Americans get past mourning fast, and get set to organize

On a bright, chilly Friday afternoon, a group of about a hundred men, women and children gathered opposite a mosque in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood to hear their local representatives, community elders and activists address some of the top fears plaguing this primarily Bangladeshi immigrant community today.

“This is a city that welcomes immigrants,” said Brad Lander, a Democratic New York City Council Member representing Brooklyn’s diverse 39th District. “And New York City is going to get stronger and more aggressive in our struggle to ensure that this is a city that will always welcome immigrants.”

Tarek Ismail, a law professor at CUNY (City University of New York) and an attorney at the university’s CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) Project, was more specific. “The FBI is asking questions just because we’re Muslims. If the FBI comes to your door, or the NYPD comes to your door, and knocks and asks to talk to you, tell them you will not talk to them without an attorney. If they come, you’re not going to talk to them without?” he prompted the crowd. “An attorney!” answered the crowd at the Avenue C Plaza.

Donald Trump is set to be the 45th president of the USA and across New York and the rest of America, people of color -– Muslims, for sure, but also other immigrant groups –- are shaken to the core.

Stephen Bannon -- former chief of Breitbart News, which turned into the mouthpiece for the “alt-right” collection of white supremacists, anti-Semites, xenophobes and misogynists -- has been named Trump’s chief White House strategist. It’s the kind of appointment guaranteed to send shivers down the spines of every minority group.

Over dinner at an Indian restaurant in New Jersey the other night, talk invariably turned to the rising number of hate incidents in the wake of Trump’s Nov. 8 election victory. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said it received around 315 reports of racially-charged incidents in the week after the election -- more than were recorded in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. New Jersey has the fourth-largest number of active hate groups in the country -- including a KKK chapter and racist skinhead groups -– making the Garden State next only to California, Florida and New York on the list of bigotry and intolerance.

The incident we were discussing over dinner occurred at a New Jersey university and some family members at the table were not sure if it was a hate crime of just another violent campus incident. My brother -- who like me, immigrated from India and is a naturalized US citizen -- turned to his US-born teenage son and cut to the chase. “If anyone says something hateful or nasty, just take yourself away from there,” he advised my nephew.

On Facebook, my South Asian American friends are posting alerts I never thought I’d see in the US, certainly not in the professional, upwardly mobile circles from which they hail. Even in the dark days after the 9/11 attacks, when I spent the month between the Twin Towers collapse and the start of the military operation in Afghanistan covering the backlash in the New York area, it wasn’t this bad.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the uncle of a young Sikh American taxi driver who was told to “go back home, Osama bin Laden,” insisted his family felt safer in the US than in India. We discussed the massacre of Sikhs following the 1984 assassination of an Indian prime minister by her Sikh bodyguards and how the perpetrators had gone largely unpunished.

“This is America. The politicians will protect us. This is not India,” boomed the middle-aged Sikh uncle, his fierce moustache bristling with emotion. Minutes earlier, we had entered a crowded Upper West Side Starbucks where I planned to conduct the interview. As we walked in, coffee-sipping New Yorkers got up en masse, offering us their seats, insisting we take their seats, and lowering the volume of their conversation for my recorder -- so heightened was the awareness and the sensitivities of New Yorkers in those days to any hint of hate incidents.

The American can-do spirit

The same spirit of activism and advocacy has gripped large sections of American society today. On Election Night, my French colleagues were amazed at the response to Trump’s shock win in a Hillary Clinton-supporting East Village bar.

As the night wore on and a Trump victory became apparent, women cried, men drank shots and spoke in drunken, apocalyptic terms. That’s what I noticed and noted in my piece. My French colleagues on the other hand, were shocked at how, five or 10 minutes after an anti-Trump meltdown, many bar patrons were joking and laughing. If this was happening in France, you wouldn’t see a smile for a month, muttered by French colleague.

The very next evening, anti-Trump protesters were taking to the streets.  My activist friends were engaged in pained discussions over whether to support the protests and if not, what was the best way to organize. “Don’t mourn –- organize,” read a graphic that replaced a friend’s Facebook profile.

At the Friday afternoon meeting in Brooklyn, speakers were already announcing “know your rights” workshops and initiatives for undocumented immigrants. Activists were planning their events in Washington DC on January 20, 2017 -– the day Trump gets inaugurated into the White House.

