Posted on June 17, 2020 at 4:37 am

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Interview with Activist Pallavi Rajan by Anishi Patel

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Freelance journalist Anishi Patel spoke to Pallavi Rajan, a second year at the University of California Irvine, who led a Black Lives Matter protest in Cupertino, California. 

On June 6th, organizers Pallavi Rajan, Purvi Rajan, Amber Lee, and Ian Pitman, in partnership with San Jose State’s Black Honors Society, hosted a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Cupertino, California. 

The predominantly Asian and white-dominated Bay Area city is home to a diversity in thought, especially generational ones amongst immigrant families. I myself have noticed a difference in beliefs in my own home and on community-oriented social media groups, where residents have both come together and argued over the BLM movement and local protests. Though I had not known Pallavi Rajan previously, some of the negative discussion regarding her protest on one such community-oriented social media site, Nextdoor, led me to reach out and talk to her. I felt that her insights as a young, South Asian ally ought to reach a larger audience. 

The following interview with Pallavi Rajan, a second year at the University of California Irvine, has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Photo Credit: Pallavi Rajan

Urban Asian: Tell me about your history of activism.

Pallavi Rajan: I’m hesitant to fully call myself an activist just because I am definitely still learning. I’m really lucky to have been raised in home where we really value things like feminism and equality, so I’ve always been instilled with those ideas. But I’m still pretty new to speaking out about things or organizing things.

I’ve been going to women’s marches for the last several years, or since they really began to take off after the Trump election. I also participated in my high school’s walkout on gun safety after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland. Those have been the big one’s that I’ve openly supported and gone out to, but I think that the best I have been able to do is educate myself and educate those around me. My sister and I are learning how to keep our family more accountable, how to keep each other more accountable.

I know that in a lot of South Asian homes, our parents might hold different beliefs than we do, so sometimes tough conversations need to be had. Is that something that you’ve encountered in your own family dynamic?

My family is myself, my sister who is three years younger than me, and then our parents, our mom and our dad. We’ve been extremely lucky in that our parents are very open-minded, very liberal; they’ve always taught us to value lives and to value justice and equality. But in our extended family, and I think that this is a common experience for a lot of South Asian or general Asian American families, there’s a culture of not talking about things. So many of my aunts and uncles — I love them, I respect them, we’re very close to them, but I have no idea what their opinions are on a lot of social justice issues. 

“There seems to be a culture of not really touching things and not really talking about them, so in the last few years as well as these last couple weeks, we’ve been trying to engage our extended family in more conversations. Mostly, they’ve been very receptive and very caring, but there have been a couple instances where something has rubbed me the wrong way and I’ve reached out to a family member and been able to have a productive conversation about it. I think that is very encouraging, and it gives me a lot of hope for what we can do as first-generation Americans. We can speak to the elders in our families and get these conversations going.

What difficulties did you face during the planning process?

The whole process of organizing this protest was tight, it was very short notice, things were happening all over the country and we wanted to do something in our hometown. We had less than a week to plan it all, and I wish that we’d had more time to really focus and amplify black voices because that’s something I think we missed the mark on a little bit. As allies, it’s our responsibility to amplify their voices, but given the time and resources we had, we weren’t able to be there as a support to them. Instead, it ended up being a protest that we organized, and where we invited black speakers, which was very powerful, but that’s not the goal for allies. Our role should not be to invite them in, it should be to amplify the structure that they’ve already built. 

As much as we were selling this thing as an allies/solidarity movement, this is about Black Lives Matter at the end of the day. I was worried that it would come off in the wrong way, but I hope that we were able to send out the message we intended to: as much as we’re focusing this on our demographic, this isn’t about us. 

There are those who consider the protests in Los Gatos, Saratoga, and Cupertino, or other nearby wealthy suburban towns that are mostly white or Asian in demographic, pointless or even patronizing. How would you respond to these reservations?

