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A Politics of Our Time: Reworking Afro-Asian Solidarity

Asian Americans’ relationship to state violence that disproportionately affects Black men and women is entangled within existing relations of hierarchy and exploitation in complex ways. Given this, we would do well, to hone a politics of our time.

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On May 25, 2020, the whole world witnessed the horrific killing of George Floyd on 38th and Chicago in South Minneapolis when the video taken by a bystander went viral. The two officers caught on camera were white and Asian American: Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao. Thao is a Hmong American. Later, we learned that two more officers - J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane - were involved. While Chauvin pinned a handcuffed George Floyd on the ground, face down, and kneeled on his neck to kill him, the other three did nothing to stop him. Chauvin is now in custody, charged with murder. The other three who aided and abetted have been charged as well. Increasingly, we have all become spectators of such scenes of state-sanctioned killings in recent times where unarmed Black men and women were shot with impunity by the police.

Asian Americans are aware of Asian American involvement in the killing of Floyd. Like many, we are outraged. Many of us are taking to the streets, day in and day out, to join the multitude to demand justice for Floyd. Coming on the heels of the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes and xenophobic outbursts caused by the nefarious characterization of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” we have been politically active. In Minnesota, Asian Americans are showing great strength and taking actions for Black lives. Yet, to say Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now George Floyd’s names presents a different order of challenge. We are cognizant of divergent and distinct experiences of race, insofar as how state-sanctioned violence shapes our lives, livelihoods, life outcomes, and most important politics.

 The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising brought the complexity of Asian Americans’ relationship to state violence into sharp relief. After the verdicts were rendered to acquit the officers involved in the brutal beating of Rodney King in late April 1992, the city went up in flames. The uprising that started in South Central spread northward. Koreatown was hit hard especially; the police were nowhere to be found as businesses and buildings were targeted and destroyed. As a result, Korean Americans fended for themselves, including some taking arms. The media coverage took hold of Black-Korean conflicts and looped readily available stereotypes about Asian Americans and Black and Brown people. Asian Americans were cast as the “good minority” unfairly targeted as scapegoats in a city under siege by “rioters” and “looters.” Racial hierarchy often produces a good-and-bad morality play, and Asian Americans get, as Claire Jean Kim has argued, triangulated within this system of white over Black as neither of the two, unprotected by the law and placed outside the body politic as forever foreigners.

Still, this triangulation has a way of denying all the uneasiness and irresolution surrounding everyday human experiences with violence, suffering, and grief from being made known. The antagonisms between Black people and Korean Americans, to be clear, intensified in Los Angeles at a particular juncture. The city was in the throes of a convergence of mass criminalization, the fast-eroding welfare state, and the reorganization of the global political economy toward deregulation, privatization, and financialization that affected those who were minoritized and racially aggrieved unevenly. Hyper-segregation, by the early 1990s, had become the norm for urban life. Ascendant at the same time was the rhetoric of individual choice, freedom, and responsibility that buttressed white flight to the suburbs and the widening of the racial wealth gap. Not surprisingly, immigration from Asia and Latin America and refugee resettlement from Southeast Asia, rising steadily throughout the 1980s, became, in the quotidian, a cauldron of racial dramas in cities under an emergent austerity order.

To add another dimension, group identifications stiffened rather dramatically because of the killing of a fifteen-year-old Black girl Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a Korean woman liquor store owner. On March 16, 1991, Du shot Harlins in the back of her head in the store, killing her instantly. This killing coincided with the beating of Rodney King, both of which were captured on videos that went viral. These two events were inseparable and certainly informed how the media shaped the story about Korean-Black conflicts. Du, in the end, walked away without serving any jail time. The presiding judge Joyce A. Karlin’s sentencing was a major blow: five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. This judgment came a week before the acquittal of four officers in the King case. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the uprising, Korean Americans took to the streets to denounce the police and denial of their right to protection as citizens. They recalled the historical tradition of Black struggles to demand reparations. Justices in America, without fail, appear through racial fault lines.

Another deeply confounding and contested instance is a more recent one. It is a high-profiled case of police violence in Brooklyn, New York: the murder of Akai Gurley on November 24, 2014 by Chinese American officer Peter Liang. Liang was prosecuted and convicted. In response, Chinese Americans in large cities rallied behind Liang in 2015-16. They saw him, again, as a scapegoat. In all the cases of police killings before, they argued, the white officers were exonerated. Their stance was that of equality with whites; Liang should not be treated any differently. Asian Americans who stood in solidarity to demand justice for Gurley clashed with Liang’s supporters.

