Desis at the Forefront of Occupy

Published in Express Tribune Magazine

Photography by Sabelo Narasimhan

Photography by Sabelo Narasimhan

Photography by Sabelo Narasimhan

Photography by Sabelo Narasimhan

What began in July as a “call to action” inspired by uprisings in Egypt, Spain and the protests in Oaxaca, emerged as the Occupy Wall Street movement. By mid-September, Zuccotti Park in downtown New York had been renamed Liberty Plaza. By October the movement had spread to a 100 cities in the U.S. alone. OWS had arrived. The people were putting the banks, the brokers and hedge funds on notice. This was no flash in the pan.

Today, the movement continues to capture headlines and followers after a brief winter lull. What is less well known, perhaps, is the role that South Asians have played in all this. Here are four notable movers and shakers.

Occupy New York/DC

Ali Hayat, a native of Sialkot immigrated to the United States in 1995. With a PhD in Political Science from the City University of New York, the 33 year old started working full time in applied research in 2008, with much of his work concentrating on gathering statistics in developing countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Ali Hayat [Photo provided by Ali Hayat]


The Occupy movement was out in full force by October last year when Hayat decided to take part in the movement, using his expertise in collecting and crunching data to give voice to the individuals who make up the 99 percent. He went to Zuccotti Park with a questionnaire in hand and started the Occupied Wall Street Public Opinion Project.

“I thought of the idea for the OWS Public Opinion Project after getting frustrated about listening to the news media and the so-called experts talk about the movement without basing their statements on any empirical data,” he said. The idea of a people exercising their right to assemble and expressing their preferences appealed to Hayat. Similar political actions could be evidenced in Pakistan through the progressive movement that lasted until the 80s, he said. A clearer picture of who the occupiers were, would in his opinion, help the movement achieve clarity. He went onto conduct surveys both in New York and Washington DC.
“Because all these stereotypes were being assumed that this group comprises hippies and people who don’t have jobs, are bums and all that,” said Hayat. The project certified the high level of college education among the protestors.
“Many of the issues raised by the OWS based on our results make a movement like OWS very relevant to Pakistan,” he said. Most important, he said, was the opposition to the current policy in Afghanistan, including the drone program.
“I agreed with some of the demands of OWS, but most importantly I was genuinely interested in discovering what these demands were and sharing this information with the general public,” he said.

Occupy Miami

Muhammed Malik, a 30-year-old resident of South Florida was unemployed when he decided to get together with a group of friends in his hometown to “spark off” Occupy Miami.
“We started our first meeting at a statue at the main plaza in the center of town where the largest traffic in Miami is. So we occupied that place,” he said referring to the first Occupy Miami meeting on October 1st. The second meeting was held on October 7th. But it was the October 15th “Global Day of Rage”, a designated global day of action when thousands gathered to lend their support to various issues supported by the movement , that marked the official launch of Occupy Miami. Throughout the rallies, according to Malik, people of color—Latinos, African Americans and South Americans in general far outnumbered Whites. It was in stark contrast to some of the other rallies outside of Florida, including Occupy Wall Street in New York, where the rallies were made up predominantly of Whites.
The greater attendance of people of color may also be why, according to Malik, immigration reform was one the biggest issues in focus in the Occupy Miami movement. Many of those involved were immigrants or children of immigrants, like Malik himself— a child of Kashmiri Muslim parents.
South Asians, though very few in numbers, were also present. Younger people in their teens or early 20s would get involved but would invariably find themselves unable to attend because their parents were afraid that the controversial nature of the protest might affect their children’s future prospects. Support from South Asians came instead from unexpected quarters, from a segment of the older generation— Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants–who owned convenience stores and cabs.

Muhammed Malik [Photo provided by Muhammed Malik]

“Those convenient store guys would come by and give food. There were people who were cab drivers who would help me get rides,” said Malik. They usually came from lower income homes in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh, he said, and had struggled as immigrants in America and so understood many of the immigration issues discussed in the Occupy movement.

