FRED Talks | Roksana Mun of Desis Rising Up and Moving

FRED Talks | Roksana Mun of Desis Rising Up and Moving


Thank you folks. When I was 16 years old, 9/11 happened. I remember the violence that was inflicted
on us on 9/11, and the violence which continues to infect us to this very day. Whether it was the wars in Afghanistan or
Iraq, or the several countries we’ve drone bombed or sent troops into, or supplied arms
to since, or the raids and deportations of 13,000 people
through the Muslim registry, or the violent acts on Muslims or people thought to be Muslims. We’ve been at a fever point for years with
this infection. The fear, uncertainty, and isolation that
I felt in those days, are things that are still part of me to this
very day and of the community that I’m so privileged to organize. When those two planes struck the Twin Towers
and the World Trade Center came crashing down, so did any illusion of safety and belonging
to this country, for the 16 year old Bangladeshi Muslim girl
that was me. These memories that I’m sharing with you
are memories that were transformative moments that have changed the makeup of who I am. Where coming out of them, I was not the same
person going in. One of these memories was two months after
9/11, when my guidance counselor came into my English class because my English teacher was upset that
most people in our class were not standing up to say the Pledge of Allegiance. So my guidance counselor stood in front of
a class of 25 Black and Brown students right before the Pledge of Allegiance was about
to start, and she told us the following: “I don’t understand why all of you do
not show the respect our country deserves. Everyone here should be putting their hands
on their hearts and saying the pledge of allegiance to the
flag of the country that feeds you, cloths you, shelters you, and protects you.” And within minutes, the call for the Pledge
of Allegiance came on, and every single student stood up, faced the flag and said the Pledge
of Allegiance. Everyone except me. That moment was not only incredibly infuriating
for me to have to hear these words, from my guidance counselor, words that were so sharply different from
the reality that I and my peers were living. It was also incredibly awkward because my
seat in that classroom was at the back of the class, directly underneath where the flag
was hanging. So I stayed seated and was stared down by
that room of students, and my angry white guidance counselor and teacher. Stand by the patriotism, stand for the flag. What they were really saying was be grateful
for your seat at the table even when you’re also on the menu. And in those dark days during high school,
a book landed in my hands from my AP US History teacher Mr. Salic. The book was a “People’s History of the
United States”, by Howard Zinn. Who, by the way is still the only white man
I’ve ever cried over when he died in 2010. Despite the horrors it describes within its
pages, like genocide of indigenous populations, the enslavement of black people, Japanese internment camps, Jim Crow laws,
lynchings, this book was oddly calming for me. And it changed my life. For the first time I understood that what
was happening to me, my community, and all other oppressed communities, was not happening
for the first time at all. This book gave me the clarity I was looking
for. That the racism carried out through mass deportations,
detentions, imprisonments, surveillance, wars, were very American patriotism and white nationalist
driven traditions. But it wasn’t enough for me to know this. It wasn’t enough that I knew what the problems
were and why they were wrong, because I wanted to do something to replace
my moments of fear and isolation with infinite moments of courage and community. And even when I knew what I wanted I didn’t
know what it would look like, and I didn’t know where to look, that is until I came to
DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) when I was 17 years old, and joined as a youth member. Fun fact. DRUM was named after the original DRUM here
in Detroit, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement that organized black auto workers
and did wildcat strikes, so I’m incredibly honored to be part of
that history and lineage. And by the way Desi also means people of the
South Asian diaspora. And DRUM as an organization in New York City,
of like 4,000 members we organized working class South Asian and Indo-Caribbean workers
youths and adults to fight for justice and build our power. And I came in through their summer youth program
and ironically, the flyer for the DRUM internship was in my guidance counselor’s office, because buried treasures are always found
in the most unlikely places. And at DRUM it was the first time I was in
a place with other young working class brown women like me. Their parents, just like my parents were taxi
drivers, domestic workers, restaurant workers, street vendors, construction workers, and we were the ones to decide that we didn’t
need middle and upper class Desi men, or lawyers, or business owners, or any self-appointed
leader to come defend us, or speak for us. and that we were enough and capable of getting
our loved ones from detention, capable of speaking for ourselves, capable of learning to punch above our weight,
and that no table was worth sitting at if the items on the menu were our own people. That summer, after I joined DRUM’s youth
program, I had to leave for Dickinson College to a small rural town in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was the kind of school where there were
students that were coming from families who could afford to pay $50,000 a year in tuition, owned homes, several cars, lived in places
where their average public school was the equivalent of the best public schools in New
York City. So they were confused when I talked about
the metal detectors, scanners, and security guards that I had to go through every day
at my high school before I could start my morning class. Or how I could have been raised on food stamps
if I had two full time working parents providing for us. They lived lives that were just night and
day from my own, and the people I grew up with. These class differences made it hard for me
to relate to other South Asian students who were born here or were raised in America like
myself. I was having this conversation with another
Desi student, we were talking about our families, she was the daughter of a doctor,
and when she learned that my mom is a domestic worker, and my dad is a taxi driver, she said “but you seem like you’re just a smart
as everyone else here, are you sure you’re not middle class?” Yeah girl, I’m sure. For me it wasn’t that I just had to fight
racism, but also classism from my own people. Race and class were inseparable for me, my
