Navroze Mody left Hoboken’s Gold Coast Café around 11 the night of Sept. 27, 1987. It would be the last minutes of his life.
The Jersey City resident was walking back home with a friend when he heard the taunts of “Kojak” and “Baldy.” The teenagers pursuing yelled racial slurs, too, then beat Mody unconsciously with bricks and other objects.
His white friend, William Crawford, was unharmed. Mody was taken to a nearby hospital. He died four days later.
His death came during a dangerous time for Indian immigrants and people of Indian descent who settled in Jersey City. But it also rallied those newcomers in a way that could be instructive today, as Asian Americans face a new wave of attacks sparked by racist rhetoric and the coronavirus pandemic. Three days before Mody was beaten, Kaushal Saran, a 30-year-old physician , was walking out of an office building in the Jersey City Heights when a group of men beat him with a baseball bat.
The previous month, two men beat Bhered Patel with a metal pipe while he was sleeping in his Jersey City apartment.
In the six months from June to December of 1987, a dozen incidents against Indians were reported to police in the state’s second largest city.
And the attacks continued into the next year, including a New York City taxi driver killed on a Jersey City street and a 28-year-old man beaten after being chased by youths, both happening in June 1988.
Many of these attacks were carried out by the “Dotbusters,” a group of assailants, primarily white, who announced themselves in a letter to the Jersey Journal in the summer of 1987. The letter detailed how they planned to terrorize the new residents.
The fear prompted some Indians to change their daily habits.
“We would not go out after 6 pm … We did not know how to handle the situation,” said Dr. Vijaya Desai, a pediatrician who came to Jersey City with her husband in 1976. “We were new to this country and scared of what would happen to you or your family or your friends.”
However, the recent immigrants — many of them spurred by Mody’s death — soon banded together to protect each other, to protest for better protection from the police and to send a message that they would not be bullied.
The attacks subsided within a few years. Yet, they left a legacy of racist aggression that continues to be felt years later by Indians and other Asian immigrants.
A reference to the Dotbusters’ campaign of terror was mentioned in coverage about racist signs that sprung up in protest of a Hindu temple proposed in an Atlanta suburb last year.
New Jersey:gov. Murphy signs bill creating Asian American Pacific Islander Commission in NJ
New Jersey:Budget decision dashes hope for Indian Americans in NJ seeking green-card reprieve
In March, six women of Asian descent were killed by a white man, Robert Aaron Long, in shootings at three nail salons in the Atlanta area that claimed eight victims. Long pleaded guilty in four of the fatal shootings and is on trial for four others.
The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate reported more than 10,000 anti-Asian incidents nationwide from March 2020 to June 2021. Those incidents included attacks on an 84-year-old Thai immigrant in San Francisco who died after being shoved to the ground and a 61-year-old Filipino American who was slashed on a New York subway.
Amidst the latest wave of violence, some of the Indian leaders who fought to stop the Jersey City attacks are speaking about how those incidents transformed them from passive onlookers to vocal proponents for justice.
Under attack but fighting back
The reality was much different in 1987 than it is now for Indian Americans in Jersey City.
The population was half of what it is now as Indians had first settled into the city in small numbers in the previous two decades.
Many worked in New York City, taking the PATH train to and from their homes in the Jersey City Heights and Journal Square neighborhoods. Others found work in town.
dr Lalitha Masson still practices medicine in Jersey City, 54 years after she began her residency at the old Jersey City Medical Center.
Masson, an obstetrician-gynecologist, remembered how Indians and other Asians who worked in the hospital were treated when they first worked in those places.
“There was some curiosity, and at the same time because we were occupying top positions, there was a lot of jealousy,” Masson said. “And I remember very well because when I first came, [Jersey City Medical Center] hosted a big dinner for us in Atlantic City. The chief of my program was a German American and I refused to eat the filet mignon which was served, and he commented that the Indians are so uncouth they don’t know good food.”
However, despite the negative attitudes, Masson and her peers had not been subject to physical attacks, she recalled.
She said the first time she knew of those attacks was when she read the Dotbusters manifesto in the Jersey Journal.
The letter, in part, stated: “We are an organization called the Dotbusters. We have been around for 2 [sic] years. We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her.”
Additionally, the letter reflected a long-simmering resentment against Indians for moving into white neighborhoods, which also was reported in an October 1987 article for The Record. One source told a reporter he knew kids who went “Hindu hunting at night.”
That’s when Masson mobilized other prominent Indians to get the attention of the police, political officials and other organizations who were in a position to stop the attacks.
More than 500 people marched through the Journal Square area that October, many carrying banners and shouting, ”We want justice” and “No more racism.” Later, they rallied in front of the Hudson County administration Building on a cold December day to demand that four teens charged in Mody’s death be tried as adults.
