Redistricting 2021: Our Elected Leaders Failed to Unite South Queens

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APA VOICE Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park Town Hall, October 4, 2021.

By Rokshana Ali, Mohamed Q. Amin, Aaron Narraph Fernando, Shivana Jorawar, Esq., Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Esq., Felicia Singh, and Jagpreet Singh

For over half a century, the Indo-Caribbean and South Asian communities of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park have called these South Queens neighborhoods home. Like many immigrant communities in Queens, the first to settle were our elders, who paved the way for generations to fight to live the American dream of homeownership, starting a small business, participating in the electoral process, and preserving cultural traditions. They survived unimaginable challenges of navigating systems built to exclude undocumented, low-income, and working-class people—taking the brunt of racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia.

Their determination has allowed our culturally and ethnically diverse communities to take root and grow vibrantly in South Queens. We have created spiritual centers and educational institutions, from the bells and poojas in the mandirs on Liberty Avenue to the kirtan hymns and Langaar services in the Gurdwaras on Punjab Avenue, to the resounding prayers chanted during Ramadan, we put our neighborhoods on the map. Whether through the cultural festivals in Phil Rizzuto Park like the 30-year running Phagwah (Holi) Parade, Sikh Nagar Kirtans, the annual Diwali Motorcade, or our deliciously diverse cuisine, our communities have undoubtedly contributed to the language and cultural fabric of Queens and New York City.

The redistricting process has a long history of purposefully and nefariously splitting and cracking our district lines to ensure that our political power and votes were diluted in every district. For the last 10 years, Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park have been split into 7 assembly districts, electorally dividing us. We have seen how gerrymandering has politically disenfranchised our community. This decade-long struggle to build political power has continued to rob our communities of the chance to elect a candidate of our choice. All while amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, community members, leaders, immigrant rights and LGBTQ+ activists, and institutions mobilized and dominated at the 2021 New York State Independent Redistricting Commission’s (IRC) hearings to unite South Queens.

The impact of the new district lines will have an influence on political representation and access to resources such as healthcare, the environment, jobs, affordable housing, quality education, transportation, and public safety. As part of their year-long advocacy, the APA Voice Redistricting Task Force coalition members Caribbean Equality Project and South Queens Women’s March co-organized an in-person Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park Redistricting Town Hall. The community event was a significant opportunity to educate community members on the redistricting process and sign people up to testify at the IRC public hearings. Over 70 community members attended, and 20 community leaders offered powerful testimonials on the impact of gerrymandering and political disenfranchisement. These two community-based gender-justice, LGBTQ+, and immigrant rights organizations also met with Assemblymembers David Weprin, Khaleel Anderson, Jenifer Rajkumar, and other legislators who represent our communities to discuss redistricting and appeal to them to unite South Queens.

Assemblymember David Weprin told us that Richmond Hill should be kept whole and have a single representative. “I’m not going to actively lobby one way or another,” he publicly said to The New York Times. Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar said, “In principle, I think Richmond Hill should be kept together.” Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson reaffirmed his commitment to protecting voters’ rights. On behalf of the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities, we implored our elected officials to join our fight to bring justice to our gerrymandered immigrant community—a three-decade-long battle for fair maps.

Building on decades of frustration, we testified in historic numbers at every single IRC hearing. Our contingent was often the loudest and most numerous. We witnessed powerful testimonials from politically activated community members, passionate community organizers, teachers, faith leaders, young people, and District Leaders calling for a unified Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park, and Ozone Park. After the IRC Letters Maps were released, we educated our neighbors and other communities while advising on creating the Unity Map, which kept our community of interest under the Voting Rights Act whole.

We were incredibly hopeful when the IRC Democrats and Republicans proposed plans unanimously united Richmond Hill. Even after the New York Senate and Assembly rejected the IRC plans, we were still optimistic that the NYS Legislative Task Force (LATFOR) would listen to our marginalized voices. We continued our year-long advocacy to unite South Queens by writing letters and calling the offices of our local Assemblymembers to reaffirm our ask. The APA Voice Redistricting Task Force also organized an emergency rally in front of the NYS Legislature office at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for an opportunity to be heard publicly before the Legislature voted on the new maps and Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law. But, we were silenced. LATFOR failed to unite our communities. Our Assemblymembers neglected our voices to protect incumbency and their political careers.
Instead, our community is still divided. Our Assemblymembers merely paid us lip service without regard for consequences, accountability, and public transparency. LATFOR gave us three unjustifiable districts, which will impact us for the next 10 years. The message is clear: they have no will to properly represent our communities, and they do not care about what we have collectively built.

The partisan gerrymandering is clear across Queens. The continued splitting of the Hillside Bangladeshi corridor, the cleaving of the Indian community of Glen Oaks in half, the separation of City Line from Ozone Park—the list goes on and on. We went from most of our community represented by 1 Senator to 3. There is no way to step back, look at our communities, and not see this as a deliberate attempt to keep us unrepresented and powerless. The silences of our Assemblymembers, and at worst affirmations, of this new plan speak volumes. Our community not only needs to remember this act of political violence, but this needs to be the catalyst for action. We have settled for and received the bare minimum from local elected officials for too long.

As a community, we have let any elected official, regardless of their record, votes, and advocacy, come into our most hallowed institutions, into our homes, into our community spaces, and have given them everything. They are at our parades and festivals as VIPs, they come in front of our congregations to make long speeches, and they will always be in the community every election year to ask for votes and campaign contributions. Yet, whenever we need them to pass legislation or advocate for us, they are often nowhere to be seen.

There is an imbalance of power in our relationships as a community with our elected officials. It’s time we take a stand and begin to question, push back, agitate and organize. If not, the tokenization will continue and we will be right back in this situation 10 years from now, wondering why we didn’t get the districts we rightfully deserve.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.