Power in the wake of violence
On April 15, Indianapolis police arrived at the FedEx ground facility where a former employee shot and killed eight people, and wounded several others. About 90 per cent of the workers at the FedEx warehouse are members of the local Sikh community, and four of those killed were Sikhs. The advocacy group Sikh Coalition confirmed through eyewitness testimony that the shooter, Brandon Hole, specifically targeted Punjabi Sikhs, immigrants from the northern region of India.
The shooting is the third mass shooting in Indiana this year and follows the recent murder of Shane Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American father, husband and community leader in Fort Wayne. It also fell in the wake of a mass shooting in Atlanta where six Asian-American women were murdered, and amid the growing attacks on Asian-American and Pacific Islanders during the coronavirus pandemic.
AAPI communities — more than state organisations or local law enforcement — have continued to speak up and out through legal advocacy and community organising amid this violence and oppression. Their voices and actions highlight the long history of such activism that grew out of Asian exclusion and developed through the 20th century in the United States.
In 1875, the US Government started to target Asian immigrants for exclusion under the guise that Asian women, largely from China, were actually prostitutes. Seven years later the Government implemented a legal ban on all Chinese workers, creating the first federal law barring any community on the basis of race from entering the US or naturalising as citizens. Chinese exclusion became foundational to nativists' efforts to prohibit the entry of other Asian migrants, including Japanese, Korean and then Indian immigrants, making Asian exclusion an even larger racial project codified in law by the early 20th century.
Indian immigrants who arrived in the US in the early 20th century were largely Muslim and Sikh migrants from the northern region of Punjab. Armed with insights from Indian migrants who had already arrived and sent guidance back to India in letters and dispatches, they navigated strict detention and deportation measures at ports of entry. When needed, they also tapped into donations from previously arrived migrants to hire prominent lawyers who had cut their teeth with immigration law by serving Chinese migrants.
Indian immigrants also became agents of their own legal redress as they encountered murder, assault and “drive-outs” — when the local White community, with the support of local police, violently ran them out of town, and, in some cases, across the international border into Canada.
Indian immigrants first turned to the British consuls in the US believing they would find support as imperial subjects but found none. In September 1907, for example, when Indian immigrants were driven out of Bellingham, Washington, the British consul in Seattle, Bernard Pelly, refused to investigate the violent attack after noting that Indian immigrants never lodged a formal legal complaint about it.
Pelly was well aware that the Indian immigrants in the region had fled after the attack, and most did not want to return. The same month, 41 Indian immigrants in Everett, Washington, sent a petition to the British consul in Portland fearing another drive-out. Once again, British officials did not take any substantive action to protect the immigrants, nor did the local mayor, and White men in Everett drove the Indian immigrants out in November.
The murder of Harnam Singh created a turning point, however. On November 1, 1907, a group of White men shot at least 30 bullets into a bunkhouse where Harnam, his brother and friend were sleeping. Harnam was shot in his leg and rushed to a hospital in Portland. Local Punjabi immigrants mobilised around Harnam’s case and hired a private attorney believing the local prosecutor would remain partial to his White peers. Daniel J. Malarkey, a noted attorney and Oregon state senator, litigated a case against the six shooters, and secured guilty verdicts for some of the shooters. Harnam, however, did not live to hear the verdict. He died of his gunshot wound.
After Harnam’s case, Punjabi immigrants continued to hire lawyers such as Malarkey in the midst of drive-outs and assaults insisting that the British consul cover the legal fees. The consuls reluctantly complied.
In 1917, the US barred Indian labour migrants and most other Asians from the United States. Still, Indian migrants continued to hire lawyers and fight for their right to enter the US, purchase and own land and naturalise as American citizens. The first Indian lawyer in the US, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, represented himself in his own naturalisation case in May 1914 before qualifying for the bar and representing others. He also aided Indian migrants who were threatened with denaturalisation after the US Supreme Court declared in 1923 that Indian immigrants did not qualify as “free White persons” and could not naturalise as citizens.
Such activism expanded over the next few decades. Indian immigrants also created new organisations such as the India Welfare League, India Muslim League of America and the India Association for American Citizenship, Inc, all of which pushed for naturalisation and immigration reforms with the aid of supporters in India and the US. In 1956, Daleep Singh Saund even successfully ran for Congress from California's 29th District, becoming the first Sikh-American, Asian-American and Indian-American elected in the United States. South Asian activists, still largely Punjabi, participated in a number of other issue campaigns as well during the civil rights era, including the Black, farmers’ and women’s rights movements.
The new wave of South Asian immigrants who arrived in the US in the late 20th century tended to be educated professionals, and provided a contrast to their working-class predecessors who had arrived decades earlier. And yet, they, too, faced the threat of racist violence and murder. One of the most violent of these campaigns was organised by a nativist organisation in New Jersey in the 1980s called the “Dotbusters” in light of the bindis worn by some South Asian women.
In the wake of such violence, a new generation of South Asian activists founded and expanded South Asian student groups, and legal and community advocacy groups in the United States. These included but were not limited to the Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund, Sakhi for South Asian Women, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Desis Rising and Moving, the Jakara Movement and South Asian Americans Leading Together. These organisations provided multiple platforms for community organising, cultural literacy and legal advocacy around issues of race and religion, immigration and border enforcement and gender and sexuality that included South Asian communities in the United States but expanded well beyond them, too.
South Asian legal advocacy efforts expanded further after September 11, 2001 when attacks on South Asian Americans mounted. The Sikh Coalition was one of the legal advocacy organisations founded in the post-9/11 moment.
The mass shootings in Indianapolis and Atlanta have reminded Asian-American communities of the long legacy of racial and gender violence they have inherited in the United States. But this history is also one of advocacy and community struggle for equity and justice, with Asian-American activists and their allies doing critical work to expose the violence and support community members.
• Hardeep Dhillon completed her doctorate in History at Harvard University, and in autumn this year, she will join the American Bar Foundation as the incoming postdoctoral fellow in the ABF/National Science Foundation Fellowship Programme in Law and Inequality