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BLM Organizer At My School Was Targeted By A Gun Dealer: A Next-Gen Desi Reflection

(Featured Image: Denel McMahan speaking with ABC News)

Weeks before a youth-led Black Lives Matter protest that took place outside the Dublin Civic Center, owner of local gun business Mike Grant posted a picture of the 17-year old organizer, Denel McMahan, on his Facebook page. The caption read, “Please bring your vests and helmets in case these BLM people start trouble. Remember this group is known as a left-wing anti-government group. Take Dublin back!”

Within days, the veiled threat garnered a swift and strong backlash from the Dublin community and beyond. From city residents to Congressman Eric Swalwell, people came together to defend “these BLM people” and the cause they champion. 

When I first learned about the situation, I was curious to know who “these BLM people” were, and how Grant’s social media targeting has affected them in this increasingly polarized climate. I had a chat with high school senior, Denel McMahan, president of Dublin High’s Black Student Union, member of the Tri-Valley Black Lives Matter movement, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award at the City of Pleasanton’s annual Community of Character Collaborative. Denel was inspired by the string of protests that captured the heart of America this past summer and wanted to bring peaceful advocacy to his city.  

Denel McMahan’s Thoughts

1) You’re a staunch supporter of racial equality and a member of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Gen Z activist, how do you think social media and the Internet Age have affected both racism and social advocacy? 

I think that social media has been a great resource throughout this period of COVID-19 and quarantine. The thing that I love about it is that social media has no boundary when it comes to education. People are free to post about whatever in its true form. This includes history. In school, history is heavily censored and manipulated in order to make students comfortable. However, to make real change we need to stop desiring comfortability. We learn about history to avoid repeating it, but we are right now due to sheltering students from traumatic concepts. The same goes for the internet too. I’ve learned more Black history myself through Google than I have in my 11 and a half years of schooling. My parents are also a great resource, but not everyone has parents who understand Black history in its entirety or are Black in general. So, if you want to learn more about truthful history, I recommend looking through Social Media and researching through Google. 

2) At school, you’re the president of the Black Student Union. How has this experience shaped your journey of raising awareness and initiating change in your community as a whole?

My presidency has allowed me to earn a platform that is being taken seriously by our administration. For 3 years, I sat and watched the past presidents and how they ran the BSU. Through that, I began to shape my leading style and figured out what I wanted to do with my position. With it, I wanted to do the best I could. I not only wanted to improve our BSU and increase its presence on campus, but I wanted to make sure that we were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement efforts in Dublin. A protest was held in Dublin and there was so much support. Eventually, the other BSU officers and I drafted plans for school change, and our admin engaged heavily with us and is even making more opportunities for us to help the community out more.  

3) Post the election, we find ourselves at the precipice of extraordinary political change. What legislative changes do you hope our new administration will bring to address racism, criminal justice, and police brutality?

I just hope that there’s some sense of accountability that comes with a new president. Of course, the President doesn’t have all the power in the federal government, but I feel that at least when incidents of brutality happen, we will have his support. The other big thing that I would want to see is national reparations. Those have been promised to Black Americans since the end of Slavery, but they haven’t been done. They are currently planning a reparations task force in California, so that would be interesting to see what they try to implement. However, they need to be done at the national level since slavery was pretty much a national thing before it ended. 

4) If you’re comfortable speaking about this, what was the experience of seeing Mr. Grant’s Facebook post like? Was this kind of backlash something you’ve experienced in the past?

It was very worrying for me. When I saw the post, I was in Las Vegas for my sister’s 21st birthday. When I got word of the post, I was physically shaking. My face had been posted in a public, alt-right Facebook group for many conservatives to see. I saw that it had 29 shares, so that was 30 people who saw me as some thug trying to destroy Dublin, which in no case I was. The event was passed unanimously and was city-sponsored. A huge part of my nervousness was also because this was the first time I received public backlash. I knew I would eventually get some, but never that quick and never by a grown man. 

5) In a conversation with ABC News, you mentioned that you’re willing to have a conversation with Mr. Grant. Do you feel like conversations like this are possible at a larger scale, where protestors and counter-protestors can reach a middle ground in constructive, innocuous ways?

Honestly, I believe that the political climate has destroyed any possibility of large-scale, constructive conversations. I think the best way to have them is in private so that all you need to do is to listen. A simple one-on-one conversation to get to a middle ground is the most effective way to do so. However, I hope that one day, groups of people from different beliefs can come together and conversate without it becoming ineffective or violent. 

