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A Brown Girl's Nascent Abolition Dreams

20 years since 9/11, where is liberation?


For those of us who are Desi and remember growing up in New York after 9/11, we have many stories of being racially profiled.

 

For most of our neoliberal political leaders, the rise of interpersonal acts of violence has been both horrifying to witness and has become an oversimplified talking point (and therefore) a neatly solvable policy issue. The attacks on Asians, who are still being targeted after racist rhetoric around the COVID-19 virus originating in China, are still too prevalent. The Biden administration earlier this year proudly announced signing hate crime legislation into law, and several Asian nonprofit leaders and policymakers have applauded this as a critical step for community safety. However, this legislation posits that the solution to these attacks is more police funding - even though this runs counter to solidarity with Black and other heavily surveilled communities and could instead directly provide assistance & resources which empower those most targeted and precarious. 


Abolitionists especially understand the importance of preventative measures and transformative justice. Under the threat of police brutality, we must build relationships, creating lasting trust and safety, and remember how the criminalisation of poverty and communities of colour directly leads to mass incarceration. As a South Asian American woman engaged with local grassroots organising through working in the education department at a domestic violence & sexual assault services nonprofit agency, and now in my law school's public interest program, I remain deeply marked by my own questions about healing in the face of senseless violence. I believe that our journey to liberation must interrogate the assumption that only courtrooms can give us peace and justice.


I was nine years old when I was abruptly picked up from school in the middle of the day, oblivious to why my dad was silent for the 4-minute journey home. It took months to understand that my mom's parents and grandmother, who I had spent nearly three months with in Nadiad, Gujarat, India, the past summer, were robbed and killed in their home.

 

I was young, but I had heavy words like "murder" and "looted" in my vocabulary now, and I knew my relationship with them. It was an incomprehensible loss that, in the subsequent decade, would surface as waves of sadness, confusion, and an essential lesson that navigating grief was not a linear process. In this timeframe, when I was 12 years old, I had felt brave enough to ask my mom what had happened with their case - did the local police find out who killed them? Her response in my mind is still vivid because her reaction was a combined grimace and dry sense of humour. Without making eye contact with me, she said (translated from Gujarati), "They pinned it on a gang that was already being charged with other crimes, but that gang probably didn't kill them. Setting it up like this let the police finally close the case - and the consequence for that gang was the death penalty, and the system there doesn't really let people fight back. It would take too long. So that's it." 


That was my first introduction to the necessity of abolition. While the corruption in the Indian infrastructure of legal recourse & law enforcement is easier to point out in its every facet, the American systems are not so different, even if they appear as such, because they are better strategically funded, tactically documented, and highly politicised. The seed of an abolitionist stance was planted when my mom expressed her condescension towards feeling a sense of justice from the police and from the prisons that were holding this gang. Since then, I have never seen her harbour anger or resentment towards her parents' and grandmother's killers - we always speak of my dadi, dada, and ba in the context of her memories of how they lived, rather than how they died. Unintentionally, she also modelled for me the alternative to the popular media narrative that survivors of violent crimes are vengeful and advocate for maximum sentences.

    

This early observation of an implicit critique of any genuine peace or healing that punishment, retribution, or incarceration could offer sublimated into my work this past year as the outreach coordinator to Asian communities at my local domestic violence services agency. With several survivors coming forward from my community last summer with their experiences of sexual assault and rape in high school at the same time that I started working there, I felt out of my depth when, at the same time, Black activists were calling for defunding the police after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

 


It was not immediately obvious what the relationship between these discourses were until I found The Revolution Starts at Home, Beyond Survival, and Fumbling Towards Repair. Community accountability processes, building the necessary skills for responding to the more minor instances of harm that preclude violence that's harder to manage, and mutual aid networks have always been ways that indigenous, QTPOC and disabled folks have taken care of one another. These works detailed solutions and alternatives available to survivors predicated upon their experiences with how police and prisons were the sources of further traumatisation. They centre this deep irony: institutions that created entrenched conditions of violence are now being valorised as solutions for those very conditions. 


With this year marking the 20th anniversary since the attack on the Twin Towers, cases like Ashcroft v. Iqbal, Raza v. City of New York, and the settlement won by Jamilla Clark and Arwa Aziz against NYPD remind us of how far we still have to go when it comes to expanding the surveillance of Arab, Middle. Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) in the name of national security. Whether sexual violence or physical violence, oppression is obviously in the hands of the apathetic or co-conspiring state, which provides variably ineffective pathways, exacerbating, expensive, or open one up for public vitriol & humiliation - so then where is liberation?


The answer is neither singular nor straightforward - abolition requires imagination.

 

The Rockland People's Panel on Policing, Rockland United, and the Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow showed me the power of local, grassroots work. We strategised and raised awareness about the racism embedded in why the East Ramapo School District has struggled for years and demanded answers for deaths perpetrated by the local police. From volunteering with MannMukti, I realised the extent of mental health stigma in my community and the groundswell power of the youth to intentionally change the tide to making spaces that prioritising vulnerability over the western "value" of stoic individualism. In just two years, nearly 20 university chapters have been founded. The NYC Chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum fights for reproductive futures in solidarity with other communities of colour so that our immigrants, our families, and posterity have self-determination. We passed Resolution 902 through NYC Council, rallied alongside other organised Asian women & femmes after the murders in Atlanta, and continue to lobby Congress to pass the HEAL for Immigrant Families Act


Liberation for my people, I believe, is bound up in abolition too. Our taxi drivers, domestic workers, undocumented labourers and other frontline workers continue to work in dangerous and unfair conditions and they demand better protections. Liberation is where (the construct of) gender does not determine anyone's expectations or responsibilities. We normalise supporting one another because it is good and right, and we do not ascribe someone's deservingness of love and stability by their ostensible "contribution" to American society, no matter what the adages around the "American Dream" narrative might have us believe. In starting law school, I worry about how I will be able to practice movement lawyering within a system designed to protect capital and property at the expense of human life and joy.

 

But I also hope that with all these nascent abolition dreams, that I'm still a brown girl who's determined to try.

About the author

Shivani is a Cornell alumna and budding South Asian American racial and immigrant rights advocate. She is a member of the New York City Chapter of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum and serves on the executive committee of MannMukti, a South Asian mental health nonprofit, as the Vice President of University Chapters.

Instagram:  @abrowngirlrising / Tweets: @browngirlrising

 


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