By Chris Mohney
Riz Prakasim is the manager at Gandhi Mahal restaurant in Minneapolis, which was burned during the protests and unrest after the murder of George Floyd. Owner Ruhel Islam is shown above standing outside the restaurant long before the fire. During the protests, Islam’s daughter overheard him saying “Let my building burn … Justice needs to be served,” a quote which circulated widely on social media and resulted in an international outpouring of solidarity for the restaurant and community. A GoFundMe to support rebuilding the restaurant has so far drawn more than $117,000.
I’ve been at Gandhi Mahal for 12 years—general manager, manager, human resources. I originally connected with Ruhel Islam kind of by happenstance. I was working a corporate job that I really disliked, and I wanted some comfort food, namely samosas. His brother had a restaurant called Passage to India that was the closest one to me, in a suburb of Minneapolis called Brooklyn Center. I went in there, and his brother-in-law from New York was there, and I recognized the accent. I said, “Hey kid, you’re not from around here.” And he said, “Hey kid, you’re not from around here,” because I was from New Jersey. We made a connection over samosas, and then he introduced me to Ruhel and the family. As they say, the rest is history.
Ruhel’s grandfather worked with Gandhi in India, and my grandfather worked with Gandhi in South Africa during the labor movement and was actually incarcerated with Gandhi. We didn’t even know that until about a year into our relationship. We were like, “Wait a minute. Your grandfather knew Gandhi? My grandfather knew Gandhi. What the?” We feel the compelling direction to follow in our ancestors’ footsteps, and that is to be men of faith, men of community, men of justice, and also to bring people together to heal the historic trauma that has been leveled upon the community. I am a Presbyterian pastor in Roseville, Minnesota, and I was just an intern when I connected with Ruhel. Our experiences have really deepened our spiritual gathering together. But it’s also a testimony—it’s a witness about working together. Ruhel is Muslim, I’m Christian, and here we are, walking hand-in-hand, doing the work of building community together without having the differences separate us and cause conflict.
Gandhi Mahal means “Gandhi’s Place” or a “Gathering Place of Peace.” We opened the restaurant in 2008, and we thought it was the right time to invoke the name of Gandhi when people were suffering from the financial fallout and economic turmoil of the stock market. We really wanted to bring people together over the common language of food. Ruhel has a quote that “food is the true wealth.”
We really believe in what Ruhel terms “fully fed communities.” We want people to be fed economically. They need to be fully fed with education, with healthcare. Their spirits need to be fed. The totality of a person’s body must be fed. And so coming together at the table, our restaurant model is dedicated to peace by pleasing the palate. When people come together over food, we can lean into our relationships. We can get to know one another more deeply and truly see one another as sisters and brothers, as we are related to all of creation. That leads us to working for justice, for creation, the very earth that supports us, and dismantling the barriers that have created injustice between ethnic and religious groups, and really beginning a deep healing process.
The Saro tribe from the Amazon say that “knowledge is but a rumor until it lives in your bones.” We firmly believe that as well. It’s not enough to say “I’m about justice” or whatever if you’re not really doing anything. So we lead by example. One of things we began doing is engaging our community—”Hey, folks, what’s important to you? Because what’s important to you is important to us.” We didn’t want to be a parasitic component in the neighborhood. We wanted to be a mutually life-giving component. We started to hear what was important to our neighbors and started to explore sustainability. Eventually we got solar power on our roof. We got bees on our roof. Our used cooking oil gets turned into biodiesel. Before there was a Minneapolis ordinance for recyclable or compostable containers, we did that because we knew it was the right thing to do. Yes, it cost us a little bit, but sometimes it costs to do the right thing.
We were the first in the entire Midwest to have an aquaponics aquaculture system within the boundaries of the restaurant. We were harvesting tilapia in there. We had planters growing outside. We had plants growing on our roof. We have an interfaith community garden. One of our friends is Reverend Robert Two Bulls of a Native American church called All Saints Episcopal. The ministry they have is called First Nations Kitchen. Every Sunday without fail for the last 10 years, they feed people—people who are in economic need, but also people who are in social need, people who are relationally bankrupt. And they come together. Gandhi Mahal has helped with that. My own church has gone there and volunteered. My youth group has gone there and served food. These different communities were coming together to grow food and explore what food security truly looks like.
