- A community not known for political agitation has been jolted out of its complacency.
I turn on the evening news – my new daily ritual amidst the pandemic and stare at it aghast. Downtown Atlanta is in turmoil. Groups of protesters, their voices loud, their placards raised high, had taken to marching down the streets of Atlanta, and all over the country, in outrage over the murder of George Floyd, the most recent victim of police brutality against African Americans. As I continue to watch, I see peaceful protests turn violent and angry. I see police and National Guard take to the streets in riot gear. I see tear gas and bottles flying. I see police cars burning, some of my favorite stores being looted and I see battle lines drawn. And I weep silently for the losses and I rail against the unjust system that has led the voiceless to take to the streets, their frustration giving rise to violent outbursts. And I watch quietly from the sidelines.
But many amongst us did not. They were out front. Somi Chowdhury, a veteran high school chemistry teacher in Andover, Massachusetts is not a newcomer to protesting. Chowdhury protested in the March For Science (2017), “because, of course, I feel very strongly for science,” and she once again took to the streets on Monday, June 1, 2020, with about 500 other protestors, many of whom were Indian like her, to honor the life of George Floyd, who was killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis last week. Prompted by the intensity of her college-going son, “who feels strongly about the movement,” Chowdhury was moved to action. “I teach a diverse group of students and feel as a teacher I need to represent my minority, African American students. It is my duty. And as a compassionate, empathetic human being, I couldn’t help but be a part of this!”
She lined the sidewalks of Shawsheen Square Market, with 500 others, holding signs and chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Cars passing by honked in solidarity, and waved their fists, while officers stood passively by, ignoring requests from the kneeling crowds to take a knee in solidarity. “That was disheartening to see. Because in a small community like ours, a little would go a long way.”
When asked about her feelings towards the violent protests and looting, she says firmly, “two wrongs never make a right. Looting and setting police cars on fire is not okay. It only takes away from the real cause – the atrocity of the wrongful killing of black men and women.” As to whether she ever felt scared or in danger, she emphatically says, “No! Not even once.”
But not everyone felt the same degree of safety and security. A 46-year-old, early childhood teacher, a mother of two, living in a suburb in the Twin Cities area said, “I believe in the right to protest. Personally, I am not someone who has actively gone out and protested, ever. Not because I don’t believe in it, but because I think there are many things we can all do to give communities a voice.” Deeply shocked and saddened to see the recent protests and its violence unfold she says, “I am saddened to see looters and aggressors come in and ransack our city and those across the nation. But with the Covid scare, the threat of violence and disruption and the governor’s request to stay home – I did not participate. However, she points out that she made monetary donations as well as provided diapers and food to a nearby collection center that would be sent to families in Minneapolis affected by the looting and violence. Her job at a ground level she points out, is to raise awareness, appreciation and to educate. “That’s where I hope to leave my mark,” she says with conviction.
She adds that Lake Street, where much of the violence erupted has an array of minority owned businesses that were just beginning to limp back after the shutdown own. “Their lives are now worse off for it. I have much respect for the peaceful protestors, and commend them for setting an example of peaceful assembly, but those who justify looting as a form of protest – I disagree. It ultimately hurt more lives, more minorities and more good Americans.”
Violence is Distraction
Thirty-nine year old product marketing manager and father of two, Abhik Mitra, resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota feels the same. “The violence is an unnecessary distraction to the overall issue of racism that needs some serious fixing in this country. Unfortunately, the violence itself became a competitor to the ‘justice for George Floyd’ as it shifted the conversation entirely to the needless property destruction of Minneapolis (and the nation).” And although he did not personally go down to participate in the protests, Mitra mainly followed the protests through friends on Facebook Live for “a real ground level account.” Mitra and his family have provided donations and supplies to help individuals impacted by the destruction to communities and businesses in Minneapolis.
