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May 11, 1999


The Protest Generation Has No Time For Remix Parties And Silicon Valley

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A P Kamath

More than two months after an unarmed immigrant with no criminal history, Amadou Diallo, was killed in a storm of 41 police bullets demonstrations against police brutality at suspected minority citizens continued relentlessly. It died when the four police officers were indicted earlier this month. For several days, African American leaders including former mayor David Dinkins had courted arrest by joining a protest at One Police Plaza in New York.

As the pressure for the arrest of the police officers continued, a handful of whites including the Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon joined the protesters. And there was a sprinkling of Indian American activists including Ananya Bhattacharjee, one of the most visible of Indian political activists, who was a founder of Sakhi, the South Asian women's support group, till she moved out to organise domestic workers from the Indian subcontinent across America.

Bhattacharjee is among scores of Indian Americans many are students in their 20s and some are academics and full-time activists who are in their 30s who are making their presence felt not just because of their academic excellence but because of their commitment to social issues. Theirs is not the party-hopping remix generation; they have no love for Silicon Valley or Wall Street. In some ways, they still believe the campus radicalism of the 1960s could be recreated effectively, first to deal with the problems facing Asian Americans and then to address the problems of American society.

"You read a lot about Indian Americans who are making big waves in Silicon Valley or in the boardrooms of big companies," says American University graduate student and activist Nisha Anand. "But there are a number of us who will speak for the underprivileged." Anand was briefly detained in Myanmar (formerly, Burma) last year when she was caught along with friends distributing pro-democracy pamphlets.

She has joined the likes of Ananya Bhattacharjee and Bhairavi Desai, who fights for South Asian domestic workers, along with Professor Bijoo Mathew. And then there is Tito Sinha, a young attorney who is one of the pillars of the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and who works on weekends networking with left of center Indian community groups.

Bhairavi Desai The diminutive and fragile-looking Bhairavi Desai is in a gorgeous salwar-kameez, and wears a radiating smile. She is about to start her night prowl of Manhattan's gas stations, garages and Punjabi dabbas, falafel and Creole restaurants -- in search of taxi drivers.

But today, before she starts her night mission, 26-year-old Bhairavi Desai will speak about herself, and how the New York Taxi Workers Alliance led an one day strike in April to draw the attention to the inequities 44,000 drivers face. And how she, daughter of working class immigrant parents, is working toward reviving working class activism she feels has been lost in the last three decades with the steady strengthening of conservative forces

Desai is among half a dozen Indian Americans, many of them in their 20s or early 30s, who are making news as champions of the downtrodden.

"The Indian American community has spent over $ 100 million in the past two decades building temples, churches and mosques," says one activist. "But we need volunteers from our communities to help people in real need, who are very powerless."

It has been more than 10 months since the Taxi and Limousine Commission went ahead with its tough new regulations including stiff fines for speeding cabbies and even punishing them if a passenger left behind a receipt on the seat. But Desai, the only full-time staffer at NYTWA, points out that the membership of the barely two-year organisation has shot up from 700 to 1,800 since the strike.

"And there is a tremendous amount of awareness among the drivers," Desai says. "They don't want to be taken for granted, they don't have to feel powerless." Though about 60 per cent of NYTWA members are from the subcontinent, Arabs, Latinos and Haitian drivers have also been joining the association, she says.

Since the strike Desai has been the subject of nearly a dozen profiles in such magazines as MS, New York and George. 'The alliance has become the working-class mouse that roared,' MS notes. And New York magazine calls her the leader of the most serious show of cabbie solidarity in the city's history

Desai, who works for over 70 hours a week for $ 18,000 a year -- about $ 7,000 less than a taxi driver's earning -- was a part-time organizer for Manavi, a New Jersey association for South Asian women. "It was a full-time job with part-time salary," she says, laughing when she is told that what she does now is not different.

"It is a choice I made long ago," says Desai, a 1994 graduate of Rutgers University, where she majored in women's studies and history. "None of the regular jobs interested me."

Bijoo Mathew, who volunteers many hours a week for NYTWA, and helps her with mobilization and strategies, is a computer science professor at a New Jersey College. The two met about three years when Desai responded for a job advertisement by Committee Against Asian American Violence -- and Mathew was looking for a radical outlet. They left the organization in about a year, complaining it was not sufficiently interested in mass-based activities and formed NYTWA.

Both complain that America -- and particularly the immigrant community -- is de-politicized. While Mathew is involved in a number of leftist organizations, Desai, who hardly took a taxi while she studied or worked for Manavi, is driven by her passion for taxi drivers.

"Taxi drivers perform one of the most dangerous jobs -- and in some ways, the most thankless -- in New York," she says. "More drivers are killed than the police." About a dozen drivers were killed or seriously mugged in the past year. "We believe in not only giving them a voice but also some benefits." NYTWA has just begun offering them a free annual medical check-up. "And now that we have started collecting dues -- $ 15 per month -- we are thinking of health insurance, too," she adds.

At the beginning, some taxi drivers weren't fully appreciative of her work, some wondered how a delicate-boned woman, who speaks English and Gujarati, could work with street-wary men, who speak Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and 50 other languages "But those who were serious about organizing themselves helped others realize that I -- and my colleagues -- were serious about our mission," she says.

"Now, I am a part of their world," she says, adding that often a cabby drops her home in the early hours of the morning. "It is one of the perks of the job," she says with hearty laughter.

'You are more energized when there is hostility. You fight harder, too'

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