FRED Talks | Roksana Mun On Activism, Organizing, and the Impact of 9/11 On Immigrants

FRED Talks | Roksana Mun On Activism, Organizing, and the Impact of 9/11 On Immigrants


When I was 16 years old, 9/11 happened. One of my earliest memories from those immediate
weeks after that day was when my 12 year old sister came home upset, because there were two boys from her school
who threw small pieces of rocks at her while calling her Bin Laden’s daughter. The next week, while I was crossing the street,
a man came up to my face, and sneeringly asked “What are you, an Arab?” That question, “What are you, an Arab?” implied answers. Answers that that would later justify firebombed
mosques, bullied children, a Muslim registry of over 100,000 people, the full use of the most powerful military
in the world against a poverty stricken country. The crushing weight of that self-answering
question this man was asking me, was just too much for my 16-year-old, then 100 lb.
body, to go up against, so I responded with “no”
and walked away. And ever since, I’ve hated that one moment
in my life. Because I acted from a place of fear, I responded
from a place of “how do I just get away from here, without getting hurt?” Not only did I respond with fear, I also responded
by throwing another group of people under the bus with that “no”. My response, would’ve been met with approval
by the middle and upper-class Desi men, those self-proclaimed leaders of our community who, in spite of knowing about the attacks on our
communities told us to keep our heads down and stand by the patriotism. For those of us who may not be familiar with
the term “Desi”, “Desi” is used to refer to people of the South Asian diaspora
like myself. I remember the violence that was inflicted
on us on 9/11 and the violence that 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, or the violent
acts on Muslims, or people thought to be Muslim, we’ve been at a fever point with this infection
for years. The fear, uncertainty, and isolation, that
I felt in those days, are things that are very much still part of me today, and the
community I’m so fortunate 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 for the 16-year-old Bangladeshi
Muslim girl that was me. These memories I am sharing with you are memories
that were transformative moments for me, moments that have changed the makeup of who I am, where coming out of them, I was not the same
person going in. Another one of these memories was two months
after 9/11, when my guidance counselor came into my English class, because our 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
our class of 25 Black and Brown students, right before the Pledge of Allegiance was
about to begin, and she said the following: “I don’t understand
why all of you do not show the respect our country deserves. Everyone here should put their hands on their
hearts and say the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the country that feeds you, clothes
you, shelters you, and protects you.” And within a few minutes, 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 just so sharply different
from the reality I and my peers were living, it was also incredibly awkward. Because my seat in that classroom was in 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 that was the parameter set for me and
everyone else. The idea of resistance was not to be entertained. I was expected to believe that submission
was safety. In those dark days, during high school, a
book landed in my hands, from my AP U.S. History teacher Mr. Salak. And 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 have 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, 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 people of all 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 detentions,
deportations, imprisonment, 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 for me to know what the problems
were and why these problems were wrong. Because I wanted to do something to replace
my moment 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. I didn’t know where to even begin to look. That is until I came to DRUM: Desi(s) Rising
Up and Moving, when I was 17 years old, and joined as a youth member. DRUM is an organization of 4,000 members and
it organizes to the build the power of working-class Indo-Caribbean and South Asian immigrant workers, both youth and adults to fight for justice. And I came in through their summer youth program,
because I wanted to not be at home for the whole summer, and just try something new before
I had to leave home, to go to college. And ironically, there was a DRUM flyer for
their summer youth internship at my school’s guidance office. Because buried treasures are always found
in the unlikely places. 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, restaurant workers, domestic workers, street vendors, construction workers. We were the ones to decide that we don’t
need middle-upper class Desi men or lawyers or business owners, or any self-appointed
leader to come defend us, and 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 the beautiful rural town in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. And it was the kind of school where there
were students coming from families who could afford to pay $50K a year, owned homes, several cars, lived in places
where their average public school was equivalent of the best schools in New York City. So they were confused when I talked about
the metal detectors, scanners, and security guards I had to go through everyday at my
school, before I could even start my morning class. Or how I could have been raised on food stamps
with parents who still had to work full-time jobs. They lived lives that were night and day different
from my own and the people I grew up with. These class differences made it hard for me