family, the people I grew up with and the community I organize, which is why I came
back to organize with DRUM. And it’s been 15 years since I stepped into
DRUM, and it continues to be quite a journey. This journey has included many people who
have not only shared this journey with me, but have paved the road that I’m walking
on. And it’s a road that I know many of you
do walk on, and I hope many more will join us in this journey into organizing. And some of the folks that stick out in this
journey is DRUM leader Shahina who joined because NYPD paid $100,000 to an informer
to entrap her her 19 year old son, into a fake terrorism case, and sent him to
prison for 34 years. She became the pioneer in building out a racial
justice movement that exposed the way law enforcement preyed on vulnerable people in
our communities in the name of national security. Another is Nadira the fierce mother of two
children, whose husband was taken away by the NYPD, and handed over to immigration, and he was rotting away in a detention center
for 18 months, that is until she decided to stop listening to men in her family, and joined organizing to pass a bill in City
Council to prevent undocumented people without criminal charges from being handed over to
ICE by the police, and later freed her husband. And nothing says fuck the patriarchy quite
like that. And [Gazi] the undocumented worker whose employer
forced her to cross the street and she was run over by a cab. Despite having all the bones in her right
arm crushed, and then later fired by the same employer, she came back with the fury and vengeance
to fight for full back pay for the time she worked and was being paid $4 an hour for 14
hour work days, causing a chain effect in several South Asian
stores and restaurants throughout the city, for Desi workers to start demanding minimum
wage, filing back wage claims, and led to the first South Asian workers center. And none of these incredible accomplishments
of these warriors were easy. In fact the biggest barriers they and the
organization faced in our work wasn’t institutional racism, it was also classism. And the people who benefit from working class
people’s labor and pain. And this also includes other people of color. The first face we always encountered doubting
how winnable, or how practical, and how much we could win over that soft center marshmellow
we were being, blocking us from accessing spaces of power
and resources were other middle class and upper class Desis. Because not all our skinfolk are kinfolk. And while that’s not just something about
our community, that’s true about across all communities of color. Right now, there’s something very particularly
different. What’s different about now? It isn’t just that white nationalism is
on the rise, what’s different now is how people on our side are willing to push harder
against racism and misogyny. Racism and sexism are being taken seriously
in a way in organizing, but there’s a gap. And it’s class. As an organizer in a working class organization,
the urgency to fight classism both within our communities of color and outside of our
communities, cannot be underestimated in these times. In these times of when an angry white working
class continues towards gravitate towards right wing, white nationalist movements, and working class communities of color are
actually bearing the consequences of this. And class continues to be amongst the least
acknowledged system within the racial justice movement in the US. So we think it’s amazing when people of
color, women, LGBTQ folks, who look like us, take offices or run multi-billion dollar companies,
become celebrities, become activists, become artists. And it is incredible as we continue to fight
against white nationalism and supremacy. But we never look to add class background
as a factor to be wowed by. And we often don’t hold most of these people
accountable if and when they do things that harm working class and poor communities of
color. And people right now, while are being encouraged
and guided to be courageous about the impact of racism on them both personally and systemically
both as oppressed by it, and are having the privilege to benefit from
racism. And yet, that is not how class is viewed or
how we’re expected to acknowledge it and learn from it. How many of you ask yourselves or other people
how has class shaped my experience in life? How have I or my community been hurt or have
benefitted from classism? Do I look at an issue like the migrant and
refugee caravan with an understanding from the perspective of class, and how classism through various US economic
and political policies have forced these poor people from their homelands? Do we look at mass incarceration, immigration,
reproductive justice, climate change, through how classism determines the course the lives
of people impacted by them? Let me ask some of you guys some questions
in this audience. Did you have the means to pay for your own
flight, hotel, and conference fees? Or did someone else or an organization cover
you? Or even if you were covered by your organization,
could you have afforded it anyway? These questions matter. Because their answers reflect who often gets
to come to spaces to strategize and build the future of our movements. And what and who gets prioritized. And classism is one of the many fault lines
that we need to pay attention to in our cleft with spaces like the one we’re in today. Because which class attends, which class gets
to voice their experience, which class gets to determine the metrics, what is considered to be winnable, practical,
worth fighting for, and who our movements, at the end of the day is accountable to. So what is the answer to how we deal with
these questions I’ve asked? And the answer is intersectionality. It’s a popular term that’s been thrown
around, and to clarify, there is a difference between identity politics and intersectionality. Identity politics is the salami slicing of
identities and pitting of oppressed communities against each other. Intersectionality is the practice and perfection
of solidarity, between oppressed communities. And it’s this practice of solidarity that
allowed room for leaders, like DRUM leaders of the stories that I shared with you today. And a key part of that practice of intersectionality,
for us, was centering class, along with race and gender. Not behind it, not hidden away, but along
with it. And I sincerely hope that we’re willing
to face race, and battle racism, just as strongly as we are doing that in all
of its minute and gigantic forms, I hope we’ll be just as relentless and honest in our willingness
to face class and end classism, in its many headed forms both in each of us,
and in our movements. Because that is our best fighting chance to
turn over tables, and burn those menus.

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