The names of men who have disappeared since the World Trade Center tragedies were listed starkly against a bare white wall . . . Farouk Ali-Haimoud . . . Rajiv Dabhadkar . . . Harinder Singh. These men are among the many that have been lost to their families and communities. Detained, deported, maybe even murdered, they are the casualties of a new war. I walked contemplatively to another side of the post-9/11 art exhibit that I had come to see. This room was dedicated to the experience of detention, and an entire cell had been replicated in one corner. I peeked cautiously into the tiny windowless space and felt overwhelmingly claustrophobic. To my surprise, I found a man, someone who had come, like me, to this art opening, sitting quietly in the metal cube. He looked up from his seat on the detention bed, with a glass of red wine in one hand and a plate of brie and crackers in the other, and smiled. Caught off guard, I staggered away and whispered with friends about the peculiarity of the scene: a man attempting to replicate the terror of detention while simultaneously belittling its cruelty and inhumanity with his bourgeois comforts.
I went home and allowed my experiences to broil and agitate for a few days. The artists and organizers had done a tremendous job of displaying the gravity of the war on terror and its skewed impact on South Asian, Muslim, and Arab communities—not just in the United States, but all over the world. There were striking, awareness-raising displays of Muslim women forced through French pseudo-secularism to remove their hijabs in public schools, of South Asian and Arab men in America whose livelihoods had been destroyed by government-fueled fears that they were terrorists, and of Palestinian villages being starved to death by Israeli closure of commercial crossings and U.S. refusal to offer aid. The images left their indelible marks in my visual memory. But something else remained unsettling and troubling—something less corporeal.
As I mingled and moved through the exhibit, I never once felt the powerful infusion of a Spirit of Resistance. Pictures and symbols of post 9/11 carnage had somehow become stale and hum-drum in real life translation. The wine and cheese man in the detention cell captured the absence of defiance in the face of such atrocities—not just in the gallery that day, but in our targeted communities at large. Iraq is the new Vietnam; Muslims are the new Communists. But no one is taking to the streets. Few are raising their fists in protest. People struggle to make connections between the global war on terror, the domestic war against immigrants, hate violence, and American foreign policy. Instead, those who of us who are most privileged to make noise—who are protected by our immigration status and our capital—walk leisurely in circles around art exhibits, sipping wine and shaking our heads at the woes of the world, knowing full well that we should be livid about something. We’re mad as hell . . . but apathetic also.
The week prior, when I was visiting my family in the Midwest, this particular apathy became more than evident as millions of immigrants and their allies began protesting the anti-immigrant bill HR 4437 in cities across the nation. Students walked out of their classrooms, families rallied in the streets waiving Mexican flags and holding signs that read, “We are workers, not criminals!” and “Aqui estamos! Aqui nos quedamos! No nos vamos!” (We are here! We are staying here! We won’t go!). Conservative reports estimated that cities like Los Angeles had seen record numbers of protestors—numbers that surpassed even the historic anti-war protests of 1960s. The photographs were incredibly inspiring, and I felt isolated from the new wave of civil rights movements that were growing around me—not just because I was briefly located outside of hotbeds of activism, but because I struggled to find a space and voice for Asians and Asian Americans in the midst of this national outcry.
Though an estimated 2 million of the 12 million undocumented workers in this country are from Asia, there have been few from our communities protesting alongside our Latino/a brothers and sisters. Those who have participated notice self-consciously that they have been late to arrive on the scene. In the numerous San Francisco protests throughout April and May, the Desi contingent with whom I marched remained limited to the familiar activists. While I understood the hesitancy of undocumented South Asian workers to participate in these rallies, I couldn’t help but wonder why an art exhibit would gather such a much larger crowd than a direct action. Can South Asian immigrant elites only relate to issues of deportation, detention, and harassment in the abstract?