The need for ‘radical love’ – Cornel West, Dalit and Sheedi solidarity, and a #WC4BL Boston report

This is a follow up to my earlier post about physicians of Pakistani and Indian origin, already in the frontlines of the Covid19 battle in the US, stepping up in the war against a longer-running pandemic, racism. We know that racism is not limited to the US. In our home countries in South Asia, it is expressed as casteism and oppression of vulnerable communities.

Black, Dalit, Sheedi solidarity

There is clearly growing awareness about this issue. The Boston Coalition is starting a series of short videos on South Asians for Black Lives. Last week, Equality Labs, a South Asian organisation working to fight caste-based oppression, Islamophobia, white supremacy and religious intolerance organised a Facebook live session bringing these strands together.

Elegantly moderated by Dalit activist and filmmaker Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Eqality labs, the inspiring, uplifting and thoughtful conversation featured Dr Cornel West, the celebrated Black philosopher and activist from the US, Chandrshekhar Azad, chief of the Bhim Army, a Dalits rights organisation in India, and Tanzeela Qambrani, a Sheedi woman from Pakistan and the country’s first Sheedi member of parliament. Their testimonies and experiences are a searing indictment of the oppression their communities continue to face.

“We need to see the world through the lens of those who are oppressed”, said Dr West, extending solidarity and calling for “courage and revolutionary love”.

It was moving to see Azad and Qambrani express cross-border solidarity and term each other as brother and sister. They have both learned a lot from the Black Lives Matter movement that has helped them shape their own campaigns, they said.

Samaa TV posted a detailed report about it (not the best headline, but decent report): Sheedis deserve rights no matter how we look: Tanzeela Qambrani

Writers of colour and “allyship”

A day earlier, my sister Sehba Sarwar had participated in another powerful online event with writers of colour Amplifying Allyship with Black Voices in Literary LA, organized by Los Angeles Public Library and Book Swell. She later posted the powerful piece she read out – kendrec mcdade’s last words: “why did they shoot me?”…,  based on a rally she had attended, to her website.

Here is a link to the FaceBook Live reading they did

Finally, below, a report by Tahir Ali, a Pakistani origin Boston-based engineer and author of Muslim Vote Counts and Recounts, Wyndham Hall, 2004, on the rally I helped organise. The piece has also been published in The News on Sunday, Aman Ki Asha, and Naya Daur.

American-Pakistani and Indian physicians step up against a longer-running pandemic

By Tahir Ali

With the ongoing healthcare crisis exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, one would expect doctors to not even have time to scratch their heads. But something bigger than Covid19 is bringing physicians in America out on the streets – a more deeply entrenched pandemic that has been festering for centuries.  

The unprecedented protests catalysed by the murder of George Floyd at the hands — or rather knee — of a white police officer, Derek Chavin on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, are the biggest demonstration the country has seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. However, as many activists have pointed out, Floyd’s murder was just one in a long line of such deaths.

Since George Floyd’s murder, an organisation called White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL) has again gained visibility. Founded in the fall of 2014 by medical students who “felt called to action by the #BlackLivesMatter movement”, WC4BL grew out of the protests against the non-indictment of police officers responsible for the deaths of Black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Participants gather at a “WhiteCoats4BlackLives” rally in Boston. Photo: Beena Sarwar

But “medical school campuses remained silent and detached” says the WC4BL website. “Medicine is not immune to the racism that pervades our education, housing, employment, and criminal justice systems”. The issue, they demand, must be addressed as “a public health crisis”.

Health professionals in agreement with their stance have been coming out at medical institutions and teaching hospitals around the country, taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the time Chavin held down Floyd.

Boston-area health professionals recently added another dimension to these protests with a public demonstration initiated by Pakistan-origin physicians affiliated with the Association of Pakistan Physicians of New England (APPNE), a chapter of the Association of Physicians of Pakistan-descent of North America (APPNA).

Held in front the historic Boston Public Library – near the site of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing – the rally was marked by the endorsement of various other organisations, ranging from the Indian Medical Association of New England (IMANE), Aligarh Medical Alumni Association of North America (AMAANA) and Alliance for Secular and Democratic South Asia to local community organizations and faith-based groups: ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), The Boston Coalition, Massachusetts Peace Action, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Civil Rights Committee, Boston Youth Organizing Project, Families for Justice and Healing, and Revolutionary United Front, Imamia Muslim Foundation Boston, Islamic Council of New England and Hindus for Human Rights.

The main speaker, Alicia Barrow, a part-indigenous and part-Black woman and co-founder of Safe Spaces for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, People of Color), is the mother of five who drove two hours from Vermont to Boston. She began the event with a “land acknowledgment” – an increasingly popular way of starting public events with a recognition that the land on which the event is taking place belongs to indigenous communities who were forcibly removed.

She also read out the names of Black people killed by police over the past couple of years.

Alicia Barrow holds up her fist as protesters lie face down or take a knee for 8 minutes and 49 seconds, representing the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned down George Floyd with a knee on his neck. —Photo: Matthew J Lee/Boston Globe.

“I was surprised to learn that there were so many Black people killed by police that it took her 20 minutes to read out their names”, commented Dr. Shujat Ali, a podiatrist from Lucknow. He was among the 300 participants who attended the rally, wearing masks and maintaining a physical distance.

Barrow read out only just over 200 names. Police killings claim over 1000 lives a year in the USA, more than half of them Black or people of colour. The perpetrators are rarely, if ever, indicted. This reflects a history of oppression and systemic racism that protestors are seeking to dismantle.

Rally participants experienced the ‘die-in’ or ‘kneel-in’ in different ways. Photo: Umer Malik

Referring to racism as “a profoundly important infection point” APPNA president Dr. Naheed Usmani stressed the need to “confront and dismantle the centuries old structure of racism that has marred the system, Institution and way of life”.

In this election year, she urged rally participants to “vote, volunteer and speak up when we see injustice.” 

Oral surgeon Dr Salman Malik of New Hampshire addresses the rally. Photo: Umer Malik.

Past presidents APPNE, infectious diseases specialist Dr. Asimah Qayyum and dental surgeon Dr. Salman Malik who initiated the event echoed these sentiments.

“Enough is enough” said internal medicine specialist and vice president APPNE Dr. Javed Saud, who led the chant, “No justice…” to which the crowd responded “No peace”.

The rally featured independent speakers like oncologist Dr.  Lachelle Weeks, who talked about the thousands of emails she has been receiving from well-wishers wanting to express their support. Growing up as a Black woman in America, she said, her life was punctuated by hearing about such incidents. “If you are awakening to this reality for the first time, then your first step as an ally is to ask yourself, how the hell did I sleep through all of this?”

“Dark skin is not a crime”, said Dr Raagini Jawa, a young physician of Indian origin and another independent speaker and addressing the rally. “We have to look at structural inequities beyond the pandemic… As a healthcare worker I can’t ignore that. We have to get educated – and VOTE – work together regardless of ethnicity or religion”.

Dr. Khalil Khatri, event moderator and past president APPNE read out the IMANE statement as the Indian Medical Association was unable to send a representative.

Representing two Muslim organisations, IMF and IMCNE, Dr. Zafar Naqvi talked about how Islam deals with racism. “As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I can easily see the psychological aspects of ingredients of racism and its roots linked to trauma.”

Overview of the rally. Photo: Umer Malik.

“The speakers were eloquent, and I am glad they made the connection about the disparities in medical care, which puts the Minorities [Black-Americans, Hispanic] at a disadvantage”, said rally participant Dr. Muhammad Ramzan, past president of APPNE, and current president of the Worcester Islamic Center (WIC).

Videos from the rally will feature in South Asians for Black Lives, an upcoming series of short films being produced by the Boston Coalition, an inter-generational “South Asian-led organizing collective in un-ceded Wampanoag territory (Boston)”.

The involvement of South Asians, particularly physicians, adds a new dimension to the anti-racism movement erupting amidst the Covid-19 pandemic in America. As several speakers noted, the disease disproportionately impacts communities that are already disadvantaged and vulnerable. This is the case not only in the United States, but also in countries like Pakistan and India, birthplace of thousands of American physicians.

You can see most of the short speeches on this playlist of video clips.

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