Desai, who still has a medical practice in Jersey City, joined Masson’s efforts.
‘Not going away’:More than 9K anti-Asian hate incidents since COVID pandemic began, report says
Courts:Atlanta spa shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long pleads not guilty in 4 killings
“We needed protection, how to protect the community at that time. [The authorities] knew about it and they started helping us. They had police in the Five Corners area,” Desai said referring to an area near Journal Square where several streets intersect.
Raju Patel is the president of the Jersey City Asian Merchants Association. At the time of the attacks, he lived in Edison in central New Jersey, a growing enclave for Indians coming from Jersey City and New York.
He did business on a regular basis in Jersey City’s Indian community as an insurance agent for local merchants and soon was involved in the protests. It was an intense and scary time for Indian business owners, he said, recalling how some were cursed out by aggressors.
“At one of the stores, there was a young fellow who opened the door and cursed at the guy he saw,” Patel said. “Behind the counter, the guy picked up a pipe in his hand. He ran up to that fellow and that fellow ran like a ghost.”
But he noted that the protests were effective and the attacks stopped by 1989.
“There was a lot of noise we made, and the people like the mayor and county officials started to look into the matter, and then the police did a good job and arrested some people,” Patel said. “In any community, you will find some culprits.”
Getting justice for victims
Jersey City police and political officials faced intense criticism from Indian leaders for not quickly making arrests in the attacks. At one point, Indian leaders invited the New York-based group Guardian Angels to help patrol the streets.
Then-Mayor Anthony Cucci and Paul DePascale, the city’s acting police director, tried to counter the bad press, going so far as to hold a conference call with Indian reporters calling in from the subcontinent to address claims that little was being done.
Some key arrests were being made.
In March 1988, James Kerwin, then 21, and Peter Jester, 22, were arrested in the assault of Bhered Patel, who was beaten while asleep in his apartment on South Street.
DePascale, who was also the Hudson County prosecutor, identified Kerwin as the person who wrote the ”Dotbusters” letter. DePascale defended the police response, saying they “had not ignored the situation” and that the arrests were proof.
Yet, it took nearly three years before there was any punishment. Kerwin and Jester took plea bargains instead of standing trial, which prompted outrage from some Indian leaders. Kerwin was sentenced to seven years in a juvenile correctional facility while Jester received a year’s probation, 100 hours of community service and was fined $2,000 after he agreed to testify against Kerwin.
In Hoboken, four teens acting separately from the Dotbusters — Luis Acevedo, Ralph Gonzalez, Luis Padilla and William Acevedo — were all convicted of assault in the attack on Navroze Mody. Gonzalez, Padilla and Luis Acevedo were convicted of aggravated assault and William Acevedo was convicted of simple assault. Luis Acevedo served four years in jail while others served shorter sentences.
However, Mody’s father, Jamshid, lost his civil suit against the city and Hoboken police. The suit alleged indifference toward acts of violence perpetrated against Indian Americans and the violation of his son’s “equal protection rights” under the 14th Amendment.
Kaushal Saran would never get justice for the attack on him that left him with memory loss. In September 1992, Thomas Kozak, Martin Ricciardi, and Mark Evangelista were brought to trial on federal civil rights charges in connection with the attack on Saran. However, the three were acknowledged of the charges in two separate trials in 1993.
It didn’t help Saran’s case that at both trials he tested that he could not remember the incident. Saran could not be reached for comment for this article. But in an interview with the Hudson Reporter in 2009, he said he had flashbacks of the attack when he was in the hospital recovering, but recalling those flashbacks during the federal trial, they were like “a dream.”
There was also justice through legislation as the protests against the attacks led in part to the signing of New Jersey’s ethnic intimidation bill into law by then-Governor Jim Florio in 1990. The measure was sponsored by several several state Assembly members, including Robert Menendez, now a US senator, sponsored the measure. It increased sentences in cases where an offender’s actions are motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion or sexual orientation.
Jersey City is now a different place
Now, Jersey City is a different place for Indian people.
The city is New Jersey’s second-most populated with over 290,000 residents. Indian Americans make up about 10% of the population.
Their growing presence can be seen in the annual raising of the Indian national flag each August at City Hall.
A school in the city’s Journal Square section is named for the legendary Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi.
In October and November, the city celebrates the Indian holidays of Diwali and Navratri. A festival marking the latter shuts down an entire block.
It’s the same block of Newark Avenue that is teeming with Indian grocery stores and restaurants known as India Square. The entrepreneurship has spread to neighboring blocks.
It is a place where Vijaya Desai knows any attacks now on Indian Americans will be met with a much faster response.
She noted, “It was not like now where if something like that happens, we can send an email to the mayor and we get help right away. That time it was slow.”
Ricardo Kaulessar is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: [email protected]