Addressing Anti-Asian Attacks With Transformative Justice
In recent weeks, there have been over 20 attacks on Asian businesses and people, mostly elders, with little to no coverage from the mainstream news outlets. Videos documenting such attacks have been circulating, mostly through individual social media accounts of Asian activists, celebrities, and journalists (thank you Amanda Nguyen, Dion Lim, Dr. Kiona, Daniel Dae Kim, Benny Luo, Lisa Ling, and Daniel Wu for being among the first public figures to use your platform to mobilize others). They show a 91-year-old Chinese man being shoved to the ground in Chinatown in Oakland, California, on Jan. 31, just two days before an 84-year-old Thai man, Vicha Ratanapakdee, was pushed and killed in San Francisco, and multiple accounts of robberies targeting Asian-owned businesses in Chinatowns. In New York, a 61-year-old Filipino man was slashed across the face from ear to ear on Feb 3, and on the same day, a 70-year-old Asian woman was assaulted and robbed in Oakland.
Between March and August of 2020, Stop AAPI Hate received more than 2,583 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide, and these incidents go grossly underreported. The alarming jobless rate of Asian Americans and the high COVID-19 mortality rate among Pacific Islanders, which is double that of White and other Asian people, continue to be left out of mainstream narratives when discussing the disproportionate economic and health impacts of the pandemic on people of color.
The Model Minority Myth running deep in the American psyche is the problematic portrayal of Asians as a monolithic group of quiet, hard-working, politically silent, and therefore “well-behaved” immigrants, which was created in the ’60s to position Asians in opposition to the Black community, whose social justice activism was seen as a national threat to the status quo of White supremacy. Over the years, this politically motivated and fundamentally anti-Black myth has successfully achieved its purpose of driving a wedge between Asians and other people of color groups in America, while simultaneously erasing, making invisible, and even delegitimizing Asian communities’ real-life struggles by using the economic success of the few to defend the centuries-old unjust systems rooted in White supremacy, anti-Blackness, capitalism, and colonialism.
This wedge continues to be driven even deeper today, where, to my dismay, many of the recent attacks against Asian elders were perpetrated by Black individuals, and the myriad intra- and inter-community reactions have once again exposed the historical and ongoing tension between the Asian and Black American communities.
Today, in reaction to the series of attacks on our elders, many enraged Asians are calling for the immediate arrest of the perpetrators of violence while demanding the most punitive charges be made. “Send a message,” they say. And I have to wonder, “Weren’t we just demanding we defund the police in solidarity with Black Lives Matter?”
When asked to support the amplification effort and denounce the heinous attacks on Asians, some Black people criticize the anti-Blackness still prevalent in the Asian community. “Asians are anti-Black.” “Asians never show up for us.” “It’s Black History Month.” And to that I wonder, “So will you watch us die?”
And the cycle continues. We fight anti-Asian racism with anti-Black rhetoric and tactics, and anti-Asian racism goes unnoticed, or worse justified, in part because of the deep-seated and understandable resentment towards our community, which undeniably has more work to do to eradicate anti-Blackness, and whose perceived proximity to whiteness is aided through the perpetual and blatant erasure of our historical and present-day solidarity work with other marginalized communities.
I am exhausted by the continued silence and delayed motions from the mainstream media outlets committed to upholding white supremacy through erasing our struggles while magnifying the myth of the model minority that puts a target on our backs.
Some might say the 1992 Los Angeles uprising marked the pinnacle of the tension between the two communities, where the two groups found themselves facing each other in physical opposition in Koreatown, each fighting for justice, dignity, and survival of their kin. The site of the protest was no coincidence, given it marked the place where Soon Ja Du, a Korean American liquor store owner, just a year prior, shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl who Du believed tried to steal a bottle of orange juice. There was a righteous public outrage when Du was sentenced to merely five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine, and again when the sentencing decision was unanimously upheld in an appeal about a week before the uprising began. When all four White police officers who brutalized Rodney King were acquitted, the Black community and its allies rose up and swarmed the streets to express their grief and fury, and Koreatown was one of its righteous battlegrounds. University of Southern California estimates that more than 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed during the uprising, which stretched for nearly a week from April 29 to May 4, 1992, and more than 60 people died, with more than 2,000 were injured. About half of the estimated $1 billion in damage was sustained by more than 2,300 Korean-owned mom-and-pop shops, leaving enduring economic and emotional trauma that many are yet to fully recover from. While the LAPD stationed themselves to protect richer White suburbs, Korean business owners, panicked by the reality of having been abandoned by the government, screamed for help while watching their American dreams burn to the ground, while others armed themselves to defend their only means for survival, pointing their guns at Black and Brown faces. “Nothing in my life indicated I was a secondary citizen until the LA riots. The LAPD powers that be decided to protect the ‘haves’ and the Korean community did not have any political voice or power. They left us to burn,” Chang Lee, a Korean American business owner recalled in an interview with CNN. Despite both communities being victims of unjust and racist systems, many believed their opponent to be the traumatized faces in front of them, not the systems of White supremacy that had failed both communities.
Today, White supremacy is acting again, pitting our communities against each other and banking on our collective amnesia about the conditions that have birthed the violence—the government’s utter failure to create any semblance of financial safety for the most marginalized in the midst of a pandemic; systemic racism permeating every nook and cranny of our medical system that bar access to adequate care for the most vulnerable front-line workers, most of whom are Black and Brown (don’t forget, Brown includes some AAPI folks, too); and the institutional robbery committed against the public while corporate billionaires became multibillionaires off a game only they are allowed to play. All of these unjust and exploitative conditions have led to such scarcity among the already marginalized, and our two traumatized communities, once again, find ourselves with our fists up ready to battle for survival, this time in Chinatown.
White supremacy wants us to remember the unhealed wounds we inflicted on each other, historical and ongoing anti-Blackness in the Asian community and anti-Asian incidents perpetrated by Black individuals, but not the stories of solidarity that have existed in equal measure, and are somehow left out of our history books and media coverage. In the aftermath of the LA uprising, volunteers from all racial groups showed up to rebuild Koreatown: “One by one,” said Lee, “neighbors came out to help. They were Black, Korean, and Latino. 30 people. They gave me hope. They are my community. And it’s time again to stay bound together these next four years.” Despite our “mutual ignorance,” as activist Helen Zia once described, we have been showing up for each other. And I’m not talking about the performative gestures of posting black squares and BLM hashtags; I’m talking about the work of our ancestors like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, and Larry Itliong, who worked alongside the Black Panthers in the ’60s, to the Third Liberation Front, a coalition of Black, Latinx, and Asian student organizations that sustained one of the longest student strikes in the U.S. that resulted in the creation of Ethnic Studies, to the present-day coalitionary organizing to mobilize voters in Georgia, push for prison reform and abolishment, and defund and demilitarize the police. … The work has been ongoing, with or without the mainstream consciousness or participation, and it is our duty to remember and uplift these stories to seed healing and change.
And truthfully, I am exhausted. I am exhausted by the continued violence against my people and especially our elders, who remind me of my 92-year-old grandpa who died after fighting for Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization and then against U.S. imperialism in our homeland, who cannot seem to find refuge anywhere in their lifetime. I am exhausted by the continued silence and delayed motions from the mainstream media outlets committed to upholding White supremacy through erasing our struggles while magnifying the myth of the model minority that puts a target on our backs. I am exhausted trying to hold both the trauma and pain of my community and steering us all away from the trap of anti-Blackness as the weapon of choice to fight our oppression. I am exhausted by the blatant dismissal and erasure of Asian and Black solidarity work that’s been ongoing for decades, and having to justify our ask for the bare minimum acknowledgement of our crisis without being asked to show receipts. I’m exhausted by the internalized oppression of some Asian people who would rather have us die in silence than be confronted by the truth of our positionality as still being oppressed and not-yet-quite-White despite some’s economic success, who would rather appeal to those who want to see us behaving politely rather than politically. And finally, I am torn inside by the incredible difficulty of asking our traumatized families to imagine solutions beyond policing, to redefine accountability and justice beyond the confines of the American legal system that criminalize Black and Brown bodies for profit, while also advocating for their healing and immediate relief.
The only way out of the vicious cycle of violence we continue to find ourselves in is through deep, unrelenting, and principled inter-community solidarity. As Asians, we must interrogate the conditions and narratives we find ourselves in and remember in our core that White supremacy is not our savior. We have an opportunity to reclaim our narratives—and our identity—by being loud, angry, political, defiant, and in lockstep with the Black community to keep our communities safe while denouncing systems that have never protected us.
In light of these complexities, here is how everyone can help:
Acknowledge, amplify, and denounce the ongoing anti-Asian hate crimes. Say it in your own words. Say this is not OK. Say you condemn it. Say you believe it is wrong. Say it personally and organizationally. Make space for our pain because there is always enough space for all of us—all of our pain, healing, and liberation can coexist without diminishing the other.
Interrupt anti-Asian racism and anti-Black racism. Neither is OK, in any context. When you see Asians being called “chinks” “dog-eaters” “disease spreaders” “dirty” or otherwise blamed for the violence we are experiencing—please shut it down. And when non-Black folks, even if they are Asians who are hurting right now, engage in anti-Blackness by saying “Black people are criminals,” “Black people are dangerous”—please call that out, too. We must be principled in our anger and channel it to dismantling the real enemy: White supremacy culture that creates the either/or binary and scarcity mindset that has left us fighting each other for the scraps.
Interrupt generalizations: If someone says, “Asians are anti-Black,” say “Anti-Blackness is a pervasive issue within the Asian community and many Asians have been working within their own community to address and challenge this. Have you been following their work?” If someone says, “Black people hate Asians,” say, “Your generalization of an entire community based on a few examples is harmful. There are plenty of Black people fighting in solidarity with Asian people right now. Do you know them?”
