but also the state, and were denied citizenship. The US Immigration Commission designated South Asians as “the least desirable race” permitted entry into the United States, and by 1917, Congress had passed a law barring immigration from most of the Asian continent.
When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted its racist restrictions excluding Asia, it came with a few conditions: immigrants with education, professional status and/or family in the US were given unconditional priority.
The South Asian immigrants who then came to the US were principally middle class professionals in pursuit of the American Dream. It wasn’t a coincidence that they arrived at the apex of racial justice movements in the 1960s.
“A lot of South Asian, East Asian and even African immigrants were actually recruited in conservative and somewhat right-wing politics against African American people,” Cheema said. “1965 was the height of the Civil Rights movement, and the black power movement started soon afterwards. The country was literally on fire and riots, and all these immigrants were brought in to shame black people. [White people] said, look at all these black and brown immigrants, they don’t need affirmative action or welfare, they pull themselves [up] from the bootstraps and work hard.”
But there were always exceptions to the model minority. Mahmood Mamdani was arrested and profiled while participating in marches organized in Birmingham, Alabama by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Eqbal Ahmad likewise remained active in the anti-war movement in the US and was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of kidnapping Henry Kissinger. The Civil Rights movement itself drew inspiration from anti-colonial struggle in India. Martin Luther King, Jr. modeled his civil disobedience after Gandhi’s satyagraha, and W. E. B. Dubois, an African American activist and scholar, worked tirelessly for Afro-Asian solidarity and remained in correspondence with Rabindranath Tagore and B. R. Ambedkar.
Joining the ranks of conservative white folk or accepting the model minority prototype was not inherent to the South Asian American diaspora but a choice many made because of sociopolitical and, specifically, class factors. But the political participation of South Asian Americans in radical movements, who cannot or do not conform to the model minority imposition, persists to this day. Vijay Prashad calls it committing “model minority suicide.”
While South Asians in the US have always faced oppression, the aftermath of 9/11 and subsequent escalation of state-sanctioned Islamophobia transformed the South Asian into a racialized figure almost synonymous with terrorism, the Third World and inherently less “American”. The rise of deportations, surveillance and extraordinary rendition—the practice of ‘disappearing’ and imprisoning Muslims and/or immigrants on the mere suspicion of terrorism without due trial—permanently changed the way South Asians were treated in America.
“Muslims are seeing they’re in the crosshairs of capitalism and imperialism,” Cheema said. “And we say Muslim has become a political identity now. Just like communism, the US needed a new enemy. And at the end of the Cold War, Samuel Huntington and other folks created this new narrative of Islam and Muslims being the new enemy.”
Desis have thus participated in different movements in the past several decades, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Palestine, resistance to Islamophobia, the fight for minimum wage or labour rights like taxicab drivers unions. While organizing spaces centering desis are scarce, the election of Trump has generated passion among youth who recognized what they had always known but were not willing to express: they were oppressed for not being white. There was no need for us to reinvent the wheel. Radical activists of South Asian origin had been working for social change long before many Americans realized it was a necessity.
But the rising consciousness of young South Asians demands the need for collectives that specifically address our politics and remain fit to the task. America is still deeply segregated, and South Asian activists in multi-racial spaces often face culture clashes or find it difficult to fully express themselves.
Poori recounts an exercise she did with CDYR to break the ice among other young activists in the organization. Each participant was required to bring an object of personal significance to the circle. Poori brought something which roused emotion and understanding from her fellow activists, and which she wouldn’t necessarily have found anywhere else: her Green Card.
“When we are in regular, random-ass spaces in our lives in the city or in organizing spaces which might be white-dominated or are led by other black and brown voices, we don’t necessarily have a chance to bring the peculiarities of our experience to the table,” Poori said. “We don’t get to talk about our moms and our grandmothers, our parents and our families, and the culture and the food, and the frustration and the violence particular to the South Asian experience.”
With determination and a willingness to learn, desis in America are carving a space for ourselves and engaging with different communities to effect radical change. Many of us have been working for years both in our communities and for different causes, which has resulted in building radical bridges and changing the minds of our peers and elders. While going against power or the man is never an easy task—and often a thankless one in an increasingly oppressive climate—the voice and growing political power of young South Asians has forever transformed diaspora, and committed our struggle to the record of American resistance for time to come.
Iman Sultan is a Pakistani-American activist and freelance journalist who has organized in movements for social change such as Black Lives Matter and Palestine solidarity. She is currently based in Karachi, Pakistan.
This article is part of Jamhoor’s Special Issue on Politics in Diaspora