Shreerekha Pillai, editor of Carceral Liberalism: Feminist Voices against State Violence, wrote this piece following the killing of Tyre Nichols.
My high school years were bracketed by gruesome violence unleashed upon Black bodies. New to the country as a fourteen-year-old immigrant from India in 1986, we went into our first holiday season with the terrifying spectacle of Michael Griffith running onto the Belt Parkway as he fled for his life chased by a mob of white boys.
After landing at Kennedy Airport, we had driven on the Belt Parkway like countless immigrants before and after me have, making our way to an island I would soon understand as my home that also doubled as a home for white supremacy, I was told Americans did not walk on these highways. Coming from a country where streets and highways boasted an uneasy coexistence of humanity with machinery, I found this to be a riveting piece of tidbit. And then, a few months in, a young Black man, after having had his last meal of classic New York pizza, runs headlong into sure death on the same highway. As I made my way into my senior year, a boy younger than me by a few months, Yusef Hawkins, goes to a scary neighborhood, meaning all white, and was shot in the chest. He had gone looking to buy a car, and walked into a racial tinderbox kept ready on orders of the Gambino crime family, greeted with white boys armed with bats and guns ready for battle.
During college, the Rodney King tragedy unfurled on national television. Unrest followed. As a liberal arts, immigrant kid at a big university, I found respite in coalition work on campus. One of the homes was a collective effort (UMAASC, University of Michigan Asian American Student Coalition) where we wrote on Asian American history and current issues, and in one of those, wrestled with telling the complicated story of battles on the ground between the Korean grocery store owners and the Black residents of a grieving city. As students interested in coalition work coming from communities that still remained deeply national and insular, what we were asking for always felt like too much. When the skits celebrated, audiences were receptive. When we wrote on bridging the fissures between the Asian and African American communities, or anti-Blackness in the South Asian immigrant enclaves, we received admonition and at times, outright disavowal, rejection and condemnation from audiences of our own multi-national backgrounds. What we wanted was to have an imaginary Asian American community speak to a pluralistic Black community, reach across the divide and be in solidarity. Those were our baby steps in doing the right thing.
Now, more than ever, the immigrant community at large – Black, brown, and others old and new need to come together and speak up in solidarity alongside the Black community about the violence suffered primarily upon Black, indigenous and bodies marked as other.
My graduate school years at Syracuse were framed similarly. Abner Louima was brutalized in ways that were not fully comprehensible to me by police in New York City in 1997. James Byrd was tied and dragged behind a vehicle in Jasper, Texas in 1998, a reminder that lynching was not only a part of Jim Crow American south but continued on. Amadou Diallo was shot forty-one times as he stood unarmed in front of his apartment building in 1999. The list only grows, the rage erupts and dies down after each incident, depending on the creative new script of violence, and whether the citizens of the imagined community called the nation awaken long enough or have bandwidth to deal with the latest spate of horror writ large on Black bodies.
The terrible tragedy wrought upon a teenage boy walking down his own neighborhood eating candy, Trayvon Martin, inspires the Black Lives Matter movement. We also know it has been a movement with a long history, a struggle for Black survival in a nation predicated on genocidal violence of its indigenous forebearers and chattel slavery of Black sojourners.
Long before George Floyd cried out for his mother for nine long minutes and the world looked on in horror, long before Tyre Nichols also cried out for his mother as she awaited his safe return home just a few yards away, this nation has had powerful Black mothers who have struggled with the loss of their sons and daughters at the hands of the law.
For the people receiving the violence, the violence can appear cloaked in different colors, but the suffering is unrelenting and can manifest, at times, in uniformed, vigilante or ideological forms. While anger over the newest case of state violence wrought upon Black humanity might get eclipsed by the specter of the police themselves being Black, the analytical vector needs to examine the ways in which state violence comes to bear its wrath primarily on vulnerable Black bodies.
As the fourteen-year-old new brown kid in town, and now a fifty-year-old academic in Texas, it is not right that my quick mnemonic device to remember years passing is the snuffing of Black (and brown) lives. Immigrant lives need to coexist in solidarity alongside Black lives – this means, to bear witness to the suffering visited upon Black lives, to acknowledge our lives here as complicit in the project of state violence, and to raise our voice for justice in concert with the Black community.
Shreerekha Pillai is a professor of humanities at the University of Houston, Clear Lake. She is the author of Women Writing Violence: The Novel and Radical Feminist Imaginaries.