By Darren Glenn
By now, the name Ravi Ragbir has become immediately connected with the Trump administration’s war on the undocumented and the shocking vindictiveness of this government’s tactics which wax authoritarian in their disregard for due process or humanity.
A longtime activist for immigrant rights and the executive director of New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, Ragbir has been making waves for the better part of a decade on behalf of non-citizens in the New York area living under the existential threat of deportation; but it is now his own troubles with Immigration and Customs Enforcement that have drawn a renewed spotlight on the lionhearted Trinidad and Tobago native.
On Saturday, the 24th of February I had the great honor of hearing more about Ravi’s case and impact on a community of people rallying around him from the man himself at Caribbean Equality Project’s annual L.O.V.E.: Living Our Values Equally event in the heart of Richmond Hill, Queens.
“Living Our Values Equally” is Caribbean Equality Project’s annual celebration of queer Caribbean love. This year, L.O.V.E. celebrated a queer Caribbean love different from the bond of romantic partners. The focus was on a community love. A love for brothers and sisters and people with whom one feels a natural empathic affinity. Storge. As if consciously referential to Cornel West’s declaration that “justice is what love looks like in public,” much of the evening focused on the work that each of the speakers did in achieving a just world for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer (LGBTQ) immigrants from the West Indies.
Mr. Ragbir arrived at the event as the featured guest. A vocal ally of the LGBTQ+ Community Ravi used the night to demonstrate his unwavering solidarity with Caribbean Equality Project’s service population, acknowledging multiple times that we were part of the same West Indian immigrant community and that if we are to protect one another from the assault by an immigration-hostile executive government, we must resist together. Storge in (civic) action.
Throughout his address before the fully packed hall of C Bar & Lounge, Ravi gave us the chilling account of how his private life was upended at a routine check-in with ICE when he was detained and suddenly issued a final deportation order, escorted by a phalanx of ICE vehicles to his jail cell; he described witnessing the ways in which his community and his allies closed ranks around him, rallying for his release and demanding due process; and he illustrated how his legal battle had been unfolding even as he makes preparations with his family for his prospective deportation. But above all, Ravi Ragbir ultimately offered his testimony as part of a powerful rallying cry for us to stay organized and engaged.
Sitting down with Ravi to unpack his address a bit after the L.O.V.E. program, I had the privilege of delving deeper into both the emotional journey and institutional issues that my fellow Trinidadian activist has been facing since that fateful Jan 11 check-in.
“When you think of the vast resources they used to put me through this process, it is mind-blowing.” That was Ravi reflecting, almost to himself, on the ardor with which ICE forces set upon him when I opened our conversation with what would otherwise be an innocuous question of how he is doing.
“I was in detention for two years before. From 2006 to 2008. Going through that process… you’re terrified.” In order to illustrate what feelings he and many of the people that New Sanctuary City serves have to cope with, Ravi described the fatiguing daily worry that comes with the uncertainty of deportation. “Every single day you’re terrified.” He punctuated with his final answer as to how he was doing. “There is a fear that is there, but I don’t focus on it.”
“What is it that you do focus on?”
“Doing work…” He answered without hesitation. “I put all my energy into helping others.” And certainly doing work is what Ravi has been ardently busying himself with. Spearheading the Jericho Walk outside New York City’s ICE headquarters. Organizing with local activists around the right to remain. Traveling between the Bronx, and Manhattan and Brooklyn to educate and galvanize communities under attack. All this in between preparing for his impending order for deportation. Ravi’s commitment to civic action for immigrant communities has shown no signs of slowing down.
And yet, as he recounted, in reaching out to his own people, Ravi has experienced a difficulty that has truly saddened him. “Caribbean people are proud… I have come to this community many times…” he said referencing Richmond Hill. “‘I just want to come and do a training,’ ‘I just want to talk to you guys about what you need to do.’” Ultimately, his offers have, with little exception, been consistently met with rejection by community leaders in West Indian dominated parts of the city.
