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‘Not Your Model Minority’

On Saturday, March 13th, a coalition of Asian American activists organized the “Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power” rally at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, a location that speaker Bill Fujioka noted was built where “they bussed people into concentration camps.” Held in response to the rise of anti-Asian assaults since the start of the pandemic, the goal of the event was to provide a space for community members to share their experiences and to speak out in solidarity against the centuries of violence the Asian American community has endured under white supremacy.

The speakers included activists, artists and community members personally affected by recent events. Every speaker had their own experiences with racism, violence and Anti-Asian rhetoric, but in terms of finding a solution, there was a common theme: defunding the police.

Hate crimes against Asians have risen 150%, and that deadly trend continued this past Tuesday, when a white man murdered 8 people — four of them being Asian women — at two spas in Atlanta. At a press conference, the Atlanta police department explained these attacks as crimes wrought out of pent-up sexual frustration, to the outrage of the AAPI and other minority communities calling for the police and mainstream media to name the attacks for what they are — racism and misogyny-fueled homicide. The shameful response from the Atlanta police department shows the public, once again, who law enforcement choses to empathize with — white murderers over victims of hate crimes.

We spoke to several organizers at the event about the physical, psychological and economic violence facing Asian communities in Los Angeles today.

“One of the challenges is we are under-resourced as a community,” said Eddy Zheng, president of the New Breath Foundation, which supports immigrants and refugees who have faced deportation and violence. “When we have to respond very quickly, everybody just has to scramble and piecemeal things, but because of people’s commitment and dedication, things were able to come together very quickly. For example, in the Bay Area, there were two rallies that happened during Valentine’s weekend, and that was just organized within one week and thousands of people showed up, so I think that is a testament to the urgency of the challenges we are experiencing as a community.”

After being imprisoned at the age of 16, Zheng was facing deportation to China. Despite the fact that immigrants don’t have the legal right to a public defender, he fought the deportation for 21 years. He was pardoned in 2015 by former Governor Jerry Brown.

While in San Quentin State Prison, Zheng was radicalised through reading revolutionary writings and eventually mentored by legendary Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama. He became steadfast in his belief that we must seek alternatives to incarceration.

“It depends on how people experience harm. That’s how people experience their reaction to how to create a safer community,” said Zheng. “When we are talking about defunding the police, many of the members of the community are saying, how do we utilize some of that investment in law enforcement to instead keep our communities safe when it is very apparent that they are not keeping our communities safe? So therefore, resources should be diverted to support education, to support housing, employment, mental health. All the things that created the condition to make our community unsafe.”

Tiffany Do, or TiDo, an activist with the Chinese Community for Equitable Development (CCED) made an impassioned plea onstage at the rally for people to not let the violence be a reason to divert more money to policing: “Can you imagine what our community could do with 3 billion dollars? Right now the city could just use their imminent domain powers to buy Hillside Villa, and preserve affordable housing for 120 families. That money could be used for public health. We are in a pandemic. 22,000 people died but these deaths were preventable. Absolutely preventable. The city lets us die even though they have the money and power to make sure we are cared for. All of the working class communities are intentionally neglected.”

The multi-generational involvement in this event hit on another important reality: that this violence isn’t anything new. Economic disparity, displacement, deportation, and incarceration are things Asian American communities in Los Angeles, and across the United States, have been experiencing long before now.

“Poor, minority, immigrant communities don’t get listened to, that’s the history of this country,” said Craig Wong from the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, which fights for Chinatown’s working class tenants by demanding affordable housing and defending the neighborhood from gentrification and evictions. “The only way the city is going to respond to us is if we force them to. The city just doesn’t have the political will to do it, unless we make the cost for them not to do it much higher than what they are willing to pay.”

Chinatown has been a sorely underfunded and underserved communityfor decades, but despite many living in slum-like conditions, they fight against forced evictions and gentrification to stay in their homes. “In terms of evictions, there was a crisis in Chinatown even before the pandemic,” said Wong. “With the pandemic, people haven’t been able to pay their rent, and when it comes due in a year, it is going to be a real problem. You know most of the people will not be able to pay their rent. There is no way that a community making a median income of $21,000 a year is going to be able to pay thousands of dollars in back rent.”

As TiDo mentioned, Hillside Villa is currently in a fight for eminent domain, and another building, 651 N Broadway, is also fighting against pernicious landlords. “Tenants have fought to stop rent increases and they have fought to put the building into R.E.A.P, which is a city program where really egregious landlords do not get to collect rent, but the rent goes to the city and forces repairs,” said Wong, “We have a lawsuit going on against Atlas Capital and their College Station project, which has over 700 units, no affordable. Those are meant to displace us.”

Taiji Miyagawa from the Progressive Asian Network for Action (PANA) also outlines how difficult it has been for elderly residents to maintain their standard of living: “One of the facilities in Boyle Heights called the Sakura Intermediate Care Facility is being proposed to be converted to rental housing …They want to evict seniors there who are now aged from the 80’s to 100’s, however the problem is, there is no comparable facility like this anywhere in the United States.”

There is a long history of battling these systemic issues, but TiDo also speaks to us about the challenges within the AAPI community: “I think a lot of times Asians get complacent because of our privilege in this society. Because of our privilege, we feel comfortable…They’re awakening to realize that proximity to whiteness will not save us. So for the people who are just waking up, it is important for them to realize — for Asians that is the whole point — we are used as the model minority and they try to side us with white people, but we are not. We have also been colonized.”

In an earlier speech at the rally, TiDo addressed the hundreds of community members gathered: “I ask you to reflect on our community’s anti-blackness. I ask you to think hard about whether we are truly anti-racist if we make this only about Anti-Asian violence. It is not a coincidence that this media bubble is happening so soon after Black Abolitionists took steps to successfully begin defunding the police … We are in many ways being used as a distraction from and a tool against the movement to defund the police. So we are here to say, hell no. We refuse to be the wedge. We are not your model minority. The harm against our elders will not be used as a tool to advocate for more harm against our Black and Brown siblings.”

Despite all the roadblocks and the years of fighting a system that wasn’t created for them, there is hope in the avidity of young activists, and there is power in the opportunity to build coalitions with other activist and minority groups. “These folks are the best set of young organizers I have ever seen in my life,” said Wong. “These young folks are the heroes in Chinatown right now. Older people have a huge amount of trust, the elderly folks. To them, these people, they are heroes.”

Many of the organizers also emphasized how crucial it is to continue to build momentum toward reinvesting in their communities and alternatives to policing— especially after the current media cycle dies down. “When things seem to die down in the mainstream media, then all of a sudden the organizing stops, or the people that are really upset about what they are witnessing and experiencing all of a sudden become pacified,” Wong said. “That is the worst thing that could happen, so that’s why we need to focus on this momentum and continue to work on post-racial healing and promote racial solidarity as a way to address systemic issues.”

Indeed, as we have seen the past 24 hours, police departments across the country, including in Atlanta and Los Angeles, are already making plans to increase policing in Asian American Pacific Islander neighborhoods with the support of politicians. When government officials attempt to address the issues of anti-Asian American hate, like in the virtual conversation — which has a panel including City Attorney Mike Feuer, Councilmember Nithya Raman, LAPD Assistant Chief Bea Girmala, Manjusha Kulkarni of Stop AAPI Hate, and Mayor Eric Garcetti — planned for tomorrow afternoon, they should listen to what Black and Brown communities have been shouting about for over a year: defund the police and reinvest in communities.

“We have Kevin de León’s vote,” says Miyagawa. “I hope we can get other liberal, left-leaning candidates to vote. I am a little disturbed by Nithya Raman’s appointment of a high profile developer advisor to her staff: Andrea Conant. She helped to railroad the Meribal Project in the Mid-Wilshire area. She basically strong-armed that project. It’s a little bit disturbing to us especially since we backed Nithya’s campaign and she hired someone like that to her staff.”

TiDo says it best: “This is a political moment for how the Asian American community will respond to white supremacy. And we are here to say, we will not be silent. We are here to show that we are organized, we are politicized, and we are ready to fight and demand what our community needs.”

Shelby Eggers and Jon Peltz

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