to relate to other Desi students who were born here or were raised in America like myself. I was having a conversation with another Desi
student and we were talking about our families. She was the daughter of a doctor and when
she learned what my mom and dad did for work, she said, “But you seem like you’re just as smart
as everyone else here. Are you sure you’re not middle-class?” I was sure. I was very sure. For me, I not only had to fight against racism,
but also classism from my own people. Race and class were inseparable for me, my
family, and the people I grew up with, and the community I now organize. Which is why I came back to be an organizer
with DRUM after college. And by organize, I mean community organizing,
not organizing your closet, or your desk. It’s OK. We’ve all had to learn the difference and
explain it to someone, in my case, usually my parents. So what is community organizing? My working definition is when directly impacted
people come together to build power to change systems. Typically when people think of community organizing,
the image that often comes to mind, are of large, massive rallies that can stop traffic,
shut down cities. But those mobilizations of people are really
just part of the organizing and at times the finished product of successful organizing. No, organizing is all the non-sexy, unTweetable,
unInstagramable, Hashtagless work, long before, and long after those images I just described. Organizing is spending four hours straight
on the street, outreaching in neighborhoods of people who have a problem that your organization
is working to solve, speaking to these people, convincing them that joining that your organization
as a member is worth their time, building deep, caring relationships that can redefine
who each of us are. Organizing is when through those relationships
people are brought into groups or organizations to participate in collective decision-making
processes, on campaigns around changes people want to
see for the short-term and long-term. And out of these processes, there are members
who become leaders, and future organizers and lifelong fighters for the movement of
justice. It’s been 14 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 I’m walking on. And it’s a road I know many of you here
do walk on, and I hope many more will join us in organizing. Some of the folks who stick out in this journey
is the DRUM leader Shaheena, who joined because NYPD paid $100K to an informer, to entrap her 19 year-old son in 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 Nadir, the fierce mother of two
children whose husband was taken away by NYPD, and handed over to immigration, and was rotting
away in a detention center for 18 months. That is until she decided to stop listening
to the men in her family and joined organizing, to pass a bill in our local City Council, to prevent undocumented people without criminal
charges from being handed over to ICE by the police, and she 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 pay from for the time she worked and was being paid $4/hour for 14 hour 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. Of course our youth member Nalesh, who was
repeatedly suspended at school, and encouraged by his guidance counselor to
just drop out because the school shouldn’t have to put up him anymore. Because so-called good students are more deserving
of time, attention, and support than the “bad apples”. So he became a leader in the movement to end
the School to Prison Pipeline, and forced our Department of Education to reform our Student Discipline Code to reduce suspensions,
arrests and summonses by half within a year of these changes. And there’s Jensen. A youth leader, who was raised by a single
mother, in public housing, started our young women’s Gender Justice leadership program
to battle toxic masculinity, and gender-based violence both in our community
and the systems we’re fighting against. And who at the age of 17 was already the kind
of person and organizer, I still hope to become. It has been 16 years since 9/11. But there are days, especially in this year,
where it feels like barely a day passed since 9/11, where I wonder just how much has changed since
then, and how deja vu things can feel. Which is why I don’t believe it is a coincidence
that we have a sitting president that has openly called for a Muslim Registry. I don’t believe that it is a coincidence
that the ghost of the Confederacy, has found new life through Jeff Sessions, and his dedication
to expanding prisons, detention centers, to lock up members of our
communities, or remove us from this country like the inconvenience we are. Or rather the inconvenient truths we are. The country has changed since then, it’s
true, but so have I. And so have many people who want to resist
blind patriotism, to actually make life better for all of us
living in the United States, and for people around the world. If you are one of these people, I need you
to organize. Not tomorrow, but yesterday. Because people in the front lines, don’t
have the luxury of time, we have the necessity and urgency of now. The urgency of now demands organizing. We need to be willing to go on the kind of
journey that so many everyday people have taken to bring about the changes we still benefit from today. Everything from public education to where
we get to sit on the bus, to 8 hour workdays, to weekends, to no child labor, to clean drinking water, to ending of different
wars, to the right to even exist: everything is the result of people deciding
to take the journey of organizing. And as I have watched the last 16 years pass,
I am more certain that what will get us through the next 16, or 60 years, will be because more people decided to start
their journey to organize, on not just the roads that already exist, but new and bigger paths we make, made for
everyone, to walk on together.

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