Singer, writer and educator Alia Jeraj talks to Naked Punch Review about her observations, as a resident of the Twin Cities, Minnesota and a member of the South Asian American community, regarding the on-going protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. She discusses the goals of the protest movement, the violence seen during the protests and the need for greater solidarity between communities of color.
Haider Ali: The murder of George Floyd has sparked a series of protests in the twin cities of Minneapolis & St. Paul, as well as, across the United States. You live in the twin-cities and can closely observe it. Could you please outline how the protests grew and escalated? Also, what do you think about the question of whether or not the charges being brought against the white police officer who murdered George Floyd means final victory for the protest movement and, therefore, its culmination?
"So, I think it is really important to acknowledge that riots and violence are as Dr. King said “the language of the unheard”."
Alia Jeraj: On Monday, we saw the video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes while three other officers stand and watch. As of Tuesday, that video started going viral. Some protests started on Tuesday afternoon. They were held at the intersection in South Minneapolis at Chicago and 38th. I have to say, I am currently living with my mother just north of St. Paul. I am, like many others, balancing the global pandemic that we are in and our safety and the safety of our communities’, with this need to show up and be physically present. I have not wanted to bring the disease that I might be unknowingly carrying, into the communities where these protests are happening. These are communities that are predominantly communities of color, who are already being hit the hardest by the coronavirus. So, I have not been present in most of the protests. Most of what I can say is things that my friends and people that I know, have seen and experienced.
There have been additional protests in South Minneapolis, in the downtown area and there have been protests outside of Derek Chauvin’s house, starting a couple of days ago. And I have attended the demonstration held outside of the house of the Hennepin county District Attorney Mike Freeman who has the power to charge these officers. Now, in the past couple of days we have seen these protests escalate. We have seen Minneapolis and St. Paul on fire, so there’s a lot there. We have heard them say last night that there’ll be a curfew starting at 8 PM.
I think it is really important to note that first of all, the rioting and violence are justifiable expressions of rage and grief. We should keep in view, just what our communities of color, especially the Black and Indigenous communities, have faced in Minnesota at the hands of police officers. Secondly, it needs to be noted that many of the acts of violence that we have seen have actually been carried out by people who are not from these communities. People who are using this as an opportunity to contribute to chaos. There have been reports of white anarchists and white nationalists inciting violence. So, I think it is really important to acknowledge that riots and violence are as Dr. King said “the language of the unheard”. They are valid, important and can be necessary. Yet, we should also realize that much of this violence is not from our communities.
In response to a third-degree murder charge, it is definitely not the end goal of any of these protests. I think people really want to see all four cops arrested, charged, and convicted. I think third-degree murder is not enough of a charge. And more broadly, what I am hearing from people of the city’s communities is that it is not just about these cops. In the Twin Cities, we have had four acts of police violence that have resulted in someone’s death in the last five years. It is not about a single cop but the institution. We see people calling for a range of things, from police reform to a big movement to abolish the police in the Twin Cities. I think the current outcry is in response to the murder of George Floyd and is asking for these four officers to be charged and convicted for murder. However, it is bigger than that. It is a bigger fight and part of a struggle that has been going on for a long-time before Monday.
"At the end of the day, we are not white. As long as we are living in this white supremacist state, we also risk this happening to us or any one of us."
HA: So, we can say that the third-degree charge is not the answer for the current protests. And of course, not the solution for the bigger problem. Now, on the other hand, we have also seen some people belittle the struggle of the protestors by saying that this is a “random” or an “isolated” event. And this is visible amongst people in the government institutions. For example, President Donald Trump tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. However, the charges brought against Derek Chauvin were really quick, so what do you think about the response of the government institutions? In light of these different kinds of responses, how can we think about the issue of violence against black communities by state institutions?
AJ: I personally believe that the third-degree murder charge or the short amount of time that it took to bring the charges as not being sufficient at all. I do recognize that this is the quickest a police officer has been brought charges against them.
I have not been to law school and so I am not aware of all of the ins-and-outs of law. These are just my opinions as a civilian. I just cannot understand how what we saw on the video was not justifiable grounds for an immediate arrest. Even for a probable-cause charge.
Beyond that, both the District Attorney Mike Freeman and our senator Amy Klobuchar – who is potentially running for Vice President on the ticket with Joe Biden – had not pressed charges against this officer Derek Chauvin when he had used excessive force in the past and even when that had led to the death of an indigenous man here [Derek Chauvin is one of the five police officers who were put on ‘leave’ after they shot an Indigenous man in 2011]. Again, it is about what’s happening now but there is no reason that this man should have even been in the police force after all of the other things that he has done. It is up to people like District Attorney Mike Freeman and Senator Klobuchar. The city is burning and it is on their hands.
HA: Speaking of patterns of response and reactions, where do you see the South Asian community in the United States and in the Twin Cities – with their own historical experiences as a community and their own outlook towards the black community – figuring into the whole picture?
AJ: First of all, the South Asian community is extremely expansive and diverse. Therefore, it is hard to generalize. Nonetheless, within the South Asian community you do see a lot of racism and a lot of anti-Blackness. We see that show up in the beauty standards, for example, with the skin-whitening creams that we have. That is a result of colonialism but not just that. To a large extent, it is also a result of the fact that when South Asians come to the US, we try to find ways to survive and exist in this country which is built on white supremacy. As we get closer and closer to whiteness in trying to get the benefits that come with it, we also get closer and closer to an anti-Blackness.
