I’m thinking about Inayyah

November 16, 2016

When I see the outpouring of protests around the country against Donald Trump, I remember a woman I met in 2005, writes Leela Yellesetty.

I WANT to tell you a story about a woman named Inayyah.

I was in a sudden panic just now because I thought I'd forgotten her name. I didn't, though it took some time to find because I couldn't recall the spelling.

I feel old, but in a good way. Seeing these young protesters in the streets brings on a rush of nostalgia but also an awareness that I no longer possess their intensity. I feel so happy and proud that they are here, the promise they represent. But also that, at whatever intensity, I'm still here too, with my oldness and stories, and that's important. Inayyah is part of the reason why.

Way back in ancient history, more precisely 2005, it was a long, cold, dark winter in Connecticut. George W. Bush was still president, and though his popularity was rapidly waning in the wake of the racist disregard for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the disaster of the Iraq War, there seemed to be no end in sight.

In many ways, it felt like a winter that would never end. The government of California was set to execute Stan Tookie Williams, a former gang member turned renowned peacemaker, for a crime he did not commit. An international campaign was afoot to stop the execution.

Opponents of the death penalty stand for Stan Tookie Williams
Opponents of the death penalty stand for Stan Tookie Williams

I met Inayyah in the poor, mostly Latino neighborhood of Fair Haven in New Haven, Connecticut. Our small chapter of the International Socialist Organization had been tabling and circulating petitions about Williams. I approached a woman in an abaya and was surprised when I realized she was a white lady with a Southern accent.

Once I explained what was going on, she immediately signed the petition and we started talking. We kept talking so long that she invited me back to her place a few blocks away for tea, where I met her sweet young daughter Sabbah.

Inayyah converted to Islam when she married and while she and her husband were no longer together, she had found a home in the faith. She soon realized that in the post-9/11 era that meant being subject to constant harassment and worse. Yet she refused to cower in the face of it.

On the day the Iraq War started, she wore all black to work in mourning and was fired for it. Since then, she had been struggling to support her daughter while also dealing with health problems.

DESPITE HER personal struggles, Inayyah was deeply moved when she heard Tookie's story and eager to do anything and everything to stop his execution. She had me come by her house weekly with newspapers and supplies and went around the neighborhood putting up flyers and gathering petition signatures.

She spoke passionately at a candlelight vigil we held one bitterly cold and windy night. She called and wrote the governor's office so many times she actually got a personal response from his secretary.

The last time I spoke to Inayyah was right after he was executed. She made me tea with ginger (good for the stomach, she said) and we talked. She had stayed up all night, until the bitter end, when he suffered for an excruciating 36 minutes before succumbing-- leading to a lawsuit that effectively halted the use of lethal injections in the state of California.

She told me she had cried all night, but by that morning she was determined. She was full of energy and peppered me with ideas and questions about what we were doing next, how to build the movement against the death penalty, against war and racism and poverty. I agreed to come back the next week with more reports and materials.

The next week her roommate answered the door. She at first seemed suspicious of me, but when I explained how I knew Inayyah, she softened and sadly informed me that she had passed away in her sleep the night before. Then she invited me in for tea and we talked.

I asked her if our group could take up a collection for the family, but she suggested instead we donate to a cause Inayyah was passionate about. At our next meeting, I collected a few hundred dollars donation that I sent in to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which ran a letter I wrote about her in The New Abolitionist. The remainder went toward some candies for Sabbah.

It was a devastating winter for me in many ways. As I write this I now remember that in addition to Tookie, and Inayyah, a dear friend and comrade Phil Haskell also took his life that year. Phil deserves his own story, for another time soon when I can do it justice.

In the grand scheme of things though, it was a small episode, in my life much less the rest of the world. In some ways it is a bleak story, of failure and loss. Just a few among many lives lost too soon, that we were not able to prevent. But it is also one thread of a forgotten history that is still winding its way into the present.

AFTER THAT dark winter came the spring, when millions of immigrants took to the streets in one of the largest mass strikes in U.S. history. The energy from the Tookie campaign continued to fuel the movement to end the death penalty, and following yet another tragic wrongful execution, of Troy Davis, a march in New York City joined forces with the infant Occupy Wall Street and helped swell the ranks, ushering it into the headlines and onto the stage of history.

Inayyah is one of so many who played at least some small part in this trajectory. One of literally millions, if not tens of millions, of people who have participated in some way, however small, in one of the many struggles which have emerged over the past decade, not to speak of before. But her part is larger than that, at least for me. Knowing her however briefly left a permanent mark on me, one which I will always be grateful for.

Especially right now, when we enter what looks to be another long, dark, cold winter, I try to remember that other cold winter and how Inayyah helped transform my despair into determination.

I know she would be grinning from ear to ear right now if she were able to witness the courage and compassion of the young people out of the streets today. She is part of their story too. Inayyah, presente.

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