Eddy Zheng, a community educator in some of America’s hardest-to-reach communities, got his own education in unlikely places. At age 12, he emigrated to Oakland, California, from China with his family, and was quickly plunged into poverty, cultural alienation and social dislocation. At 16, he was convicted as an adult for armed robbery and kidnapping, and faced a life sentence. During the two decades he ultimately spent in California’s San Quentin prison, Zheng developed a political consciousness forged through radical thinkers and writers of color – from historical pioneers such as Frederick Douglass to his mentor, Japanese American revolutionary Yuri Kochiyama. It was a grassroots education that, in his words, “saved my life”.
In prison, Zheng sought to share this knowledge. He attempted, with other inmates, to launch Asian American literature and ethnic studies programs. But his efforts to redevelop prison schooling met with backlash from authorities and eventually landed him and his fellow activists in solitary confinement, which set off a dramatic public campaign – led by Asian American inmates and allies on the outside – to defend the free expression rights of incarcerated Asian Americans. The campaign led to the founding of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, a volunteer-run organization that supports Asian and Pacific Islander inmates and now runs Roots, a pioneering ethnic studies curriculum centered on immigration history, intergenerational trauma and cross-cultural dialogue.
Upon his release, Zheng was confined again, almost immediately, as a consequence of his federal conviction – this time as an immigration detainee. While he was in prison, Congress had radically expanded the types of crimes that could be used as grounds for deportation, and had made these changes to the law retroactive. So he fought another court battle, to secure his right to remain in the United States, which reinforced his commitment to criminal justice activism. In 2015, he was granted a pardon, and two years later he became a naturalized US citizen.
As a grassroots activist and youth organizer, Zheng is focused on the impacts of criminalization and immigration enforcement on Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities. He works across racial and ethnic lines to bring Asian diaspora and immigrant experience into a dialogue on mass incarceration that is often devoid of such voices. He also advocates for solidarity between Asian Americans and African Americans, maintaining that a unified resistance is critical in the struggle against structural racism and pointing to the role played by the prison system and police brutality in aggravating tensions between minority groups. It is crucial, he says, for API communities to reach out to black communities to ask: “How can we be a better ally to you, so we can create more solidarity when we come together to fight for criminal justice and comprehensive immigration reform?”
When did you begin to come into political consciousness and what inspired your interest in education?
It was through the prison system that I actually was able to learn how to read and write and think critically. But I was just learning about everybody else’s history – about American history, European history and Latin [American] history. Nobody really learns about Asian American history or south-east Asian history. So I made a proposal to one of the coordinators at the college program. I said: “Hey, can we have some elective courses on Asian American literature and studies?” [Myself and several inmates] put it in the form of a proposal. Then we added on other demands, like getting the administration to create a student body and a faculty body, so the students could have an opportunity to express what they wanted to learn and the faculty could decide what to teach. Four people signed the proposal, three Asian Americans and a Jewish brother. And one by one, they made up different reasons to lock us up.
They put the three Asians in solitary. During the investigation, they took all our paperwork, all the books that we were reading, and combed through everything that we wrote. I ended up spending 11 months in solitary. We filed a civil rights lawsuit against them, and eventually they settled the case. It was during that process that my peer organization started, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee [co-founded with Viet Mike Ngo and Rico Riemedio – who with Zheng were known as the “San Quentin Three”]. The Asian American community had started a movement in the Bay Area to support me and my friends, and it was during that time that I was able to really see how movement-building works, and how powerful the movement could be.
How do you feel about the prison system, as an institution, now? How do detention, deportation and criminalization intersect?
I feel that we should abolish the prison system and the prison-industrial complex. When slavery of African Americans was abolished through the 13th amendment, it was specifically about slavery not being allowed except when [the person] has committed a crime. The whole premise of the 13th amendment is about putting in place a system to continue to enslave African Americans. They put in specific language to make sure that people of color would continue to be exploited as free labor. Whenever you’re in an institution they are able to use you as a commodity, to make money off of your body.
[Often] people look at me as a token, as a success story, and use that as a way to say: “Oh, look at Eddy. Eddy became so successful, even though he committed a crime. Prison did him some good. That’s why we need the prison system, so we can create opportunities for people to learn.” That type of rhetoric is really the achilles heel of criminal justice reform. [Instead], focus on the lack of opportunity, or the barriers, that were created for the African American community, and this infrastructure [that is] disempowering groups of people. We don’t have to go to prison to become successful or to learn the way. There are holistic ways of healing, there are other ways of engaging individuals if, as a country, or as citizens of this earth, we are invested in that.
The prison-industrial complex and the Department of Homeland Security, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) – essentially they’re the same apparatus, the same system that was set up to target and discriminate against people of color, as well as refugees and immigrants. It’s the same for-profit system that exploits all the poor and sick people who are living in unstable conditions, who have experienced intergenerational trauma in a variety of ways. If you are a US citizen [convicted of a crime, you’re typically] let out, or put on parole or probation. But if you’re not a citizen of the US then you’re just automatically detained and ordered for deportation. Once you’re in detention, you have to go through the whole process of proving why you’re not a threat to society.
Talk about your focus on cross-racial community organizing and solidarity, and the role of the API community in broader discussions of racial divisions in this country.
As a result of [US] foreign policies, “less desirable” groups of people are displaced to different poverty- and violence-stricken areas. They grow up carrying the trauma of war. And then once they get to America they have to deal with these language barriers, cultural barriers. And then [refugees are placed in racially mixed communities, where] people of color have been so thoroughly disenfranchised and oppressed. It creates a lot of issues. Instead of building racial solidarity, and fighting for equity, they [fight] among each other. That’s where the machine comes in. The divide-and-conquer machine that is so well-oiled. That’s why the cross-cultural healing and engagement piece of political education is so important. That should be a priority in any educational institution, in any of our daily encounters.
And I feel that the model minority myth [that’s applied to Asians] is real, and it’s very disempowering – for both people who want to uphold the model-minority status and the people who are actively fighting against it. Essentially, the root cause is trauma and fear. The fear of being targeted, being oppressed, not being American enough. We have to really learn and explore and cultivate our culture, history and identity, as well as other people’s. We would know that we have more in common than we have differences – that we have a responsibility to each other, to our wellbeing and our survival and our liberation. We are all connected in that way. I think that’s the part that people are always neglecting: how do we humanize each other?