As a wealthy community, or also just as a privileged group, we tend to value data and numbers and science over personal experiences, anecdotes, and testimonials. As much as we might be thinking about this in terms of ‘here are the communities with higher black populations, here’s where this theoretically makes the best impact,’ it’s important to remember that we have black people living in our communities as well, no matter how small that percentage might be. We need to be there for the black folks who live in our communities. For anyone who thinks that protests in non-black areas are pointless, we have to remember that there is still anti-blackness to combat and issues that can be untangled. 

How did you make the leap from “hey, we don’t have a protest” to “hey, I should host this thing”? Were you afraid to tie your name to it?

We started off by spreading around a little screenshot that my sister had typed up in her Notes app, saying ‘Protest in front of Cupertino sheriff’s office. June 6th. 4 p.m. Wear masks. Be safe, be peaceful.’ Initially, we were a little afraid to tie our names to it, just because of the climate and the frankly ridiculous way that the police were responding to peaceful protests across the country. We spread this around in the hopes that it would be a natural, organic gathering, but people started asking us questions about the authenticity of the protest. We realized there were a lot of fake protests going around, often spread by white supremacist groups. 

Over the course of a day and a half, we decided that if we wanted to do this, we needed to take charge properly. That’s when we reached out to our other organizers, and from there we were entrenched in it. I personally am happy we did it and put our names out there because that’s what using our privilege means. We are at less risk having our names tied to this than if a black person were to organize this, and in that sense, it was really important for us to be the ones receiving the questions and pushback because we have the privilege to not be fearing for our lives.

Did you work with the Cupertino city police while planning the protest?

Not at all. It was really important for us to not get a permit from the city police, to not work with them at all, because that’s so against everything that we were protesting. It would feel disingenuous to cooperate. I was contacted by them; they asked if there was anything they could do, or if they could block off the roads. I politely declined. 

We were able to say what we needed to say with no antagonism on both sides.

A lot of members in our community on sites like Nextdoor were very vocal about their worry for local businesses and the possibility of looting in response to this protest. What would you say to that?

The negativity on Nextdoor really just proves my point that this protest was so necessary in our community, but I want to separate the misinformation from the negativity. At the end of the day, to the people who were fighting so fiercely against a movement like this, I would say, ‘You need to examine why you’re so incensed about this protest and not the fact that black people are being murdered every day. Have some perspective.’ 

We shouldn’t be telling black people how to protest; that’s not our place. Saying things like, ‘That kind of stuff doesn’t happen here,’ or ‘Don’t bring this into our community,’ well, why isn’t it already here? Why aren’t we already talking about Black Lives Matter? 

Rosa Golchin
Rosa Golchin

Before marching to the sheriff’s office, the Cupertino protestors listened to speeches given by black community members. Tell me about the impact of these speeches.

We were blown away by the speakers — they were so powerful. It was good to hear from them and contextualize why we were there, because there was an air of, “Oh, we haven’t been out since quarantine.” It was helpful to ground people: this was not a block party, it was not a parade. It was the folks who live in and around our community who are telling us about their daily lives and we needed to sit and listen. 

We had a pair of brothers who went to high school with me giving speeches, and one of my friends’ aunts, who is a mom of two black boys and has spoken at many protests. Her words were very powerful. There was a 14-year-old girl who was just so hopeless and so sad about the state of the world, and that was heartbreaking. She really didn’t see any solution; she had just kind of accepted that this was her life and her place in the world. As allies, the movement has no place for our hopelessness, but to see it from a young black girl was heartbreaking.

Now that the protest is over, do you have any final reflections or thoughts you’d like to share?

We were not expecting that many people. We planned for 300, maybe. Instead, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 showed up. It was very powerful to see the community come out. I wasn’t expecting this of Cupertino. I think that this is a very, very tiny first step in a long, long journey, and we need to keep this momentum going. We need to keep having these conversations. We all have a sphere of influence and a set of friends and family that value our words. If each of us can extend this awareness and commitment to being good allies, it can spread far. It’s up to each of us individually to call out family members, have those tough conversations, donate, sign petitions, and be active allies. We can’t just let this die down in a couple of weeks.

I don’t know if I or any of my fellow organizers have plans of organizing another big event like this, but I’m open to it. But at this point, I think it’s up to each individual person to carry the movement forward.

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