As fire engulfed Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal during the city’s June 2020 protests, owner Ruhel Islam went viral for remaining steadfast in his call for justice. One year later, he’s working to rebuild for the community.
After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin, a lot of people rallied around one cry: Won’t somebody please think of the property? Hundreds around the city were protesting yet another killing of a Black man by a white officer, but many pundits seemed more concerned with broken windows and burned walls than with, you know, death. This hand-wringing happens almost every time people take to the streets, an attempt to both quell uprisings and pit the interests of local business owners against those of the protesters. You’re harming your own community, the argument goes, as if a building protected by insurance is a community. As if the owners of those small businesses would not also be interested in justice. And unfortunately, in the wake of the shooting of Daunte Wright nearly a year later, little has changed.
Ruhel Islam, a Bangladeshi immigrant, opened his Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal in 2008. He built it with a commitment to sustainability — it had an apiary on the roof and an aquaponic garden in the basement. Islam also maintained a commitment to community and equality from day one. “We are dedicated to the peaceful principles that Mohandas Gandhi advocated in his lifetime,” the restaurant’s mission statement declared. “We admire and aspire to his ability to bring diverse people of different beliefs together.” And when the restaurant burned down in the wake of the George Floyd killing (it was a few doors down from the 3rd Police Precinct, which was set on fire by a right-wing extremist in an attempt to escalate violence), Islam knew his priorities. In a Facebook post at the time, Islam’s daughter, Hafsa, wrote what she heard her father say on the phone when he learned the news: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” The post immediately went viral.
For Islam, this seemed obvious. When the protests started at the end of May 2020, he had immediately turned Gandhi Mahal into a community center, feeding protesters and opening room for medics and other organizers to work. To him, that was the point of a space like this — to nourish and support the community, and to bring people together. And a year after the loss of his building, Islam’s neighbors are still rallying around him. The team has opened a temporary fast-casual spot, Curry in a Hurry, in a new neighborhood and is planning on rebuilding a restaurant and community center where Gandhi Mahal stood. We spoke with Islam about the night he went viral, about rebuilding, and about what it means to build a restaurant that’s truly part of a community.
Eater: Ruhel, you went viral after your daughter posted on Facebook that you said, “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” Who were you talking to on the phone that night?
Ruhel Islam [to Riz Prakasim, Gandhi Mahal’s operations manager]: It was you, Brother Riz? I don’t know.
Riz Prakasim: No, I was sleeping.
RI: I think one of my friends called, I don’t exactly remember. After that, so many calls came and I told this to one of them, and then my daughter heard me saying this.
Did you find out that your restaurant was being damaged while you were watching the news?
RI: I found out in the morning. We had been there until 1 [a.m.] or something, we were helping with the medic team, providing injured people treatment. So we opened up our site. We all left because, I remember, there was a big force of police or something — everyone was running away. We moved our center to the church, then we left. Then we heard about this news.
RP: From my perspective, there were a lot of community members protecting Gandhi Mahal, and especially the brothers and sisters from AIM, the American Indian Movement, as well as just some local friends, associates of Gandhi Mahal who were really doing their best to not just protect the restaurant, but also people being injured in the melee. They were really putting their bodies in the way — a couple of our team members got injured, they had to go to the hospital. So it was a very intense thing, and then to see this playing out on the news was just very surreal, because you’re right there.
RI: One of our members saved the barbershop [on the same block] from the throw of a bomb — he went in and grabbed it out. It’s a trauma. Sometimes talking about this is a little painful.
You had to move into a church because you had been feeding protestors. But you’d opened Gandhi Mahal as a community center for the protests before that, right?
RI: In our restaurant, one part was the main dining area, the second part was a children’s playroom and gallery, then there was a community room and a co-office space. So we opened the community room for people. We cooked, we kept our door open while a lot of people in the area were boarding up, and we thought we’d be all right because we were in solidarity with our brothers and sisters participating in peaceful protest. Every day we were hearing different stuff — that our building was not burned down by the protestors because we were giving treatment. It’s like a hospital; nobody attacks a hospital, right?
It’s really amazing that your instinct when this happened was to open up for medics and for the community, rather than to say, “No, we’re just going to continue to be a business” or to shut down. You wrote on the restaurant’s website that you were dedicated to creating a restaurant that upheld principles of equality and justice. What were the influences in your life that led you to pursue that in your business?
RI: When I was growing up [in Bangladesh], I saw a lot of problems. We always suffered from climate change, cyclones, tornadoes, but also political change. I remember walking out when I was probably in eighth grade to protest against the autocratic government. A student leader was killed by police, and then the next day we protested everywhere. We demanded a free and fair election under a caretaker government. After nine years of struggle, we got democracy back.
We fought back against the British. Martin Luther King says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I feel like [George Floyd’s murder] is a reflection of how police were trained after 9/11, and this kind of training they’re using against normal people… against unprivileged or weak people. Because everywhere in the world, rich people always get richer and they always get priority, and they always don’t have to deal with what we normally face.
Black Lives Matter, to me, from the bottom of my heart … we have a colorism problem back home, a very deep problem. My point is, a lot of injustice happens all around the world. Now it’s back because we didn’t pay attention. That’s why I just express what I feel. It comes out from my heart: “Let that building burn and justice must be served, and this officer needs to be put in jail.” And my daughter [putting it online]… I didn’t know all this was going to happen.
I was going to ask, did you even know that your daughter was posting this on the Gandhi Mahal website?
RI: No. When I got called, [friends were] crying and upset. I said, “We’ve seen worse, the main focus is on justice. Our building may be burned but we can rebuild, there’s no problem. But what do we do with the community?” When I came here with my friend [the person I immigrated with], we were the strangers. We’ve built community through our climate movement activism work, through all this restorative justice program work. We are all ready to take any step we need for peace, for change in the world, and for justice. And this is what’s happened because of social media, for good. Sometimes people look at you differently, but we were able to create a bigger awareness. Bangladeshi media, Canada, the Asian community reached out to me. Sometimes the times tell you what to do.
We’re getting close to the one-year anniversary of this happening. You talked about the outpouring of support you got from the community right after the restaurant burned down. Do you still feel like the community has been providing you with support?
RI: We built this community, we are deeply rooted in the community. So after all these things, yes, the community still makes me feel we all belong to each other. We work together to rebuild. And there is ongoing conversation. But there are a lot of promises coming, so we’re careful, because people also take advantage of immigrants.
One of our main intentions is not to just rebuild with bricks; we’ve got to rebuild with love and peace and justice. When people come in, they need to feel it. We built Curry in a Hurry, and now we’ll be using those sales to build our green sustainable building. [We want to] lead by example and make something that lasts for the next 100 years. So we also created an organization called Longfellow Rising. Sometimes people come and they try to buy your land and kick you out. We are collaborating with Holy Trinity Church, and we’re creating ways we can rebuild and see people of color own their own land.
With the community you’re building and all these projects, what do you hope people learn from it?
RI: Justice must be served. On the one-year anniversary [of the George Floyd murder], look what’s going on. I really want people to learn a sense of belonging, learn how the community can come together. One of the focuses of my program would be food security. We faced food insecurity in Bangladesh and did a lot of growing food back at home.
Food is medicine, and we are all related and connected through food. When the time comes, you cannot eat your money. You cannot use anything other than food. We had a restaurant, we had a small commercial kitchen and co-working space, and our plan is to bring all the programs again together. We are all part of a climate movement. We had a beehive, regenerative agriculture, aquaculture agriculture in the basement. We’re redefining local food, which is 100 feet away from the kitchen. People are interested in these things. Our Native brothers and sisters, they understand our feelings. Our Black brothers and sisters understand. Food brings people together. And when you’re hungry, you’re angry, you need to eat good food. Then you calm down, then you bring real change to the world.
Mike Madison aka BUMP OPERA is a freelance photographer/visual storyteller from NE Minneapolis.