Here, too, racial hierarchy matters; this division makes it clear the two predominant modes of the Asian American racial experience. There are those who ascribe to colorblind meritocracy and celebrate material success. In other words, they believe in the American dream. Then, there are those who struggle against structural and institutional racism. They recognize that the perception of Asian Americans as a “model minority” has a crippling effect, for it becomes a way of condemning, disciplining, and policing the racialized poor as a “misbehaving minority.” It also hides hard realities of Asian American poverty and educational gaps, as well as persistent anti-Asian discrimination and criminalization experienced among Asian Americans in the everyday.

Asian Americans’ relationship to state violence that disproportionately affects Black men and women is entangled within the existing relations of hierarchy and exploitation in complex ways. Given this reality, we would do well, all the more, to hone a politics of our own time.

 As always, the past is our guide. At the height of the U.S. war in Viet Nam in 1968, Asian American activists thoroughly understood this imperative of fashioning a new politics. Their approach was to pivot around opposition to U.S. imperialism and militarism. Coining a movement-building nomenclature, “Asian American,” in and of itself was politics. They made a conscious choice to fundamentally rebuke the racist appellation, “Oriental,” through political organizing, action, and education; this shift was paradigmatic.

It is worth remembering that Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, two iconic figures of Asian American movement history, and especially Afro-Asian solidarity because of their involvement in Black struggles for liberation, moved closer to identifying with “Asian American,” not because of their interest in identity or heritage. Far from it, by entering movement-building spaces created by such organizations as Asian Americans for Action (for Kochiyama in New York City) and Asian Political Alliance (for Boggs in Detroit), they learned to articulate a distinctly Asian American conception of politics derived from the currents of resistance that were anti-imperialist and anti-war.

Politics, for them, was antagonistic and contingent. It was hardly static, and it would flare up in dynamic ways in times of crisis. The birth of “Asian American” as a political category of struggle is a great case study of how politics works.

What could our politics look like in the context of the current policing crisis that gave form to the movement for Black Lives? When a wave of protests spread throughout the country in 2014-15 in the wake of the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, thousands of Asian Americans linked up with Black Lives Matter. We called out anti-Black racism within our own communities and families to highlight complicity with the police and carceral state. We also revolted against the model minority discourse unequivocally. But some of these efforts were clumsy at best, especially “Letters for Black Lives,” a multilingual open letter campaign addressed to “Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother, Family.” It appeared woefully unschooled in Asian American studies, especially the movement culture that created this field in the first place. The very notion of “Asian American” remained impaled within the existing racial hierarchy.

Largely overlooked is a political stance of Asian American activists who have been engaging in the work of resisting state-sanctioned violence long before “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” became the touchstone for contemporary struggles against the police state. These activists have always operated with understanding that (1) policing is part and parcel of punishing and terrorizing state power that is deployed routinely at those marked as threats and enemies and (2) critical interventions would require exposing militarization as a central problem. Such is the point of departure for a politics of our time.

At a deeper philosophical level, police power produces what Charles W. Mills calls “a partitioned social ontology,” which entails bifurcating human life based on worthiness and drawing a sharp line between personhood and subpersonhood. The subjugated are denied a bundle of inalienable rights, an essential requirement to be human. Policing is race-making par excellence. Historically speaking, this power has been perfected through Indigenous dispossession, enslavement, Jim Crow racial order, the exploitation and deportation of Mexican and Asian labor, and countless imperial wars within the continental United States and overseas with the purpose of protecting property: stolen lands and wealth derived from racist violence. This is what Nikhil Pal Singh means by the “whiteness of police.” Whiteness, as he explains, “emerges from the governance of property and its relationship to those who have no property and thus no calculable interests, and who are therefore imagined to harbor a potentially criminal disregard for propertied order.”

The word “gook,” for one, is lodged inside the “whiteness of police.” While it is commonly associated with the carnage of the U.S. war in Viet Nam, its usage and meaning as a synonym for an enemy are tightly interwoven with the U.S. history of race-making, imperial hubris, and militarism in the first half of the twentieth century, as David Roediger shows. Wherever the United States carried out warfare and plunder and established military presence, be it in the Philippines, Haiti, Central America, Hawai‘i, and Korea, to rule and police the vast areas of the globe and its markets, resources, territories, and the people, this repulsive and soul-killing word cropped up.

