The “Stop the War” chant didn’t take off–though a few stalwarts did give it a try. The several hundred protesters who assembled in Manhattan’s Union Square on Martin Luther King Day spoke–sometimes literally–a different language. “In quilab, zindu baad,” they chanted heartily, gathering momentum. “INS murdabaad!” Despite miserably wet weather, this Urdu chant–“Long Live Freedom! Down With the INS!”–a variant on a slogan historically used in anticolonialist struggles, cheered the crowd.
The demonstrators, many from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York City community-based organization of poor and working-class South Asians, were protesting one of the most chilling aspects of the Bush Administration’s “war on terrorism”–the war on immigrants. (“Desi,” a popular word in a number of South Asian languages, including Bengali and Hindi, means South Asian.) The rally focused on the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s post-September 11 refusal to reveal who it is detaining and on what charges; since the World Trade Center attacks, the INS and the FBI have held over 1,200 immigrants, mostly of Middle Eastern or South Asian (especially Pakistani) descent. “Our communities have been devastated,” says Monami Maulik, a DRUM organizer. “Many people have disappeared, and we do not use that word lightly.”
Most of the Union Square protesters later boarded a bus to Passaic County Jail in New Jersey, where some 350 detainees were incarcerated, almost all without charges, and many without legal representation. Rally speakers included Uzma Naheed, a Pakistani woman whose husband and brother were taken from their New Jersey homes in the middle of the night by INS officers this past fall. Four months later, she had still not seen her brother and had no idea why either man was being held. “No one is telling us what is going on,” she said tearfully. Like many families of detainees, she and her children have been left without any financial support, and she has had to sell her belongings to buy food. Protest organizers presented an admirably specific demand: The INS must hold public meetings in Brooklyn and New Jersey, where most of the detainees’ families live.
Brooklyn’s South Asians, like many immigrants nationwide, have fallen afoul of the government’s new antiterrorism campaign, and have been attempting to fight back. While many have made common cause with peace groups–who oppose war both at home and overseas–most have avoided criticizing US foreign policy too harshly and have instead focused on the immediate threats to their own liberties.
In addition to the secret detentions, immigrants have been trying to bring police–and public–attention to the violence that has been directed at people who look Middle Eastern or South Asian. Nahar Alam, the Bangladeshi-born founder of Andolan, a South Asian low-wage-workers’ organization in Brooklyn, describes a recent brutal assault in Queens: A Muslim man was beaten “like an animal” by a crowd of ten men. He then found a police car–but the police laughed at him and drove off, leaving him at the mercy of his assailants, who returned. “He’s not the only one,” says Alam. She’s right: South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT) reported 645 acts of hate-related violence nationwide–including several homicides–in the week after September 11 alone. The real numbers are probably higher, but as Alam and other activists point out, most victims, especially undocumented immigrants, are afraid to call police. She adds, “Women who never wear Western dress are wearing it. I am scared myself to wear this,” pointing to her own traditional head-to-toe covering.
Meanwhile, on campuses around the country, activists are attempting to stem a backlash against immigrant students, who were quickly demonized when it was revealed that some of the September 11 hijackers were in the United States on student visas. In January, at the City University of New York, six students and five professors fasted–and sat, in the cold, in front of the Board of Trustees’ headquarters–for three days to protest the administration’s move to charge out-of-state tuition to undocumented students. Most of CUNY’s immigrant students are poor and have lived in the city for much of their lives. Many work long hours at less-than-minimum wages–in garment sweatshops or grocery stores–and will have to drop out of school if the tuition hike (from $1,600 per semester to $3,400) stands.
The CUNY administration says it is merely enforcing 1996 federal legislation (creepily titled the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act) that calls for charging out-of-state tuition to noncitizen students, but students and faculty opposing the move question not only its fairness but its timing. CUNY made no attempt to enforce the law until October 2001, high noon of post-September 11 hysteria. “There are 500,000 students on visas [in the United States],” says Jerry Dominguez, a CUNY graduate student who participated in the hunger strike. “And we never had any problems until Mohammed Atta.” (Students have challenged the tuition hike in state court, but in early February the judge refused to rule on the law’s constitutionality. Activists are discussing suing the chancellor in federal court, but meanwhile they’re meeting with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other politicians, hoping to get their support.
In addition, of course, to civil liberties organizations like the ACLU, immigrants have found some support from peace, anticorporate and labor groups, resulting in some promising–and sometimes surprising–new coalitions. The Los Angeles chapter of POWER (People Organized Against War, Empire and Rulers), a West Coast anarchist group, has been helping mosques throughout Southern California with much-needed security against hate-related violence and vandalism. “Sometimes they can’t afford to have someone there at night, so we’ll do it one or two nights a week,” says Chantel Ghafari, an Iranian-born student who is also a member of POWER. “It’s good for us, too, because they know we’re anarchists, and they might not like that, and they might not like the way we look, but they know we’re helping them. It helps to change the image.”
DRUM’s campaign against secret detentions is organized in close coordination with the Prison Moratorium Project (PMP), a national student and youth group that exposes the corporate interests in the prison system. Peace groups, too, have joined these campaigns. On Martin Luther King Day, while DRUM, the PMP and other groups were protesting in Passaic County, a similar protest at the nearby Hudson County Jail, where an estimated 200 detainees are held, drew Hudson Greens and the Hudson County Coalition for Peace and Justice, as well as immigrant groups like the Human Rights Education and Law Project (HELP) and the Islamic Cultural Center of New Jersey. At a weekly Saturday rally held at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, which holds at least fifty post-September 11 detainees, immigrant community groups like DRUM and the Arab American Family Support Center are joined by groups like Brooklyn Parents for Peace in demanding the release of detainees’ names.