Interrupt the active and persistent erasure of Black and Asian solidarity work. When Black people say “Asians never show up for us,” or when Asian people say, “Black people don’t care about us,” talk about how throughout history, our solidarity work has been erased deliberately and intentionally by our education system and the media to worsen the divide. We need to amplify these examples of solidarity to heal and build trust together.
Invest in community-based interventions. Contrary to what some may believe, enhancing our contact with the police is not a long-term solution that will keep our community safe. Despite its two-block proximity to the Oakland Police Department, Oakland Chinatown is not “safe”as evidenced by the increased attacks against its residents and businesses. Just in December, Christian Hall, a 19-year old Asian teen in Pennsylvania, was shot by the state police while having a mental health crisis. Asians are among the fastest growing undocumented populations in the U.S., and those who fear deportation and criminalization will not be safe in the presence of more police. Even when the police are called, our incidents rarely get documented correctly or acted upon with a sense of urgency. Neighborhoods with heavy police presence are not safer. Neighborhoods with access to quality medical and mental health care, financial support, food and shelter, education, are. Rather than calling for more policing, FBI surveillance, and funneling money towards the deeply racist criminalization system that seeks to uphold White supremacy, invest time, money, and energy into creating and supporting community-based interventions that seek to keep all of us safe.
I know many within my community disagree with me on my approach to justice and accountability that do away with government-sanctioned law enforcement. I’ve received plenty of messages of dissent and anger that mistake my message as yet another way to make our pain small, rolling over, and turning the other cheek to continue to be abused. But I’m reeling with anger, too. I’m in pain, and I want justice, too.
A few years ago, my Korean mom, who only knows to smile when someone looks at her, was held at gunpoint, robbed, and punched in the head by a Black man in San Francisco. She did not want me to worry, so before calling me, she called the police. Beyond filing a routine report, they did not offer any material support that could help her heal from the trauma. She was left to her own devices to figure out how to process her physical and emotional trauma, earn back the rent money she had lost, and protect herself against identity theft. Thinking about that night, and seeing the ongoing violent attacks on other Asian elders, I wake up wailing from the pain, even desiring to inflict physical harm on these perpetrators who remind me of what happened to my sweet mother. But what I’m trying to tend to is the undeniable, fierce, and aggressive love I have for my people that is stronger than my desire for punishment for those who harmed us. That more than I want to hurt them back, I want to keep our people safe. Not just now, but for good.
We have an opportunity to reclaim our narratives — and our identity — by being loud, angry, political, defiant, and in lock-step with the Black community to keep our communities safe while denouncing systems that have never protected us.
As U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez recently remarked, “Accountability is not about revenge. It’s about safety.” These different community interventions are not a “weaker” form of accountability and justice—they are part of the most sustainable and holistic solutions to transforming the root causes that continue the cycle of violence among marginalized communities. And countless local organizations and activists on the ground have been modeling for us to follow their lead: Oakland Chinatown Coalition, a coalition of 20 Chinatown nonprofits, associations, and individuals, swiftly brought together a diverse group of volunteers to engage in dialogue and actions to keep Oakland Chinatown safe, creating community-powered and survivor-centered programs like the Senior Survivor Program and collaborating with individuals like Jacob Azevedo to organize volunteers to stroll the neighborhood and accompany elders. Stop AAPI Hate has been gathering hate incident reports independent of law enforcement, using online forms accessible in more than 10 different Asian languages to encourage more diverse participation and ensure we have disaggregated data that does not flatten our different lived experiences under the Asian American umbrella. A coalition of organizations is helping to fundraise to rebuild the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay, which suffered a devastating fire, preventing it from providing its usual 40,000 meals a month to its most vulnerable populations, and other organizations are fundraising and distributing funds to provide care for Asian elders who were assaulted. I am seeing many Bay Area-based, Black-led organizations publicly denouncing anti-Asian hate crimes while supporting community-based solutions that will keep all local communities safer.
I’m still a student of Transformative Justice, a different approach to justice that seeks to address violence without causing more violence, and one that does not rely on punitive and carceral consequences that White supremacy has taught us to associate accountability with. I hope many more will join me in learning and practicing it, and amplify and direct resources to community leaders like Mia Mingus, adrienne marie brown, Shira Hassan, Mariame Kaba, and more, who have been teaching and spreading critical knowledge for years in different social justice spaces.
The collective and intergenerational trauma Asians hold is vast and painfully deep. The erasure and silence around our struggles, from both of our own community and our allies, only deepen the wound while widening the gap between us and other marginalized communities. At a time when multiple traumas are converging and so much suffering simultaneously witnessed, we need cross-community solidarity more than ever to fight for our collective healing and liberation from all forms of violence.
This article was originally published originally published on the Awaken Blog. It has been published here with permission.
Michelle Kim is a queer Korean American writer, entrepreneur, and activist based in Oakland, California. She is the author of The Wake Up (Hachette, Fall 2021), and CEO of Awaken. Follow Michelle on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter.