November 28, 2018December 2, 2018 5min readBy Marina Ali
During the spring of 2018, Amol Jethwani burst into his local political scene. He was a third-year political science major at the University of Florida and a contender for the 21st district Florida House of Representatives seat. Jethwani ran against fellow Democrat and incumbent Jason Haeseler during the primary elections. His main goal was to win the Democratic ticket so that he could be on the ballot for his district’s November midterms, where he would face off against Republican Chuck Clemons.
Before the August primaries, Jethwani had never run for public office, and what was even more daunting for the young candidate was the fact that there had never been a person of South Asian descent elected to the Florida state legislature – as if running a campaign wasn’t hard enough. He also had the arduous task of fundraising while keeping up with school, his mental health, and other extracurricular activities.
For years, conservative figures like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley have been the most prominent desi figures in American politics. However, people like Raja Krishnamoorthi, Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna are shifting the face of South Asian American governance into a more liberal story. When Jethwani spoke to Brown Girl Magazine during his campaign, he was well aware of the herculean task before him.
“I want to challenge the traditional views of what a politician should be,” he said. “Our campaign is changing the face of Florida politics by engaging in grassroots organizing in a style which is unique to millennial run campaigns.”
Liberalism with a Progressive Twist
In April, Jethwani discussed the 21st district’s economy, women’s and minority rights, his upbringing in conservative Ocala, and his opinions on desis in politics – but what was surprising was his stance on gun control. While his opponent, Haeseler, aimed for more general gun regulations, Jethwani wanted an all-out ban on assault weapons.
“Common sense gun legislation, in my opinion, is a series of legislation aimed at creating a broad scale approach to dismantle the range of issues that are under the umbrella of gun violence,” Jethwani said. “I support an assault weapons ban which will be a preemptive measure to decrease the incidences of mass shootings and their death tolls. I support closing existing loopholes, such as the gun show loophole. I support the establishment of a domestic violence registry and introducing legislation preventing those with previous domestic violence charges from purchasing a firearm due to the high correlation between perpetrators of gun violence and domestic violence.
Additionally, I support the introduction of ERPO’s, extreme risk protection orders, that allow courts to seize the firearms of an individual considered to be a threat to themselves or others by a judge and community members involved in the individual’s life,” he added.
Another big-ticket item on Jethwani’s platform was his take on prison reform, especially since a women’s prison in his hometown was under fire for widespread sexual misconduct.
“We need to take a different approach to our prison system and focus more on rehabilitation of members of our society who end up in prison,” he said on the topic.
“The stories of abuse and neglect that come from Lowell [Correctional Institution] are horrific and I think we as a state can do better. There is a dire need for prison reform in America.“
Additionally, Jethwani, who is openly queer, discussed workplace protections for the LGBT+ community and said that it was “our time” as South Asians to get involved in politics. He harkened his immigrant background when he spoke about his political future.
“If elected, I would be the first Indian-American in the Florida legislature. As a result of my backgrounds, I have always been in the minority in any given room I would walk into, especially growing up in Ocala,” he said. “However, it is the unique nature of the perspective I have in approaching these rooms, these people, and these problems which are plaguing Floridians, come as a result of the intersections of my identity and my experiences. Being the first desi in the Florida legislature is a great privilege. I look forward to spending my future career nurturing and developing a Florida Democratic Party Desi Caucus.”
From the outside, it looked like Jethwani’s trajectory was blazing upward. However, he was not well prepared for the emotional and financial burden of running a serious campaign.
“I didn’t own a proper suit until the day of the primary when I purchased one—a legal campaign expense. But, if I had the money on hand, I would have personally purchased [one]. People have said, ‘you could have asked your parents for the money.’ Knowing my parents, they would have,” he said. “But my internal conflict was that they already poured what they could into the campaign. I didn’t want to burden them anymore… The same goes for expenditures such as campaign travel, campaign meals, aswell as purchasing food at meetings with key Democrats, organizers and potentialconsultants, or expensing campaign transportation while at [political] conventions in Washington D.C., Tallahassee and Miami.”
All of this came to a head on Aug. 27, the day before the 21st district Democratic primary election. A Florida news outlet reported strange expenses coming from Jethwani’s campaign. The article cast serious doubts on his transparency. His own campaign staff felt that many of the charges, including an $81 trip to Zara, $100 bill to Superior Towing and an $84 bar tab from a hotel, were frivolous and careless.
