Drop seeds of hope between small cracks in urban concrete. Over time, add rapidly increasing numbers of youth, growing accounts of injustice, and community support. A new movement will grow quietly underground, saturated in a hotbed of political activity — to eventually burst to the surface, homegrown and powerful.
And this is just what happened soon after the infamous 9-11, as the new face of Bay Area activism emerged in a city where White, middle class activists once ruled. It was the face of women of color — women who have moved from behind the scenes to the forefront of local movements in Berkeley. And in this well-known political activism breeding ground, I found stories from two very different activists who grew to fight relentlessly for positive change in their communities.
Reawakening the Movement
Maryam Gharavi had always been raised to question authority. But like many Bay Area youth who have become more politically active in their communities after the September 11 attacks, it wasn't until she witnessed injustice firsthand that she was really “radicalized,” joining the global justice movement spreading across the country.
The 20 year-old University of California, Berkeley, film major flew to New York in February with friends to join the hundreds of thousands of people protesting the World Economic Forum. This was where she first experienced “how a police-state operates.”
New York has had a zero tolerance policy since September 11, and trying to protest in the city “really felt like you were dealing with the Klan,” she said. Gharavi was pepper-sprayed and watched friends get beaten by cops. “I had seen 'Fuck the Police' shirts before, but until I saw cops in action in New York could I really say, 'Fuck the Police!'” she said.
But Gharavi is no stranger to the brutality of imperialism. She was born in Iran in 1982, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, an experience that “cemented” her to a lot of the movements that she is a part of today. “I remember being told that the U.S. was responsible for the attacks on Iran,” she said.
Iranians living in Tehran were moved to emergency shelters as bombs were dropped over the country, and residential areas and schools were destroyed. “I remember thinking any moment that it could be our building,” she said. “I remember being horrified at a really young age.”
Gharavi's family moved to the United States five years later, settling in the Washington D.C. area where she graduated from a high-school voted the “second snobbiest high-school in the U.S.” that year by MTV.
Despite her parents joking about her activism being a “Berkeley Phase” and youth protesters being called “leftovers from the 1960s” by the media, Gharavi rejects any sort of claim that she is “just taking up a cause to take up a cause, or I'm rallying because I have nothing else to do.”
“Really it's about educating and organizing people around issues that involve us whether or not we like them,” she said.
Not long before September 11, Gharavi and some friends had held meetings and talked about developing an anti-imperialism faction at U.C. Berkeley. A few days after the attacks, their meeting room was filled with students wanting answers. Encouraged by campus interest, they formed the Coalition to Stop The War.
Even though students were becoming more active and aware about politics, Gharavi found that soon after September 11, “the racist underbelly of American society really began to rear its ugly head.”
On September 13, Gharavi wore a hijab in solidarity with Muslim friends. She was spit on by a white male in a car by local radio station KPFA, who held up his middle finger at her. Gharavi had worn a hijab for 10 years while living in the U.S., and in elementary school she had learned that wearing a hijab was both a source of empowerment and something that separated her from people.
“I think now wearing it, especially in solidarity, it's been more positive than negative, and the few people who have created hell for my Muslim friends who wear hijab misrepresent the solidarity and understanding that most people feel,” she said.
There is a new urgency in the Bay Area to educate others about what's going on in the Middle East — as teach-ins and classes about the region have increased. People are talking more about race relations and the U.S. government's role in foreign politics. “I've really never seen anything like it,” Gharavi said.
“It seems like a majority of people are really hungry for an answer, and really hungry to know what the government that says it represents them is really doing and getting itself involved in.”
Before September 11, Gharavi often felt “very small, I felt a sense of exasperation, like the world is coming to an end,” but since then, she sees her personal role in activism and youth movement on a much larger scale. Now rather than focusing just on her campus, she reaches out to the entire Bay Area community.
“I can't say that I had ever been involved in something with such outreach before September 11, it's really now that I really see myself as part of something,” she said. “I see a very visible and unavoidable movement growing where youth and communities of color, immigrants, labor — all these factions will be working together. It's time to reawaken people into actually doing something.”
Taking Peace Back
Thenmozhi Soundararajan grew up in Westminister, Orange County, in a “heavily Republican, middle and working class, suburban, strip-mall, cookie-cutter” neighborhood — a repressive environment where “people were called 'nigger-bitch' to their faces and had tea and shit thrown at their houses.”
Soundararajan's family was one of the few Indian families in her neighborhood, and one of the only Indian families from the Dalit, or Untouchable, caste. Most of the other Indian families were from the Brahman caste, and at 12 years old, when her parents got divorced, Soundararajan experienced harsh cultural backlash.
“At that time, no Indian family got divorced,” the 26-year-old community activist said. She and her mom lost their house and went from living on her father's salary of about $100,000 a year to only $20,000 a year. Her mom “dropped out of Indian culture” for many years because of the shame of being divorced.
Despite economic hardships, Soundararajan's family remained very active in Dalit organizing. She continued the tradition of political organization at U.C. Berkeley, when she joined the affirmative action movement during her sophomore year, in 1995. “I can't even remember going to school because I felt like I was either always organizing, being on the streets, singing, performing and marching,” she said.
In Berkley, Soundararajan finally found a nurturing environment. “There was so much support for political organizing and women of color leaders,” she said. Soon after graduating, Soundarajan combined her work in film with community organization to create “Third World Majority,” a digital storytelling program for young women of color.
“I wasn't just documenting the organizing but the media itself had its own momentum and was a tool not just for white organizers but for communities of color,” she said.
Soundararajan also formed a youth group called “Culture Unity,” made up of about 20 Pakistani and Sikh immigrant youth. “They are very new to everything and for them to negotiate American culture at this point with people calling them 'that Arabian freak,' and being tracked into ESL classes — it's very hard,” she said. “A lot of the people that have been outright racist to them haven't necessarily been white people, but other communities of color, so it's been hard to build that trust.”
The need for youth community support increased after September 11, as racism bubbled to the surface. “It made me feel like we had no allies, because even the people who should have been our allies were not thinking straight under the guise of patriotism,” she said. Culture Unity formed one of the first “safety alliances” in the country, setting up coalitions with other groups of color to form support and safety for South Asian and Arab youth.
Youth movement today is very different than the peace movements dominated by white middle class hippies in the 1960s, Soundararajan said. “Peace movements weren't necessarily connected to the immediate social and economic needs of our communities, I think it always felt like, 'that's a white person thing, that's not our thing,'” she said. “I think that's been the really hard job of the movement this time around — we need to take the notion of peace back and have it link it to the justice that we want.”
The current youth movements in the Bay Area are about a “peace that is structured with a commitment to justice for all communities,” Soundararajan said. “The movement has come to mean that what we want is to see a world in a vision that puts people first.”