Predominantly white peace groups tend to draw connections between the repression of immigrants in the United States and the expansion of military operations abroad. This has occasionally led to tensions in coalitions, since some immigrants are politically moderate and don’t want their plight to be “used” to further antiwar or other left agendas. Those immigrants who agree with left critiques of US foreign policy, meanwhile, often avoid the subject out of fear that they will be further branded as enemies of the state. “Our communities are largely against the war abroad,” DRUM’s Monami Maulik says of her group’s South Asian immigrant constituency, “because the bombs are falling and have always fallen on our lands and homes. But our communities are also under direct attack here and cannot safely take an antiwar stance, particularly undocumented immigrants.” That may be changing, gradually. A late February rally in Queens, New York, organized by DRUM, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and other South Asian community groups, called for peace between the governments of India and Pakistan. Though that was the event’s central message, the demonstrators also urged the United States to withdraw from the region.
Other immigrant groups have been more sharply critical of US militarism. At a late-January press conference called by a coalition of immigrant and left groups to announce a National Day of Solidarity with Muslim, Arab and South Asian Immigrants (on February 20), Chaumtoli Huq of the South Asian Action and Advocacy Collective called the global war on terrorism a “global war on people of color. I think we need to put that in the picture.” Also drawing such connections is the coalition behind a new Bay Area newspaper, War Times. Launched in mid-February, War Times involves numerous activists and writers from immigrant communities, in addition to ubiquitous antiwar types like Howard Zinn. War Times activists view war on immigrants and war abroad as parts of the same problem, writing in a prospectus, “President Bush’s response of ‘permanent war against terrorism at home and abroad’ has further endangered the lives and liberties of millions of people everywhere.”
To work together, activists must tread carefully. Iranian anarchist Chantel Ghafari understands the very different worlds of immigrant and white activists better than most. But she says bridging the divide hasn’t been easy post-September 11. Ghafari gets irritated with the ignorance of even well-intentioned activists; she objects to the consistent use of the word “Arab” in progressive manifestoes against war and repression, when many of the targeted people, Afghans for example, are “in no way ethnically Arab.” She says, “It sounds like a small thing, but it shows those communities how much thought is being put into the relationship.”
Worse, Ghafari says, many antiwar groups give lip service to the plight of immigrants–almost all have criticized repression of immigrants in their founding manifestoes–but aren’t interested in doing much more to help them. “They say they are with us,” she says, “but they don’t come to our actions. As bad as it sounds, I have given up on a lot of the antiwar coalitions.” Indeed, student Afghan and Muslim groups from Colorado State University, UCLA and UC Riverside recently pulled out of a national student antiwar coalition, citing similar problems.
The civil rights issues have the potential to draw support from others who have had troubles with racial profiling and a biased criminal-justice system. “On February 4, 1999, my son fell victim to racial profiling and it cost him his life,” said Saikou Diallo, Amadou Diallo’s father, in a statement endorsing the February 20 Day of Solidarity. “His only crime was the color of his skin. Today even more people are being singled out and persecuted because of race. If we don’t stand up for each other, who will?” Black and Latino groups nationwide–as various as National Council of La Raza, the San Francisco Day Laborers, CUNY’s Black Student Union and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network–participated, like Diallo, in the Day of Solidarity. Many have also been fighting the new forms of discrimination against all immigrants–those that, like CUNY’s tuition hike or the firing of noncitizen airport workers, are not limited to people from the Middle East or South Asia.
Still, according to polls, many blacks and Latinos do support racial profiling as a weapon in the war against terrorism. “We need to do more to try to involve [blacks and Latinos],” said Alpa Patel, an Indian-American student who protested at Passaic County Jail on Martin Luther King Day. “During the protest, these Latino teenagers were hanging out watching, calling us A-rabs, kind of joking. How can we reach them?” Coalitions of all kinds are crucial, not least because so many immigrants are reluctant to publicly object to their ill treatment. Says Monami Maulik, “People in our community are in hiding.”
Despite the obstacles, organizing by immigrants and their supporters may be having some effect. A week after the Martin Luther King Day demonstrations in New York and New Jersey, the INS agreed to allow representatives from the ACLU and the American Friends Service Committee to visit detainees in Passaic and Hudson County jails, and inform them of their legal rights (though the civil rights groups say that their access to detainees is still inadequate). Even more significant, the INS has agreed to meet one of the main demands presented by DRUM and its allies at the Passaic County Jail: for a public meeting in Paterson, New Jersey. The coalition is now arranging the meeting with Andrea Quarantillo, director of the New Jersey INS. (Quarantillo’s counterpart in New York, Edward McElroy, has so far failed to respond to activists’ calls for a public meeting in Brooklyn.)
Meanwhile, says Maulik, detainees’ families are realizing that unlike many of their neighbors, they have “nothing to lose,” and more and more of them are lending their voices to the cause. Uzma Naheed’s son, 14-year-old Uzair Anser, spoke at the weekly rally at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center. “I haven’t seen my father for four months,” he said. “I’m going to be out here every Saturday.”