With the public relations drama that was unfolding just hours before the polls closed, Jethwani resigned as president of the UF College Democrats (UFCD). He later stated that he stepped down “to protect UFCD from media scrutiny,” and that he was going to pay back his campaign. Even with the intense stress of everything that was happening, he continued his final push to get last minute voters on board.
On Aug. 28 the final tallies came in, Jethwani received only 41.6 percent of the votes and lost the primary. While many candidates may see their concessions speeches as the most dismal point in their political life, Jethwani’s was anything but – he gave his support to Haeseler, aimed to continue campaigning for other candidates in Florida, and ended with “I’m making sure that we flip Florida blue now, because, in 2020, we have to flip America back blue.”
Where is he Now?
Though his run for office was unsuccessful, Jethwani still remains active in politics.
“For now, I am finishing up the 2018 cycle working as an organizer for Nikki Fried, a candidate who believed in me and who I believe can win,” he said. “I am excited and eager to continue fighting for progressive change, supporting the now Democratic nominee attempting to unseat Chuck Clemons, working as a member of the Alachua County Democratic Party to get Democrats up and down the ticket elected, and of course, spreading the word and getting out the vote for Florida’s next commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, Nikki Fried.”
Jethwani also sent Brown Girl Magazine a full statement on his campaign and you can read it here. He reflects on how could’ve campaigned better, opened up about his struggles with mental health and sexual assault, told the story of coming out to his parents in the 9th grade, and even shared how he dealt with the tragic death of a close friend, who passed away just days after he began campaigning. We definitely suggest that you read his perspective on running for office as a college student.
For those of you who aspire to campaign for your local seats, here’s what Jethwani has to say:
“Now is our time, get out there, build a team of people that you can rely on. Hit the pavement hard to knock on doors and talk to voters.”
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular
We write this letter in a time of deep, continued emergency — an open letter to our community, fellowdominant-caste Indian Americans of Hindu descent. As we speak, there is a genocide happening on the ground in Gaza, Palestine. More than825 bloodlines have been wiped from the family registry, more than50% of homes have been flattened, the death toll is more than 11,500 (and rising) in the last month alone and a child is killed every 10 minutes. It is much too late, and yet the most urgent and precisely right moment to have this conversation.
It is the moment to respond with the utmost urgency because we are witnessing a genocide, what Gazans are terming a “second Nakba.” As popular movements have told us, “Mourn those who have passed and fight like hell for the living.”
We write this to our community as two Brahmin people of Hindu descent and as community organizers working in South Asian movements and movements in solidarity with Palestine. We mention nationality, caste, and faith positionality, here because we believe these identities task us with specific responsibilities to speak up at this moment. We write to you hoping that addressing our community directly will encourage more of us to not only speak out, but show up in civil disobedience and direct action in solidarity with Palestinian people. We are also guided by the fundamental belief that it is the responsibility of those of us who have privileged identities in this moment to have this conversation with each other, while following the lead of Palestinian, Kashmiri, Indian Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, and other marginalized organizers.
So — if you are a seasoned supporter of the movement in solidarity with Palestine (of whom there are many in our community), if you have been marching, speaking up, screaming at the rooftops for Gaza — we are grateful and inspired by you. More power to you; we see you, we are with you. If you are new to this conversation, we invite you and we say, there is still time to make a difference. We need you. If you are confused, questioning, or afraid, we ask that you take a few minutes of your time to read further.
Over the past few weeks, many of us — led by Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Kashmiri, working-class, Indo-Caribbean, and anti-Zionist Jewish organizations — have risen up inprincipled protest. We have marched in D.C., signed petitions, called our representatives, and spoken up in our social circles. Yet, some of us have remained silent. Though there have been many new outpourings of support, a culture of silence or neutrality still seems to be apparent amongst large sections of our community. We are especially thinking here of notable public figures such as celebrities, who capitalize off of “representation” politics and have previously spoken about anti-racism and superficial “decoloniality,” but have not raised their voices for Palestine. While some South Asian celebrities have chosen to celebrate Diwali at the White House, we commend the principled stance of others who have opted to boycott presidential celebrations in this moment of state-sponsored genocide instead. As a community, our analysis of white supremacy, privilege, and colonization cannot stop at “chai tea is tea-tea.” This is the trend we seek to interrupt, gently but firmly, in this writing. For those who have spoken out tentatively or fearfully, we hope we can embolden each other to unapologetically show up for Palestine, and empower each other to risk with our words and actions, what we hold dear, both ideologically and materially, in the name of justice.
We do want to note that there is a very real — and credible — silencing of those who speak out in favor of Palestine.Students have been doxxed and threatened with expulsion andretracted job offers. Othershave been terminated from employment for simply speaking out in support of a ceasefire and of Palestinian life. There are entire institutions that exist solely to target people — especially Black, Indigenous, racialized, Muslim, and/or queer people — who speak out against Israel. The United States also has a dangerous Cold-War era history ofMcCarthyism, in which alleged communists were extensively targeted by the government leading to job losses, social ostracization, and other consequences. The fear is real.
Even between the two of us, we have faced regular doxxing and harassment. But this swift and unrelenting censorship of so many voices shows us that the tide is turning, and institutions deeply invested in genocidal violence and suppression of truth know that they are losing. They seek to wield fear — the last tool they have — to silence us. Though they can target one voice, they cannot target us all. The masses of people worldwide — across race, nationality, religion, etc. — are rising up in protest to demand a ceasefire.
There have been many individuals who have justified their silence by a claim that as neither Muslims nor Jews, we must “remain neutral.” Morally, this argument overlooks the fact that we do not need to be directly impacted to call a spade a spade, and a genocide, a genocide. More specifically, as Indian Americans with caste privilege and of Hindu descent, we cannot be neutral, precisely because our existence is inherently not neutral; our heritage intertwines us with the violence of occupation.
We understand that much of this information may be difficult to grapple with or ask us to question fundamental beliefs we have held or been taught for much of our lives. Being people of conviction means not looking away from difficult truths, whether they are happening in Palestine or in Kashmir. The entire history of this partnership and its origins are beyond the scope of this article, but we have linked resources below directly from Kashmiri scholars and activists that we encourage our community to learn more.
By asking these difficult questions, we see that as Indian Americans of Hindu descent, we are not neutral because of the violence done in our name. Thus, we call on our community to use this moment as an invitation to direct action — for all liberation movements around the globe. No business as usual at a time of genocide. In line with the calls being put forth by Palestinian organizers, sit-ins, blockades, and strikes are the call of the hour. Brave activists have been rising to this call — as we saw in theBlock The Boat Action at the Port of Oakland; the mass sit-ins of Jewish protesters atGrand Central Station andCongress; and theshutdown of Elbit Systems’ office in Boston.
There is a powerful history of direct actions and civil disobedience in South Asian movement histories. Most recently, it has been used by courageoustransgender activists fighting for Horizontal Reservations in states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu;farmers and laborers in Punjab demanding a repeal of oppressive laws; and now,pro-Palestine crowds flooding the streets of major cities across India. We lean on this history and say, it is time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. Until a complete ceasefire is achieved; until the unlawful Israeli occupation and US aid to it ends; until Palestinians can live with dignity and freedom. We say “Free Palestine” with our full chest.
Here are some of the many ways to show up in direct action for Palestine:
DIVEST:Workers in Palestine have released this incredibly useful guide for tracing institutional ties to Zionism and organizing for divestment as a strategy. Agitate to end these complicities in your sphere of influence.
Even in the face of fear, we are reminded of the dire need to keep pushing against repression, in line with the unrelenting courage of the Palestinian people. Whether we look like the oppressed or the oppressors, let us stand on the right side of history to stop an ongoing genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.
Now is the time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. We say: Free Palestine, Free Kashmir. Ceasefire Now. End the occupations. Join us!
This article has been written by Meghana N. and Nikhil Dharmaraj.
Meghana (she/her) is a Telugu community organizer and researcher from the deep South. Her work lies at the intersection of trauma-informed healing and movement-building. Meghana has worked in progressive South Asian organizing for the past decade, and her past writing has integrated research and movement work for various audiences.
Nikhil Dharmaraj is an emerging graduate researcher, creative, and aspiring accomplice/organizer. Nikhil’s work explores the intersection of technology and power, particularly along the lines of race, caste, gender, class, and national identity.