Malik himself had grown up in the United States, except for a couple of years spent in Pakistan when he was around 12 years of age. His parents had struggled to establish themselves in the US. In the last 30 years his father had worked as a cab driver, bus boarder, waiter before finally being able to put together enough cash to buy his own restaurant. Now in his 70s, he was planning to sell the restaurant to enable him to retire along with his wife who works as a nurse.
Malik, too, was undergoing his own struggles. Things had started off well enough for him and he had been working at the Council of American Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim civil liberties organization, while he was pursuing his Masters in Human Rights. But he soon ran into problems there because he was outspoken about his political views.
“South Florida is probably the most reactionary in the U.S. We have the most reactionary groups that are in power,” he said. “You have the Cuban right wing and then you have these Jewish right wing Zionists. They may be liberal at least on social issues ideologically but when it comes to foreign policy. If you’re very outspoken about that you can find yourself in different kinds of problems here,” he said. Malik went on to work for the American Civil Liberties Union from there, but budget cuts in the organization left him altogether unemployed. By late September he was putting his energies into helping initiate Occupy Miami.
“For the first time I saw people passionately speaking about their lives,” he said of the movement in his hometown. “In a city that is so ridiculously segregated” people were “having very passionate, real conversations and working together to figure out how we were going to occupy.”

Occupy Chicago

Harish Ibrahim Patel is a 26 year old Indian American and an active member of Occupy Chicago. Born in Baroda, Gujarat his family moved to America when he was 14 and he has lived in Chicago since. With a major in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Illinois, Ibrahim helps organize Occupy Chicago meetings and events and does outreach work for the movement including making what he calls “critical connections”, that is building relationships between activists both young and old and everyone in between.
Ibrahim himself became curious about Occupy when he first heard about it through the news. But he was not entirely sure he wanted to participate. It was not clear to him what the movement was trying to accomplish. After a little research he discovered not only that many of the issues raised by the Occupy movement resonated with his own concerns and beliefs, but also that were a lot of people of color who were actively involved in the movement. People “that we didn’t see in the news because what I saw in the news was mostly white people.”

Harish Ibrahim Patel [Photo provided by Harish Ibrahim Patel]

The movement, starting from 15 to 20 had quickly grown to a size of almost 500 in one of the earliest general assembly meetings that Ibrahim attended. He was happy to be in the company of young like-minded members of his own generation–people in their 20s and 30s. The presence of a lot of African American and Latino immigrants convinced him that he was in the right place. What he did not see were a lot of South Asians, but Ibrahim believes that is not because they don’t want to be there.

Mass deportations, immigration reform and anti-terrorism laws– may be some of the reasons that have deterred South Asians and Muslims in general from coming out in the streets to protest.
“So if you wear a hijab and go to a protest you are going to stand out,” he said. Similarly “ if you are a brown person, a Pakistani or an Indian and you show up to a rally you are going to stand out. So I think people are actually afraid to be coming out to these protests,” he said.
But despite low visibility in street protests, Ibrahim sees greater political consciousness and civic engagement among South Asians of his generation, in part, he says, due to the realization that political decisions affect them both in their adopted country and the ones they left behind. Anti-terrorism laws, for example, enacted in the United States affect Muslims around the world.
“This fight has to go beyond nationality, religion, ethnicity, color.”

Occupy Wall Street

Towards the end of September when the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement was still in its early stages, a General Assembly was in session at Zuccotti Park. The Call to Action committee, a core group of facilitators and organizers had put together a manifesto for the movement called The Declaration to Occupy New York. It would be a guiding document, to be used by anyone and everyone who cared to know what the movement was all about.
Manissa McCleave Maharawal was present at the meeting with a small group of her friends, all South Asians who had started attending the sessions to learn more about the movement. The group held a copy of the declaration as it was being read, and a line about race caught their attention:
“As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race…”
Immediately Manissa’s group knew there was a problem with the text and it had to be changed. Were the people responsible for drafting the resolution oblivious to issues of oppression and racism that had been around for centuries and were still very current they wondered? Even as the organizers hesitated to make the change, her group stood their ground.

Manissa McCleave Maharawal
[Photo provided by Manissa McCleave Maharawa]l

“The language of the proposal was insensitive and not inclusive and not something we could agree, and so we blocked it based on the language and ended up re-writing it,“ Maharawal would later describe.

The Declaration now reads: “As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members…”
According to Maharawal, it was a minor change in the text, but important in terms of what it signified. From that point on, she became fully committed to the movement.
For Maharawal, OWS encapsulated the rage against all that had gone wrong with America. Maharawal’s parents had met in India. Her mother, an American, was visiting when she met Maharawal’s father, an Indian, and they fell in love. After she was born, her family made the decision to move to America– a country where “people could change and be whoever they wanted to be, and rise up from their conditions”. But her father who started as a taxicab driver never stopped feeling like an outsider and saw the American dream as an illusion.
Maharawal and her brother grew up in a household barely able to meet expenses and despite the fact that she is in graduate school pursuing a phD in Anthropolgy, her family’s struggles came to define for her, in her own words, “the American narrative”—with income inequality and racism, a constant theme.
But “issues of inequality and corporate control” Manissa insists “ the idea is that they are everyone’s issues.“

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