6) What advice do you have for other young people who want to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement?

My advice is to be vocal. In this time, silence also means compliance. Take the time to understand it and bring it close to you. Even in this time of COVID, there are social media platforms. Making and sharing posts are still great ways to advocate for the movement. If you find yourself wanting to protest, don’t be scared. The supporters will always outweigh the opposition. 

The Sign Garden For Justice Project was organized by Tri-Valley Black Lives Matter (Photo: Denel McMahan)

My Thoughts

These are wise words, especially coming from an individual who helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest on November 15th. The demonstration was both peaceful and successful, with Denel and his peers giving speeches about racism, their participation in the Black Student Union, and the harsh realities of police brutality in America. In a creative display of solidarity, this protest featured a ‘Sign Garden’, where signs and posters supporting the Black Lives Matter were placed everywhere from City Hall to the Civic Plaza. These signs were both positive and united, some of them including messages like, “Fear and hate have no place here” and “Color is not a crime”. 

Personally, I’m both relieved and overjoyed that this demonstration, despite the initial conflict, remained peaceful and constructive. It was interesting to see this single cause bring together different generations, ethnicities, and cities to reflect on racial justice. But I can’t help but harken back to Denel’s comment about initiating a conversation with Grant. What does the exchange between these two political antipodes suggest about the future of race relations in America? 

In a flash of optimism, I’d like to believe that recorded displays of police brutality, such as the tragic murder of George Floyd, will bring different ends of the socio-political spectrum together. As said by Will Smith, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting recorded.” Before videos of racism had the opportunity to go viral on social media and mainstream news outlets, it was far easier for American citizens to exist within an ideological bubble, where systemic oppression did not exist. That’s much harder to do when they’re being confronted by a live video of police brutality and racial profiling at its worst. 

Furthermore, I do think that the coronavirus outbreak may offer a moment for the public to self-reflect, and consider how racial and socio-economic privilege has ravaged the very ideals we consider the ‘soul’ of America. After the strong online response to his incendiary post, Grant discussed how he became ‘educated’ about what it means to be a person of color in the United States in a phone interview with ABC

“I never thought a 17-year old-boy could teach a 65-year-old man something, but he did,” said Grant. “For the last four-and-a-half days I’ve lived it. Just with phone calls, and texts, and hate mail and stuff. Now I think I understand why this young man is doing this, to try to educate people.” 

The First Amendment of the American Constitution offers each one of us a voice, but these voices are muffled or confined in echo chambers due to political polarization. And personally, I can attest to subscribing to certain echo chambers myself. My social media feed is primarily consumed by individuals who shared the same political views that I do. My choices in mainstream media are a reflection of my opinions as well.

As an Indian-American, I think my identity as an immigrant has definitely been splintered along the lines of these echo chambers as well. During the 2020 election, for example, I found myself isolating myself from certain subsets of the Indian-American population who identified as Trump supporters. Amid the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen so many Indian-Americans distance themselves from conversations about racial equality because they don’t learn (and perhaps don’t want to learn) about racial hierarchies and the myth that is America’s “Model Minority”. As immigrants, the echo chambers of this nation have only made our ignorance of the issues that plague our communities more convenient. 

And while these tendencies may be very normal on both ends of the spectrum in our heated political climate, they also contribute to ideological myopia. Men like Mike Grant have no idea what it’s like to be a young black man, constantly targeted and unjustly policed. They read and watch media which feeds them highly distorted narratives on race in this country, and it shows.

Prior to this incident, I can’t help but wonder if Grant has ever had a constructive, honest conversation with a supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Could this gap be bridged? Perhaps the path to an educated America — an America willing to recognize its racism for what it is — requires a space where these conversations can take place.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. Kanchan is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, and was the Global Student Editor for the summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 

Sunny Jain’s Quarantet Inspired By Punjabi History

Performing artists have been hard hit during the pandemic. With nowhere to go and no space to perform at, Sunny Jain, Red Baraat‘s founder, drummer, and composer has turned to the social distanced visual medium for expression. He began the Quarantet series engaging with different emotions and movements occurring in our current timeline.