Of course, that is not true for everyone. There are many organizations that are South Asian based and are working extremely hard to fight against this. But it is true that anti-Blackness exists in our societies and shows up in a lot of ways.
HA: Within that frame and as an extension of that question: being a member of the South Asian community in the United States yourself, what do you think are the similarities and differences between the relation of the state with the South Asian community in comparison with that of the state and the black community. Especially, in terms of violent oppression.
AJ: That is an interesting question, and the short answer is yes, we have experienced violence from the state as a community. It is really interesting in the United States as there is a spectrum of race on which South Asians fall somewhere in the middle of it. By far, the most violence from the state occurs against folks who are Black and against folks who are Indigenous. Those are the two racial groups that experience state violence to an extreme extent. Having said that, South Asians have also experienced it. There are numerous cases of police violence against South Asians, East Asians and South East Asians which have been documented across the country. We are victims of white supremacy.
At the same time, we also benefit from parts of it, as a community. If you look, in the video, one of the officers who is standing there next to Derek Chauvin is an Asian man. Which is to say that we also participate in this violence. I think it is really important for us as Asians and as South Asians to recognize that even as we try to get those benefits that whiteness gives us, that also is hurting us and affecting our lives.
At the end of the day, we are not white. As long as we are living in this white supremacist state, we also risk this happening to us or any of us. In this sense, by helping, supporting and uplifting our Black neighbors, we also help ourselves. And that really is not why we should do it but because it is right. Again: WE CAN”T ALL BE FREE UNTIL WE ARE ALL FREE.
"...when Muslim communities are attacked, we see Black Muslims show up. And I think now it is our turn to show up for our Black communities."
HA: Maybe, this current government’s targeting and discrimination against the whole spectrum of people of color, as horrible as it is, has created greater opportunities for people of color to come together. Or for the South Asian and other communities to join hands with the black community.
AJ: Yes, I think so. It has been happening, long before our current president was elected. But he has allowed for a lot of racism to be overt and a lot more obvious. Now that we are being hit in the face with it, instead of experiencing racism and white supremacy in their more subtle ways, I do hope and I also do see that people of color across all of these communities are coming together and building coalitions to end white supremacy.
HA: How much of it do you see in the current protests in the twin cities? Do you see the South Asian community and other communities of color, showing up or showing their support through other means?
AJ: One of my favorite things about the Twin Cities is that we have this hugely diverse community. We have seen folks stepping up. There are organizations which are specifically Latino, Indigenous or South Asian that are stepping up and supporting the protests – either by being there physically or by donating money. There have been a lot of clean-up efforts now, for our local businesses that have been damaged. As an example of South Asian people showing solidarity, there is one restaurant called the Gandhi Mahal, owned by a South Asian family, which was damaged during the riots but the owners came forward and essentially said that justice for George Floyd is more important than the building.
On the other hand, I was frustrated at how we as communities, in some cases, could show up more. I think we have this duty to show up. For instance, in the case of my own religious community I have seen a bunch of people from the community showing up, supporting and being there, but only as individuals. As a community, we have not been able yet to come out and say that this is who we are and we support this. That has been frustrating.
But it is mixed. There are so many folks from so many different backgrounds who are showing up and supporting but there also are some people who are not supporting.
HA: It is also interesting, when you look at the fact that a big section of the South Asian community in the United States is Muslim. In a lot of cases, Black Muslims have been at the forefront of the Black rights movement. Also, they have supported other Muslims when they were being targeted. So, for the South Asian Muslim communities and their faith institutions to stay at a distance from the struggles of the black Muslim community and the black community in general, raises a lot of questions about the way that South Asian Muslim communities relate to black communities in the United States.
AJ: Exactly. I think that we have to stop seeing ourselves as separate and distant. We have to start recognizing ourselves as a part of this struggle.
As you said, when Muslim communities are attacked, we see Black Muslims show up. And I think now it is our turn to show up for our Black communities.
HA: This will be my last question. Where do you see the protests going? Do you feel hopeful for the future?
AJ: There are things that become sources of hope including the amount of people that are showing up in the demonstrations and who show up for clean-up efforts in the neighborhoods that have experienced the most damage. We are seeing people standing up, in-front of locally owned businesses and putting their bodies on the line. They are saying, “no we won’t let you hurt this because it hurts us and damaging local businesses is not the goal of this protest.” It gives me hope, just knowing that the Twin Cities have a very strong base of community activists and organizers – of different community groups that come from all kinds of backgrounds and all parts of the city – who are showing up. We, as a city community, have shown that we are resilient and we are not backing down. I urge our local leaders to listen and I hope that we don’t have to keep fighting for that long. That said, if we have to continue fighting, we are ready.
Alia Jeraj (she/her) is a singer, writer, and educator from the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Her passions lie at the intersections of art, education, and social justice. Alia sings with groups including Nanilo, a vocal trio rooted in traditional harmonies from Eastern Europe, Artemis, a treble vocal ensemble focused on experimentation and improvisation, and Mixed Precipitation, a theatre company that celebrates the harvest season through opera. Her bylines include Pollen, American Craft, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, and the Minnesota Daily. When she’s not working to help teens achieve their educational goals, singing, or writing, you can find Alia biking around the cities, learning to embroider, or sipping iced coffee.
She can be reached at the following email address: email@example.com