Gandhi Mahal’s location in Minneapolis—about 20, 30 years ago, this was a tough neighborhood. There was lots of drug dealing. There was lots of prostitution. And the community said, we’re not having this any more. It was a grassroots approach to really look out for one another. The Lake Street Council is an amazing civic organization that helps small businesses—especially helping immigrants navigate the process of owning a small business and walking through all the red tape. We’re a conscious neighborhood. We’re a close-knit neighborhood. We’re diverse, as far as communities go. In the Twin Cities area, we have the nation’s highest Somali population and nation’s biggest Hmong population as well. And that’s all represented in south Minneapolis. This is a reflection of larger American values where people can have hopes and dreams that are allowed to take root and flourish.
We believe that you don’t have to choose to either make money or do the right thing. You can absolutely do both. The neighborhood has seen us doing that. Our community room is meant to be a reflection of the community, so people who are doing good locally and globally, we allow them free access to that room. People come with their different causes and events, and we support them through food, gift certificates, economic donations, and lifting up their cause on a platform.
The night of the fire—there’s a lot of pain. This was an expression of pain and outrage, and rightfully so, because we were hurt, outraged, and angry for the callous, wanton, broad-daylight lynching of George Floyd. We understand that people wanted justice.
We’ve been through this song too many times—with Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and so many others—where something happens and justice is not exacted. It’s deferred, or people just completely ignore what happened. This was a culmination of the pandemic, of 20-plus million Americans being out of work. When people saw this, it transcended race. It transcended religion. It became a human issue at that point. We all connected with George Floyd’s murder in a very deep way, especially for those who were able to watch that video. People marched to the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct because that was the symbol of injustice, because there had been many other injustices there.
Emotions boiled over, and protestors started interacting with the police. There were clashes, there were skirmishes, lots of graffiti that spoke to people’s positions. One piece of graffiti that I’ve been saying in my sermons is “this is not a riot, it’s a revolution.” What we really need right now is a revolution. I think what the people were doing spoke to that. So after the 3rd Precinct caught fire, right across the street was a liquor store. And of course, opportunists and whatnot took advantage of that.
They burned the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub next door to Gandhi Mahal. We think Gandhi Mahal really wasn’t set ablaze on purpose, but rather caught fire from there. The American Indian Movement had a bunch of folks protecting Gandhi Mahal and MIGIZI, the Native American after-school program also next door. We had some employees who were protecting the restaurant and other adjacent businesses. They were putting out fires. One of them almost got burned alive. He used to own a tattoo shop across the street. Someone broke a tiny hole in the glass, and they put in a Molotov cocktail. He kicked out the glass to put that out, and the guy who saw him doing that got incensed and threw a Molotov at him and almost burned his face.
The looting began to spread. It went to Target, Cub Foods, Aldi. Those were places where people in our neighborhood access food. It made an economically challenged neighborhood and a semi-food insecure neighborhood that much more food insecure. They destroyed the clinic, which made us healthcare insecure. They destroyed the Walgreens and other places where we get medicine, which made us medicine insecure. And there was an affordable living complex that was a few months away from being finished—for our neighborhood, for our people in the midst of a national housing crisis—that was burned to the ground. One of the really tragic things was that Gandhi Mahal burned down on a Friday, and that Saturday, we were supposed to meet with an architect to put together a project for creating 40 affordable housing units above the restaurant.
Since the fire, we’ve been getting emails, calls, and an outpouring of love from all over the world from people who stand in solidarity with us. Something we’ve learned from interacting with our Native American brothers and sisters is this phrase “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ.” It’s from Lakota, and it means “we are all related.” We understand that deeply. When George Floyd was murdered, it was like one of our family members was murdered. If the burning of the Gandhi Mahal building helped to bring justice, helped to highlight this issue, so be it. That was one of the things we can sacrifice, because we can rebuild, but we can never get this brother back to his family.
We had a meeting recently to sit down and discuss what our next steps are. We’re looking at an interim space—a shared community kitchen so we can at least start doing takeout and delivery, because people are really just wanting our food. They’re like, “Hey man, we really miss you guys. There’s no one else like you in the neighborhood.” Some people want to buy gift certificates so other people can have access to the food. After the community kitchen, we’re going to look at what might be next. I think it’s going to be too expensive to rebuild in that place, so we’ll probably have to find another location. But we really want to stay in the neighborhood because we have deep roots here.