“Let My Building Burn”

Restaurateur Ruhel Islam is one of several South Asian Americans demonstrating a new kind of allyship with Black Lives Matter — one that is more vocal, forceful, and humble.

Krithika Varagur

June 30, 2020

“Let My Building Burn”
Ruhel Islam’s Gandhi Mahal Indian restaurant burned down during protests in late May — not far from the Third Precinct police headquarters in Minneapolis. (Krithika Varagur)

When restaurant owner Ruhel Islam said “let my building burn” last month in Minneapolis, he instantly captured a pulsating national mood. He also seemed to throw a glass of ice-cold water on the South Asian American community, who, in broad strokes, have long been complacent about showing up for and protesting alongside Black Americans against police brutality and for civil rights. 

Islam’s face became well-known through a now-viral Facebook post, and in the New York Times, where the Bangladeshi American spoke about how his beloved downtown restaurant, Gandhi Mahal, was burned to the ground by protesters. But Islam wasn’t mad, stating that it could be rebuilt and that the protesters’ anguish was justified. The radical commitment of his actions cut through the miasma of posts and occasionally pointed silences, the screen-based modes of quarantine-era solidarity. Here was a South Asian American who was really walking the walk. Not only did he support the protesters, but he even gave up what was left of his restaurant to medics for them to use in the following days and cooked up vats of dal to feed them.

I thought of Islam alongside Rahul Dubey, the Washington, D.C. dad who sheltered more than 70 protesters in his house in early June, and the online satsangs of the progressive American Hindu organization Sadhana that posit dismantling anti-Blackness as a spiritual pursuit. From coast to coast, South Asian Americans I spoke to agreed: this time feels different. These new kinds of South Asian allyship with Black Lives Matter are more vocal, forceful, and humble than previous iterations. They are marked by a willingness to put bodies on the line and use more relatively privileged identities to amplify Black Americans’ fight. 

As Haaris Pasha, a Pakistani American activist and attorney in Minneapolis told me: “I think this shook folks in a different way.”