His second video in the series, Heroes, was released on Breonna Taylor’s birthday and addressed the Black Lives Movement. Fusing his music with a moment, singer John Pfumojena bellows in the language, Shona, “There are rebels and mighty people out there.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgqD7DEE6Fs&ab_channel=SUNNYJAIN%2FREDBARAAT

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of LBGTQ anti-discrimination legislation, Sunny Jain, Brinda Guha, Rajna Swaminathan, Chris Eddleton, and Harris Ansari came together to create the video, Rhythm and Pride – an expression of joy in a dismal time.

August 14th-15th marked the anniversary of the partition and independence of India and Pakistan. The state of Punjab was split up by the British upon exiting the subcontinent. This caused the largest mass migration in world history, something Jain’s parents went through themselves.

Sunny comments, “Punjabi people and really the entire subcontinent have so much shared culture that’s often pushed aside for political and/or religious reasons. It’s a shame, but I’m thankful the many people I know of the South Asian diaspora feel more as one, than not.”

Rhodes to Punjab was released in celebration of the ancestors, people, and culture of Punjab on the 73rd anniversary of India and Pakistan’s independence. Raaginder‘s violin croons as images of Punjab in 1947 splash across the screen and we are transported to another time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0IH3MrdXKY&ab_channel=SUNNYJAIN%2FREDBARAAT

In his most recent video, Family, Jain’s young twin daughters sing Hai Apna Dil To Awara from the 1958 Bollywood film, Solva Saal. He remembers his father jamming out to it when he was a child.

“My twins heard it for the first time last year as I was working on my Wild Wild East album. They fell in love with Ganavya’s voice, who recorded a version of it. Family, chosen and/or blood, is everything, and maybe some of us are lucky enough to have people that are with us through the many phases of life. We hope you all are finding love and support with your family during these times,” Jain notes.

Music has the ability to unify, evoke, support and Sunny Jain capitalized on that. The Quarantet series is innovative and finds ways to connect with diverse voices, giving sounds to emotions felt during the pandemic. Find the entire series here!


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Anti-Blackness in a Brown World

The phone rang. It was my daughter. “I can’t talk now, I’m rushing out to join a South Asians for BLM march,” I said hurriedly heading towards the front door. Immediately she asked me, “Are there going to be black people there?” “I don’t know – I think there are only south Asians,” I replied.

It had been two weeks since George Floyd’s death. I sensed her unease and was surprised. Why wasn’t she happy that I was speaking up? “I don’t know if this is a good thing, ma. Do you even understand the problems faced by black people?” she said. My daughter’s parting comment haunted me as I marched along with others near Boston city hall later that day. As a south Asian mother, the last year has been hard in recognizing the rampant anti-blackness and casteism within my community. Harder still is admitting my own silent acquiescence. 

When I talked to other family and friends, their responses were often defensive. “We came to this country with nothing and worked our way up,” said a cousin who is now a venture capitalist. What he actually meant was “I worked hard to be here, and I deserve it. If other people worked hard or harder, they’d get what they’d want.”

I realize now that my own responses to my daughters when they first began questioning me was no different from my cousin’s. Like other middle-class immigrants from India, I’d internalized the belief that America is a meritocracy where anything is attainable if you’re prepared to work hard for it. If I was aware of the racism that black people faced it was only in the most abstract sense. 

This meant when my children were young and still at home, I never spoke of racism and certainly of anti-blackness. Worse yet, like many in the south Asian community, I was fearful of anyone black. This despite having heard numerous stories from my husband of being racially profiled. Like me, he too had been born and brought up in South India and had come to this country as a graduate student.

“I was stopped when I got out of the flight,” is how he’d start the tale usually to a rapt audience at a party. He made his racial profiling experiences, fodder for post-dinner entertainment at parties. Once when he was finishing his spiel, I caught myself saying, “Oh my husband has a doctorate from Berkeley!” Both my daughters, now young adults, laugh like hyenas when they hear this story. “Ma, how can you be so desperate to join the model minority bandwagon?” When I vehemently protest, they ask me, How many black friends do you have?”

The week following Floyd’s death, as my daughters began conversations about waking up to the reality of racial identity, my bubble burst. “We’re the white people in India,” my daughters said. I realized how easy I’d had it till now. In India, I was born into privilege, by caste and class and of course was blissfully unaware and therefore never had to acknowledge it.  

In the US, I belong to the “model minority myth” where we continue to believe and propagate the ‘hard-working immigrants make good’ tropes. This does not allow for any failures or deviation from the straight and narrow. If there are academic failures, mental health issues, job loss, or queerness we tend to sweep these out of sight as anomalies. They are not to be acknowledged when they happen in our families and grist for the gossip mill when they do in someone else’s family. Social media too reinforces this overachieving minority myth.