The ongoing War on Terror has also emboldened the exercise of police power globally. The torture and indefinite detention of enemy combatants took the center stage, and aerial warfare, especially drone strikes, expanded. Myriad domestic counterterrorism programs took root in the United States and across the Global North to institutionalize profiling and surveillance. An outcome has been that the clouds of suspicion around Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, and South Asians have normalized the mainstream perception that “Islam is a threat” and “Muslims are terrorists.” With it, xenophobia has helped to create an incredibly hostile environment in politics and social life.

This history of racist violence, along with ongoing militarization, was not lost on Asian American movement activists when they came together in 2006-2009 to respond to the killing of an unarmed 19-year old Hmong American Fong Lee on the North Side of Minneapolis by officer Jason Andersen. It was uppermost in their political consciousness. The fact is that in the last forty years, policing has become ever more lethal. The connection between domestic policing and low-intensity warfare and pacification tactics deployed abroad in places such as Viet Nam, for instance, is well-documented. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis discusses the emergence of the Los Angeles Police Department's militarized culture that was triumphantly shaped by city officials and some of the senior officers who were veterans themselves. He draws connections between “Vietnam here” and abroad to make it explicit how the experience of mass murder and terror – the U.S. imperial war in Southeast Asia – found a new articulation in a war against gangs throughout the 1980s.

Bao Phi’s poem, 8(9),” written in memory of Fong Lee and for the Lee family and the Justice for Fong Lee committee, powerfully captures American policing born out of the history of race-making, militarism, state violence, and subjection. The title refers to nine bullets that Minneapolis police officer Anderson fired, eight bullets penetrating Fong Lee’s body, who was marked as a “gang member,” and one bullet missing the target.

The eighth section of the poem that denotes the final bullet that struck him, in particular, appears to recall Hmong people’s history of fleeing persecution and being entangled in many wars. Their participation in U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-led covert military action during the U.S. war in Viet Nam, for instance, made them enemies in the eyes of Vietnamese and Lao soldiers. And in the aftermath of the U.S. defeat in April 1975, the Pathet Lao forces swiftly began an eliminatory campaign against Hmong people, in essence, ethnic cleansing. The refrain, “men with guns,” underscores the reach of militarization in their lives, both before and after they resettled in the United States, many of them in Minnesota, as refugees. By framing the poem in this way, Bao Phi renders the ethos of Justice for Fong Lee movement building that pivoted around demilitarization. This movement culture, in many ways, prefigured the cutting-edge of contemporary Asian American radicalism.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis is now the pacesetter of the movement to dismantle the police. Afro-Asian solidarity has a place in it. It is vital and urgent as before. But this political project cannot be the same as in the past, nor begin and end on a critique of antiblackness. To recast an optic on Asian American identification with the Black struggle against the police state, we need to recall our own experiences and memories of living through wars, aggressive militarism, invasion, and occupation in Asia and Southeast Asia, U.S.-led or otherwise; exclusion, detention, and interrogation at the borders, here and elsewhere around the world; and forced mass removal and displacement, deportation, surveillance, and incarceration, then and now.

Afro-Asian solidarity will be made anew, no doubt. Speaking at the Justice for George Floyd rally at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Fong Lee’s mother, Youa Vang, has shown us how to say Fong’s name. “Here’s what I saw with Fong,” she told the crowd in Hmong, recalling the days of fighting for justice in the wake of state-sanctioned killing that took Fong Lee’s life.

“Black people were with us the whole time, morning or night,” she said. “Whenever we needed something they were there. Whether it was day or night, even up until one in the morning.” This is a description of Afro-Asian organizing for a defense campaign, not an expression of solidarity. Her statement speaks of people’s commitment to do all that they can to defend the life and human rights of martyrs and, by extension, perhaps, prisoners and all those who are suffering under the police state and militarized culture. It also speaks of collective popular urgency to fight for martyrs’ life and human rights as though they are our own as we contend the force of violence, “for if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night,” as James Baldwin famously wrote in the closing sentence of “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis.” This is about banding and struggling together against the predatory state for the cause of a collective defense of all those who are condemned by this force.

We occupy a moment of critical emergency and emergence. The reworking of Afro-Asian solidarity in the service of demilitarization is a politics of our time. It has critical purchase in manifold struggles for peace, justice, and genuine security embedded within fortified cities and the U.S. military’s “empire of bases” in Asia and the Pacific. Thinking through justice for George Floyd is to take such detours in the struggles of the past and present.

Yuichiro Onishi teaches in the Department of African American & African Studies and Asian American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities