May 23, 2008

Mississippi Workers Hunger Strike: Day 10... to what end?

At this point, many people in the progressive desi/Asian American community have heard about the Indian H-2B workers who were brought in to work at a shipyard in Mississippi for post-Katrina rebuilding. They faced brutal, abusive conditions, and it’s pretty clear that they were trafficked – misled by recruiters to pay thousands of dollars on a fraudulent assertion that they would get permanent residency and the ability to sponsor their families within months. There are much better accounts of this, such as this excellent recent piece by Svati Shah in SAMAR Magazine, so I’m not going into details here.

The basics details: some 100+ workers (of the total 550 at Signal International) walked off the job at the beginning of this year, risking so much but stepping up because they couldn’t take it anymore. They had connected with the New Orleans Worker Center, headed by (young) South Asian leftist Saket Soni from Chicago. The workers have since engaged in a number of actions, including a satyagraha “march” from the deep South to Washington, D.C., where they stopped to meet and build solidarity with civil rights leaders and African American communities on the way. They rallied in D.C. and presented their requests and demands to the Indian Embassy (for the Indian government to intervene on their behalf as it has with nations in the Middle East), DOJ (for the granting of continued presence status), and members of Congress. That was at the end of March. And nothing moved between that time and May.

So since May 14, about 30 workers went back to D.C., escalating their campaign into a hunger strike, where 5 workers swore off of food until their pleas for intervention and justice were heard. It has been 9 days. While more workers have come from New Orleans to join in the hunger strike and/or to participate in actions this week, three of the original hunger-striking workers have been hospitalized, and it’s not really clear what the end point to this process will be. There are a number of supporters who have been around the workers in D.C. from the beginning, but they are tired, and morale seems low.

From a distance, and perhaps to the bookish/armchair revolutionary who longs to be part of an epic struggle against the oppressive state like third world uprisings around the world and even the attempts in the America of the 60s and 70s, the workers’ struggles and brave actions may seem heroic and completely worth supporting: this is the people uniting for a common cause against oppression after all. I know I felt that, even though I haven’t had any real connection to what’s been happening.

But I’m also beginning to wonder about some things, particularly with the organizing strategy. I’ve heard Saket Soni speak a couple of times in person about this campaign, and I’ve seen a bunch of videos through the campaign blog where you can hear his rhetoric and see the strong united front of the workers behind him. He hits all the right notes, connecting this terrible situation with the legacies of slavery and indentured servitude. He rallies the workers behind him and gives what seems to be adequate space to hear the workers’ voices and stories. It is hard not to admire an organizer who is fighting something that is this criminally unjust, and it is easy to hear the workers’ individual stories and think that while they are the brave people taking the risks, the organizers are critical to help them achieve justice.

But what’s really going on here? While the work of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice seems to be legitimate, and the workers seem to be participating, are people asking critical questions of this campaign? For example, the workers are seeking continued presence while their trafficking claims are investigated – at this point, their immigration status is not clear, and when pressed by media or others, the organizers, Soni in particular, state that “it is our belief that they are the victims of trafficking and should be granted continued presence in the United States.” That’s fine – but what is their actual status, and what risk are they running by being explicitly visible? I’m not saying they should hide and let the corporation get away with this – I’m asking if the workers realize that if they are found to have unlawful presence and are deported by ICE, they could be prevented from re-entering the U.S. for up to 10 years. This is a real impact that they should know: but does it run counter to the organizing strategy, and therefore, is it diminished in importance when the workers are briefed before making decisions?

As a second point, what is the narrative that they are crafting with this series of actions? Calling the bus journey from the South a satyagraha sounds great – invoking a particular (innocuous old man) image of Gandhi that may rally South Asians (or at least garden variety liberals) to the workers’ cause. It’s good media sense to tap into something familiar this way and invoke that the workers’ struggle for justice is neither isolated nor unfamiliar to South Asians. But then is the hunger strike a natural step in the actual organizing campaign, or is it the next step to get the press interested? Who are the targets that are supposed to be moved by this hunger strike?

1) The DOJ isn’t going to bend for this one case – no matter how egregious – because that sets it up to do the same for all of the other folks in similar or even more dire situations.

2) The Indian Embassy is too concerned about India’s endgame to wedge itself between the U.S. and Pakistan, get on the U.N. Security Council, and get recognized as a world nuclear and economic superpower with the help of the U.S. It’s not going to jeopardize those goals with the U.S. on account of these workers, no matter how terrible the situation. Let the U.S. courts sort it out: there’s big business to attend to.

3) The Congressional targets need to be made much more directly aware of the crisis and how they can intervene by pushing for an investigation and looking at the H2B program as a whole. But I can’t really see action alerts for allies to raise the pressure, and will the targets care if non-citizens are starving themselves for justice when they have constituents (and voters) who may be anywhere from ambivalent to wholly hostile towards migrant workers “taking their jobs”?

Basically, how is the hunger strike going to move hearts and minds, and if it’s not, why the hell are you endangering the workers’ health, safety, and ability to stay in the country for non-achievable goals (within the context of this particular timeframe).

On top of these strategy questions, which may be discussed internally and not disclosed to the rest of us, I also want to ask the question of how much power the workers actually have in making these decisions. It seems like they support Saket Soni and the Center, but what do we know? And what I’ve seen from desi and other left groups is fairly uncritical – just either staying away from the issue, or just forwarding along the information as an FYI. Has anyone actually directly asked Soni and the other organizers from the Center about this? My contacts who have visited the workers a few times have said that the workers have a lot of questions about the effectiveness of this campaign, the plan for the future, and legitimate concerns about how this whole thing has been managed, but that the questions are deflected internally, and things haven’t changed.

Are we giving Soni a free pass because he’s a man of color who is working with co-ethnics rather than a white wo/man in a community of color? Is he getting that free pass from white “progressives” who recognize their own privilege/are fearful of being called out and so they don’t criticize/come out publicly, and brown/black/yellow “progressives” because there is always a question of our own legitimacy in this kind of work, regardless of the racial/ethnic bonds we may have with the communities that we work with – and we don’t want the tables to be turned and the microscope to be on us and our work?

But what about the workers, then? Is the cult of personality enough to protect someone and his possibly flawed and dangerous strategy – or should we recognize that we too would be partially responsible if something terrible – that was avoidable – happens to the workers after they’ve taken the brave steps to leave the abusive work conditions and speak out? Why aren’t more people asking these questions instead of just “supporting” the struggle? Are we supporting the idea of the struggle – or the workers who are taking this effort on their backs: is it the same thing?

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May 13, 2008

Indian Fraternities and Sororities

This past academic year, I spent more time at a large public undergraduate college, where there is a pretty significant Asian American community. I got to interact with some of the college-aged South Asians - though they were primarily Indian American, of course. Although the school has multiple South Asian organizations, based on religion, ethno-national identity, and even cultural groups (singing troupe, dancing group) a lot of the folks were part of the ever-growing South Asian (really, Indian) "greek" life that seems to have blown up over the last 5 years.

I know that the first Indian fraternity started in 1994. It was called Iota Nu Delta (IND) and started at SUNY Binghamton. Their website is quite a trip. I particularly enjoy this call-out quote on the sidebar: “February 7th, 1994 would be the birth of an organization where eight great men laid the foundation for the entire South Asian Greek cpmmunity (sic)...”

Okay - where to start with these groups? I guess the first thing is that the groups were marginal at best when I was an undergrad, and even in the years following. We laughed at their initial steps, not realizing that they would grow and multiply. I think there are about 10 Indian/South Asian fraternities and sororities now, and the students I spoke with were very energized about their organizations - far more, in fact, than they were about being part of any traditional college organization organized around ethnic or ethno-national origin. Far more, in fact, than they were about attending workshops or taking classes that explored South Asian American history, organizing, and struggles in the U.S.

So what is it with these organizations? Speaking as an outsider, I guess I thought they were fairly harmless when I was first exposed to them. Just replications of the mainstream white "greek" groups, not really following in the footsteps of the Alphas or the other strong Black and Latino/a fraternities and sororities that really focused on service and building a different kind of community. Those groups really focused on academic excellence, built around a fundamental understanding that shit is fucked up and that the man is trying to push us down, so this is another site for political and personal growth, solidarity, and identity. Again, as an outsider, that's just what I saw, in comparison to the watered down animal house hijinks of the white frats and the vacuous self-absorption of the white sororities. I remember the Black and Latino/a organizations worked hand in hand with the political organizations - there were differences, but they were connected as well.

But it doesn't seem to be the case with the new Indian greek life. The organizations seem separate, the students seem like they are in their own worlds, and just when I thought the Long Island cluelessness that had seeped into the consciousness of so many suburban desi kids was the outer limit of their uselessness, these folks often push the envelope further. And I haven't seen an outpouring of critical thinking or even serious community service come out of these groups - it's just more of the same from the mainstream frats. With more of these organizations coming up, I wouldn't be surprised if they just get stuck in their own turf competitions, and fully check out of any other campus engagement.

I know, I'm old and I'm out of it. But these groups are no longer on the fringe where they exist, and honestly, political campus organizations have not caught up and created something that matches the powerful effect of the pledging process: particularly how the rites of passage make folks feel connected (artificial community development). Once they get the incoming students to pledge/join up, they don't need to explore different identities and ideas - they can stay in the comfort zone of these uber-cliques.

I'm genuinely fearful for the future: I wonder if even the Indian Student Associations of the American college scene (never mind the pan-South Asian groups) have the same pull they once did. Not to mention that these groups actually re-emphasize the "Indianness" of the whole thing - as campus South Asian spaces become more heterogeneous, the frats and sororities may reflect the circling of the wagons for the privileged middle class Indian kids from suburbia, whose picture of what brown people in college should be is being rattled by urban, working class, non-Indian, non-Hindu, non-conformists. Rather than find common ground, the mainstream folks have moved into different configurations and "safe spaces" where they can continue to push the falsely monolithic "Indianness" of their parents that's not as threatening.

And what will that mean for social justice organizations in the future? Does it limit their pool for recruiting and/or building consciousness, or were these folks the already/traditionally uninterested, so there isn't much loss related to this development? Are there other effects when the active South Asian population is so fragmented on campuses - so that you have the "cultural" groups that attract foreign students and folks who grew up around all or no South Asians, the growing greek groups, the religious groups (I have to post on this separately, because this is also a newer development that is interesting/troubling), and the (quasi-)political groups (do they even exist anymore?). How can these folks advocate together around common concerns for South Asian American communities (on campus and off)?

On a different angle, if pan-South Asian work looks like it's failing, will that move more of the progressive South Asians on campus to the pan-Asian and pan-POC spaces out of frustration and their own search for community? Maybe that's a good thing... I have no idea if this is also happening in non-South Asian, APA spaces in colleges: and I really don't think this is likely on the West coast, where the history of student activism is so rooted. But I could be wrong, of course...

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May 10, 2008

Is There Anybody Online Out There?!

I'm back, kind of. Finals, closing out my school gig, and trying to figure out what's next have kept me off the internets, at least as a poster, for a while. I don't think I'll be writing that much until August, actually, just given that the monopoly that makes us test and take exorbitantly expensive prep classes will own my ass until about 6 PM on July 31. I found out that Blue Scholars are actually playing NYC on 7/31, but we already got tickets to the Bruce show in NJ, so I'm not going to make it. First time I could catch them on a tour of the East coast, and the bullshit exam is in the way.

But forget all that. I've been thinking about what to do with this site. I've had it up for a few years now, and I enjoy writing here and trying to build community with the good folks who stop by once in a while, but the format (and the lack of design!) are limiting at best. I'm also feeling like I want to consolidate my attempts at writing and reflection under one banner, instead of the different sites and handles I'm using at this point.

This site has allowed me to feel more comfortable putting some basic criticism and thoughts out there, especially about the incredibly small APA community, but it's not quite how I'd want to do it - it's easy to hide behind a blog/pseudonym and just write stuff without taking heat for your opinions/observations. Usually, no one cares, and I've been pretty careful, but it's also not really moving a dialog with anyone. Blogs are fun ways to stay in touch with people, but the format I've been using with this isn't really going to move anyone or push for change because I've been conscious that it's cowardly to take what look like potshots at groups and individuals from behind something like this. And honestly, I want to build community with people - not be stuck in my own little silo.

So I'm thinking about that with this transition. I'll likely keep writing here for a while, as an outlet, but I'll figure out how/what comes next as soon as I have a moment to plan it out. Till then - keep on keeping on, ya'll. And enjoy the weather - rain washes it all away, and the sun keep us growing.

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