“…They say immigrants are a threat to national security and you look at where they’re being picked up–they’re being picked up from their home, they’re being picked up at work, they are being picked up serving food. This is your threat to national security? The problem is that our community buys into that. So when we hear someone is picked up by immigration, ‘oh what did he do wrong?’ When we talk about threats [to national security] it becomes easy for them to validate their position about why they need to deport us.” Mr. Ragbir echoed some of his points from his earlier presentation: that collective vigilance would make it harder for ICE to terrorize our communities. The “good immigrant-bad immigrant” mentality not only impedes the work that people like Ravi tries to do in his own community, but it also runs afoul of the commitment to the community love that should bind us together.
Because of one of the few groups in Richmond Hill, he was able to do outreach to an LGBTQ+ organization, I wanted to pick his brain about how he understood queer West Indian immigrants’ experiences in his approach to advocacy work. “A lot of queer people from the West Indies come to the United States seeking liberation and experience a certain type of liberation in one aspect of their being; there are a lot more queer spaces and more and more of them dominated by people of color in this country. And yet they come here when there is this barrage of anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant policy that is targeting their bodies and so there’s this denial of a certain type of liberation in another aspect of their being. As someone who does activism work around immigration rights how we talk about that; how we mobilize people around multiple issues intersecting issues with regard to liberation and oppressive forces?”
A thoughtful nod preceded his answer. “You have the struggle that you are dealing with [on your own]… like homophobia, but you also have to come together” [with people not experiencing homophobia in their community] “to talk about what else your facing, like anti-immigrant policy, unaffordable housing, etc. etc.” Further speaking of what helps inspire solidarity from people in the West Indian community who do work around immigration rights but don’t have experience with homophobia, Ravi offered a rather succinct notion. “When you become open to helping others you also become open to seeing what needs to be changed.” This inspiring instinct to protect his people, and to resist together embodies the theme of community love that Caribbean Equality Project had been uplifting throughout the event.
The focus of Caribbean Equality Project has been meeting the intersecting needs of immigrants from the West Indies in New York who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, the organizers behind CEP have seen that the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment that exists in the home countries of many West Indian immigrants and persons born to West Indian parents also shapes their experiences living in close-knit Caribbean communities like Richmond Hill in America. CEP has encountered immigration rights organizers, faith leaders and politicians in our community who reproduce the same environment of intolerance from their West Indian heritage even as they do good work. Part of what makes Ravi such a remarkable embodiment of storgic love is his ability to see those planes of cleavage in our community and publicly reject the reproduction of intolerance. I asked Ravi “when you think about the future, what tools do you think we have at our disposal that will enable us to dismantle oppression?” What I appreciated in Ravi’s answer is the fact that he didn’t think about just dismantling one form of oppression. “Being aware of who you are. Being critical thinkers. Not just being aware but step up. Don’t just stand by.”
This year, CEP was honored to have a number of other inspirational speakers that also reflect the type of active, community-focused love that Ravi continues to set a high bar for. The program included a screening of “My Truth, My Story,” CEP’s Caribbean LGBTQ documentary storytelling series featuring Victoria Veemala, a transgender woman from Guyana, who escaped sexual and anti-transgender violence, survived immigration detention and won political asylum. Urban+Out founder Kenrick Ross talking about his work creating celebratory and intersectional safe spaces for people like himself, Regina Elizabeth King’s story of turning her experiences with anti-transgender violence and isolation into a drive to live publicly and encourage other Guyanese transgender persons, Skye O’Neal Adrian’s testimony of being a black openly gay Jamaican who experienced family rejection and homelessness to being an LGBTQ+ Youth Advocate and Richmond Hill’s very own Ceyenne Doroshow’s testimony about living publicly and being (quite literally) called to do the work of saving the lives of trans women around the world; each of the featured guests mirrored the drive that Ravi has to bring forth a more just world for the people in his community. “Love is dismantling oppression,” as expressed by Mohamed Q. Amin, founder of Caribbean Equality Project. (Double meaning fully intended).
From the time we began our conversation–in fact, from the time Ravi had begun his presentation–one question above all others persisted. I finally posed the question to him as we wrapped up our debrief. “What is sustaining you?”
This was one of the only moments I had seen Ravi so disarmed throughout our time together. “The fact that people believe that I should be here means that I cannot give up. I cannot allow them to lose heart. I have to be strong. Because of their belief in me and because they are there fighting for me.”
(To learn more about CEP, visit www.CaribbeanEqualityProject.org)
MORE PHOTOS TAKEN BY SHAMEER BASANT AT THE EVENT: