Protesters gather at the City College of New York (CCNY) to denounce the US government's immigration and deportation policies. Photo: Reuters
Protesters gather at the City College of New York (CCNY) to denounce the US government's immigration and deportation policies. Photo: Reuters

Shootings in the US that have left two Indians dead and a wider surge in violence against immigrants following the election of Donald Trump as president have spurred Asian American and other groups to organize self-defense and bystander intervention classes in major cities.

The training, which taps the help of local experts, focuses on ways to defuse confrontations in public places in a non-violent manner. It also teaches self-defense techniques that employ a minimum of physical force.

Participating groups include the Asian American Federation, a New York-based nonprofit organization, and Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a grassroots group in Queens, New York, that assists South Asian workers and young people. Muslim women in Chicago and New York are also learning self-defense against attackers who try to rip off their hijabs or traditional headscarves in public places.

Seniors targeted

Joann Yoo, the Asian American Federation’s executive director, says the recent uptick in incidents against Asians and other groups includes verbal harassment and physical assaults in city streets. East Asians, South Asians and Southeast Asians are being targeted alike, she says, adding that some victims are said to be seniors in the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens who don’t speak English and hesitate to report such incidents to the police.

Other specific targets include Muslim Americans and members of the gay community in what many activists say is a disturbing national trend.

“Part of the problem is how do you report these incidents?” says Yoo. “Many immigrants have language proficiency issues or are fearful of reporting these cases. So the challenge is how do you get this information out?”

Mohammad Razvi, the executive director of the Council of People’s Organization, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that serves the South Asian community, reports that 12 serious hate crimes have occurred against Muslims and South Asians in New York since Trump was inaugurated on January 20. “I have a map that tracks the incidents. They include beatings,” he says.

Joo Han, the Asian American Federation’s program and coordination director, says the group held a self-defense/intervention session on March 7 in Manhattan with trainers from the nonprofit Center for Anti-Violence Education.

Han says participants are taught the various means bystanders can employ to de-escalate a situation when they see harassment taking place. “One method is to distract the harasser’s attention by asking unrelated questions such as street directions. Another is to engage in conversation with the victim, or see if other bystanders are willing to help,” Han said.

Class members were also taught to use simple physical moves to break free and flee if they are “grabbed” by a harasser. The moves include using your heel to stomp on the attacker’s foot and using a circular arm motion to break an assailant’s hold. Potential victims are also advised to take note of exits and escape routes in public places.

Jackson Heights, Queens-based DRUM is another activist group offering self-defense classes and bystander intervention training. The South Asian group has also reportedly organized “hate-free zones” in various Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods that seek to hold businesses and local officials accountable for allowing acts of intolerance. DRUM’s classes include teaching participants how to warn neighbors about impending raids by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel.

A January hate-free zone campaign rally sponsored by DRUM in the Kensington section of Brooklyn, which is home to many Bangladeshi and Mexican working-class families, reportedly drew over 500 participants.

Thwarting ‘hijab grabbers’

In Chicago, Zaineb Abdullah, a 24-year-old Iraqi, confirmed in a brief phone call that she has organized self-defense classes for Muslim women who want to defend themselves against “hijab grabbers” who try to rip off their scarves in public places.

Abdullah is vice president of a Chicago nonprofit that empowers the deaf and hard of hearing. She reportedly tapped the help of a local Brazilian jiu jitsu instructor after a spike in local attacks against women in Muslim garb. She also posted videos outlining techniques on YouTube and has received many requests for classes from local community, youth and religious centers.

Kayla Santosuosso, a former deputy director of the Arab-American Association of New York, says hijab grabbing incidents started to occur in the city soon after the election of President Trump and that her group is also sponsoring self-defense classes for its members. “Most of the participants are Muslim women who take our English classes,” she says.

Dr. Prasad Thotakura, the Dallas-based president of the nonprofit Indian American Friendship Council, recently posted an online list of “precautions” to be taken by Indian Americans in the wake of recent shootings. The list of “Do’s and Don’ts in America” includes: carrying your ID at all times, respecting the American flag, avoiding late nights visits to bars and pubs, not wearing gold jewelry in public, and not touching, hugging, kissing or offering food to American kids.

 Shootings of Indians

There have been three attacks on South Asians in the US over the last month. The first occurred on February 22 when two Indian men and a friend were shot in a bar in a Kansas City suburb. The alleged shooter, Adam W. Purinton, a US Navy veteran, has been charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first degree murder. Purinton reportedly yelled “get out of my country” before opening fire.

Harnish Patel, another Indian, was shot and killed outside his home in Lancaster, South Carolina, on March 2, in an attack that investigators have not ruled out as being racially motivated.

A 39-year-old Sikh man was also shot on March 3 by a masked man in his driveway in Kent, Washington after reportedly being told to “go back to your own country.”