Twenty-four-year-old computer scientist from Atlanta, who goes by the name VINCI, and has a Youtube channel as well, took to the streets Monday afternoon, June 1, when he heard from his African American police officer neighbor that he was going to support his fellow cops on duty in downtown Atlanta. “I had been watching the protests on TV all weekend and I thought it would be a good idea for me to go down too and although I know why it was happening, I wanted to understand it and see what the people were feeling myself.”
He joined a group of around 300 peaceful, “well-organized” protestors at the famed MLK center and walked with them carrying signs to the Centennial Olympic Park. As to whether he felt any fear of being dispersed by tear gas or plastic bullets, he says, “to be honest not really. I think media is overhyping the violence that is happening, which it is, but compared to the peaceful protests, it is only a small number of people that are VIOLENTLY protesting. Plus, I went in the middle of the day, which I thought was a relatively safe bet.”
As to what he saw, he says, “most of the signs and chants highlighted their pain and anger. There was a lot of pain associated with this movement!”
He was not alone. Many like him have taken to the streets in solidarity, their reasoning varied but the underpinnings the same — justice. Executive Director of an arts-based non-profit located in Gaineville, GA, Nairika Cornett, who grew up in Mumbai and later immigrated to the U.S. for graduate school, walked in tandem with protestors in Gainesville, which witnessed a large peaceful protest on May 30, 2020. “It boiled down to the cry for his (George Floyd) mama,” she says when asked why she felt compelled to join the protest. “I have contemplated a great deal. Why this time I did not just cry and scream at home or amongst my closest friends. I want all mamas to turn to his plea for life, as we do when we are at a mall or other public places, and hear ‘mom’ or ‘mama’. Instinctually thinking it’s a call to us, no matter whose child is calling. It is a cry that simple could not be ignored. His cry summoned!”
As to whether all factions of society were represented she says, “mostly yes, but what was largely missing were individuals over 60 and other South Asians. The former could well be because of the threat of COVID-19, which is a legitimate concern.”
Many did not wait for the crowds, but silently stood and made their voice heard by themselves. A resident of Maryland recounting why she stood alone, with her sign held aloft, even though the protest she was going to be a part of was canceled, says, “I went to demonstrate that I stand in solidarity with the black community. To add support to all those who are demanding that horrific human rights violations against black men, women and children be stopped immediately, and that the structural and institutional racism at the root of these abuses and murders must be properly addressed.”
Full of conviction she adds, “the protest that I had been planning to attend was postponed at the last minute because the organizers had not been able to secure police permission in time. I decided to go to the site anyway, and if necessary, protest on my own.” Which she and her husband did. “The two of us walked by ourselves up and down the street, holding our sign up high.”
Civic Duty to Speak Out
Srabani Rake, who works for Coca-Cola, and lives in a suburb in Atlanta, grew up all over the world – UK, Middle East and India. A mother of two grown sons, 23 and 18, she says she thought long and hard before marching along with other Coke employees and family members to the Capitol building on Friday, June 5, 2020. “I am all about action but I wasn’t sure marching actually does anything at all. Then I thought if everyone said and felt that way then we would not have seen this amazing uprising of the human spirit over the last few weeks. It is our civic duty to speak out against injustice like this.” So she joined a group of almost 200 people and marched peacefully to the Capital. “People of all races, all ages, all genders too part….it was so positive to see. I have heard a lot of the black community say that this time it’s different by virtue of the diverse demography of the people protesting and I really believe that. Cars honked in solidarity and everyone was upbeat and positive in spite of the heat that beat down on us relentlessly!”
She adds, “I am a minority too but I can’t pretend to understand the injustice and fairness the black community experience on a day to day basis. There is no place for hate or discrimination of any kind in our world and I am glad I stood up and did something, even if it was small. It felt amazing!”
And whether one went down and marched in Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis, New York or any other part of this county, the feeling of being a part of this historic movement, is ably summed up by Cornett. “It is euphoric because you think change is imminent!”
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a Journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.