That’s the American can-do spirit for you. That’s the side of US society I try to reveal to the people I meet and interview in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Western Europe who are fervently anti-American. In Western leftist circles and many Muslim-majority nations, it’s so much easier to just bash the US and be lazy about providing nuance. When you bash US foreign policy or its record in parts of the world I work in, you end up feeling rather smart and well-loved. Try to provide some nuance and they look at you like Dick Cheney just walked into the room.

The Indian equivalent of the alt-right

I know the difference because I grew up in a country that got swept in a rightwing populace wave in the 1990s in a sort of precursor of the global wave to come and I can make comparisons. In India, communal violence -– massacres, riots, mass targeted attacks -– periodically breaks out against minority groups and even though it’s the world’s largest democracy with a very brave and active press and civil society institutions, most Indians know the powerful hatemongers always go scot free.

Some of them even turn prime ministers.

Over the past few years, it’s been interesting to note how large sections of the majority community – Hindus in this case -– either drink the rightwing nationalist Kool-Aid or simply look the other way. The signs are always the same: at family gatherings, someone’s Hindu in-laws heap venom on a Bollywood actor they once loved but now can’t stand because he’s a Muslim accused -– like too many Indian Muslims -– of being “pro-Pakistan”. Friends you didn’t expect to go the populist hate way turn belligerent about their support for rightwing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party. WhatsApp groups get bombarded with the Indian equivalent of alt-right links and posts. A radio silence greets any talk of the government’s clampdowns on free speech. And any individual, group or government that is rabidly anti-Muslim becomes their new best friend.

Little wonder then that the Israel-supporting Hindu right in the US are some of Trump’s biggest supporters. They have managed to deceive themselves that the community is on the lily white rungs of the immigrant pecking order and are somehow above the Trump crowd’s anti-immigrant purview.

To be sure there are several Indian journalists, writers, academics and civil society groups putting up a brave fight against the populist rightwing hate wave. But there aren’t too many, the Hindu rightwing discourse has seeped into the mainstream, and the once inconceivable is now reality. That’s what happens when a bunch of demagogue manipulators target a group that comprises 80% of the national population and convinces them they are somehow threatened.

The minorities can then go stew.

That’s not the case with the USA today. Many more people have voted for Clinton than Trump. Even the popular vote does not reveal the extent of the Trump opposition because many voters from “blue states” cast their ballots for independents such as Jill Stein knowing that under the ridiculous US electoral college system, their vote actually does not count. The Millennials are an incredibly spoilt, privileged bunch across the world, in the US they’re even more so. But Trump in the White House will give many Millennials a crash course in life’s lessons.

A safety pin for safety?

Americans appalled by the new president-elect are already engaged in intense discussions of what’s to be done. A campaign, started by an American in Britain after the Brexit vote, calling on Britons to wear a safety pin to show solidarity with immigrants, has sparked an intense debate with my Facebook crowd. A white professor friend wanted to know if, were he to wear a safety pin, would it be, “1. A welcome expression of solidarity, or 2. An expression of patronizing privilege, or, 3. Other (please specify).”

Replies included a link to a Huffington Post column, “Dear White People, Your Safety Pins Are Embarrassing,” in which the white columnist did not mince his words. “Let me explain something, white people: We just fucked up. Bad. We elected a racist demagogue who has promised to do serious harm to almost every person who isn’t a straight white male, and whose rhetoric has already stirred up hate crimes nationwide,” wrote Christopher Keelty. “We don’t get to make ourselves feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating ourselves as allies.”

But most of the Muslims and other immigrants -- especially parents -- responding to the post said they appreciated the gesture. “I just want to say, as a "brown woman," I'm more personally offended that white folks feel it more important to protect people of color from "patronizing privilege" than from actual bullying and possible physical harm,” went one reply.

The discussions will go on -– on social media, at dinner tables, at meetings, at community gatherings and schools across the US. Americans may be terribly uninformed about the rest of the world. But they are self-involved and for once, that’s a good thing. In other parts of the world, too many people who should be fixing the rot back home waste their time and resources ranting about evil superpower USA. Americans don’t have that “blame someone else” option. And that, is the best thing about the USA.
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