Hearing the stories of the black community makes my own travails as a brown person seem silly. Even as I began to speak up, I realized there was so much more I had to educate myself about. My growth arc had taken a long time, something that I’d like to see shortened for others. As South Asians, we need to ask ourselves the following questions. Are we having conversations about anti-blackness within our families? Are we listening to our children and other young people when they point out that personal discomfort is a small price to pay for social change? 

Recently I watched a video put out by Northeastern University. In it, for eight minutes forty-six seconds—the time George Floyd was gasping for life as he was held down by a white cop—over a black screen the names of the black lives lost to police brutality appeared.

And what about the many others who have survived the trauma of police brutality like Jacob Blake?

Like many others, I learned that those eight minutes and forty-six seconds is a very long time and we cannot be quiet for even another minute.

As comedian and television host Haasan Minhaj pointed out in his show, South Asians cannot stay silent. It’s time to not just be good listeners but also changemakers as we shout out, “Black lives do matter.” We can begin by asking ourselves “How many black people do I really know?” and follow it up with “Why or why not?”


Chitra Srikrishna is a writer and musician living in Boston

I Went to Take Photos, I Left Empowered

It is a disheartening reality we live in where people won’t attend protests in their community due to misinformation. The reporting and headlines have highlighted the few instances of violence, instances that may have nothing to do with the protest itself. I was also very hesitant about going to the protests in my community. I saw news channels, YouTube videos, and articles all over the internet explaining how violent these protests are.

I wanted to take photos, so against my better judgment, I attended my first protest. Quickly I realized that protests can be very peaceful and that a majority of them are.

At the protest, I was astonished to see so many members of my community come together in solidarity to fight racial injustices in our nation. I had expected to see students, young adults, and the black people in my community show up to the protest, but to my surprise, I saw Indians and Asians in my community show up as allies as well. I have never seen these many Indians and Asians in my community actively speak out about the racial injustices within the black community. It was really empowering to see older members of my community come together in solidarity. 

My photo journey began as we marched around the city. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to capture. I took shots of people marching peacefully around our community and different protest signs.

Image taken by Ashwin Desai

One picture stood out to me as I went through my camera roll. It was of a speaker, carrying an Indian flag and advocating for Indians to help their black brothers and sisters. 

The theme of Indian allyship continued.

One speaker was a middle-aged, first-generation Indian man who helped black men and women out of the judicial system in Oakland. He talked about how the Indian community needs to be there for their black brothers and sisters because, without them, many immigrants wouldn’t be here today.

The Immigration Act of 1965, the law that allowed many of our own parents to come to the United States, was made possible because of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without black people fighting for their rights in the Civil Rights Movement, there would be no Asian-Americans in the United States.

He then spoke about the model minority myth. The model minority myth is the notion that since Asian-Americans are doing well in the United States, all minorities should be able to achieve the same level of success, perpetuating that racism does not exist. But as the name states, this is just a myth.

He concluded by talking about the biases within the Indian community. There is a stigma within the Indian community about dark-colored skin. Since the time that India was occupied by the British, Indians have continued to adopt the same beauty standards as the British, i.e lighter skin is more beautiful. Indians actively oppress and chastise those with darker skin. The problem still persists as many celebrities endorse skin bleaching products. This innate bias towards people with lighter complexions has caused a divide between Indians and black people, keeping Indians at an arm’s distance from black people – never allowing us to truly understand them or their struggles. 

At the end of his speech, he told us to self-reflect. He asked us, “What can you personally do, with what you have, to make a difference? What type of member do you want to be in this community?”

In this process of self-reflection, I knew that I couldn’t just attend this one protest to fight racial injustice. At that moment, I finally had a purpose for my photos. I can spread awareness about racial injustices by using my current photography platform, Desai Photography, and use it to show others how peaceful protests are and capture the Indian-Americans in my community who are doing their part in supporting the cause.

I will try to influence others that think protesting is inherently dangerous and change their minds, and I want to inspire other Indian-Americans in my community to be allies. I want to make a change and I can start by using my photography as a means to do so.

This is just the beginning…

Ashwin Desai is currently a Junior at Monta Vista High School. He has a passion for photography and business.  He also operates as a pro-bono marketing consultant for businesses suffering from COVID and is the marketing lead for a climate change newspaper called theincentive.