By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
In response to the mosque shootings in New Zealand, Vigilant Love hosted a vigil and healing space in the JACCC Plaza on March 22.
An Australian gunman, described in media reports as a white supremacist, killed 50 people and wounded 50 more at two mosques in Christchurch. It is the deadliest mass shooting in modern New Zealand history.
As attendees held candles and braced themselves against the cold weather, Vigilant Love Co-chair traci ishigo led them in a breathing/relaxation exercise. “Grief and loss is far too heavy to hold on one’s own,” she said. “Whatever drew you here, we invite you to notice and sense the presence of each and every one of us who are gathering here tonight …
“We’ll enter into a moment of silence honoring the lives of the 50 Muslims, black and brown folks who lost their lives last Friday … We honor and remember them as we stand here together tonight, as we move forward in our own paths and our own ways of struggling for justice and safety for our different communities.”
Walter “Greywolf” Ruiz of American Indian Movement So Cal said in his prayer, “Thank you for bringing us together to speak out on this outrageous thing that has happened and all the rest of the outrageous things. We will continue to fight and we’ll continue to to stand up, speak out, and most of all become united. That’s what we need to do.”
Daren Mooko, interim president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, said, “I welcome you as fellow Angelenos from all parts of all neighborhoods. I welcome you to the JACCC as fellow Southern Californians, people from all over, and I’m glad you’re here tonight and I want to say thank you for coming … I welcome you with open arms and open heart.
“Many of us are feeling pain, feeling grief and even rage, and might not know exactly what to do with all of that … I welcome you as a community of people who feel like we gather like this far too often, either here at our plaza, at LAX, City Hall or at the border … We have been targeted throughout our collective history and this community strives to be the community that we wanted and that we needed when we were being rounded and sent to concentration camps …
“I wholeheartedly and with the deepest part of my soul. I welcome my Muslim brothers and sisters and siblings of all genders …. On behalf of the JACCC, I want to tell you that here, this is home.”
Sahar Pirzada, co-chair of Vigilant Love, gave a brief background of the organization. “We are a grassroots organization challenging Islamophobia through arts, healing and activism, and we’re a team of social workers, lawyers, artists, retired teachers, activists. We are Muslim, queer, Buddhist trans, Jewish and multigenerational … We’re all in Vigilant Love together because we know that radical relationships are the social change strategy needed to fight Islamophobia.
“Our relationships.really began to blossom back in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks. Members of the Japanese American community reached out to folks in the Muslim community and held a solidarity vigil right here in Little Tokyo, and over 300 people showed up. After that, the communities made it a point to get to know one another …
“One [way] is that they would meet in the month of Ramadan, which is just around the corner, and they would break fast together and get to know about the practices of each other’s communities. They also started caravaning together out to Manzanar … and they also started youth programs for Muslim American and Japanese American youth to learn about each other and organize together.
“Vigilant Love as an organization didn’t emerge until December, 2015 when the San Bernardino attacks happened and this time we maintained the momentum … by organizing together against Islamophobic policies … that are used to profile, surveil, police, incarcerate, ban and kill our people.”
The massacre in New Zealand hit home, Pirzada said, because she grew up going to mosques. “That’s where I went to my full-time school from second to eighth grade. That’s where I made my Friday prayers and congregation with my community. It’s where I made my first friends, it’s where I got married, it’s where I mourn family members’ deaths, and it’s where I knew I could go to feel safe being a Muslim.”
Having visited mosques in different countries, she is “thinking about the lives that were lost and how they were trying to seek refuge in a time and a day when Islamophobia is rampant. So many of them were also refugees and immigrant backgrounds escaping violence from their own homelands … Muslims right now are being persecuted in so many different ways … Think about China and how being Muslim is considered a mental illness and people are being put an incarceration camps there.
“But on Fridays, Muslims get together … It’s a mandatory appointment with God. It prescribes prayer for Muslims to meet with their lord and be in community with each other. And this white supremacist murderer in New Zealand knew that, he knew that this was a sacred time on Friday afternoons where he could find Muslims in their most vulnerable state … I want us to remember this, that this was no random act of violence.
“This was a premeditated attack that was targeting Muslims and this is also not an isolated event. There’s an entire Islamophobia industry that is funding the narrative that Muslims are a threat to our societies and that we are an ‘other’ and that we are to be feared.
“I remember when I first heard about the attack, I don’t remember feeling, I was just numb. I was numb for a while and I also wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t surprised. I was almost expecting an attack and a tragedy to happen because we were due for another one.”
Pirzada said she was looking forward to the vigil, “to be with my people and to be able to be raw in my emotion and not have to filter … I just want to express my sincere gratitude to you all for coming and for holding this space for so many of us who have to live day to day and not speaking and not be acknowledged.”
Muslim and queer actor and artivist Fawzia Mirza discussed the difficulty of coming out to her family and said, “I know tonight our community is gathering because of a tragedy [but] we must remember the beauty in gathering, the peace and power in gathering … I think that was the first time I breathed today, to be honest … I have not always felt safe speaking out like this proclaiming my queerness, but I feel safe today because this is clearly a community where we gather to celebrate and support each other … whether that means being queer or trans or gender nonconforming … or black or brown or Asian or Muslim or ally.”
Poet and Solidarity Arts fellow Samar Saif read a poem that she wrote as a way to process her feelings about the massacre, recalling her own experiences growing up Muslim.
Regarding what action can be taken, Pirzada urged attendees to be vigilant about programs that could victimize Muslim Americans. “In response to the attack that just happened and many others like it, governments around the world will be pumping funding and resources into counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization programs. These programs, they’ll claim, will help law enforcement monitor and prevent acts of violence from occurring. And although they say that they don’t discriminate on the basis of race or religion, we know that the target globally has been historically black and brown communities, including Muslims.”
She expressed concern about the federal Countering Violent Extremism program, which she called “racist and Islamophobic,” being implemented in Los Angeles. “We were actually able to stop the mayor from taking that funding. It was a coalition of folks, multiple organizations, working day in and day out to let folks know that … we don’t want these programs in our city. They do not make us safer.”
Vigilant Love’s traci kato-kiriyama asked attendees to pair up with someone they didn’t know and discuss what brought them to the event, ensuring that everyone left having made a new friend or acquaintance.
Throughout the program, volunteers held up a banner that has been used at various events for the past few years to express solidarity between Japanese Americans and Muslim Americans. Attendees were invited to sign up for the next Manzanar Pilgrimage, to be held on April 27, as well as a Ramadan event in Little Tokyo in May.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo