This weekend in Oakland, Calif., violence led to unity.
“More than 500+ crowd in Madison Park, a beautiful multiracial, multigenerational, multi-faith rainbow of folks speaking against violence, including the violence of poverty, deportation, criminalization, and institutional, systemic oppressions.” wrote activist Helen Zia on Instagram about the Feb. 13 Love Our People, Heal Our Communities rally.
Hosted by a coalition of Asian American organizations, the event addressed the surge in anti-Asian sentiment and crimes in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the nation. The event was livestreamed on Facebook for people like me who desperately wanted to take part, but were restricted by distance, the pandemic or both. What I saw on screen was indeed a rainbow of people behind masks, socially distant, but unified under a cause for justice and equality.
Watching the video livestream brought a surge of pride and optimism left vacant since the summer when similarly multiracial crowds poured onto the streets in cities across the nation. Then, like now, I watched the screen first in horror as a police officer callously killed George Floyd, then with pride when people of all colors took to the streets to demand justice and accountability.
People reckoned with their own relationship to racism and seemed to answer the Black existential cry of “We are here. We matter” with “I see you. I hear you.” In the swell of emotions, I wondered if the multiracial camaraderie and the unity were sustainable or if these moments were just snapshots staged and frozen in social media feeds.
I got my answer in Oakland this weekend when community members and activists, in response to the string of violent attacks on elderly Asian Americans, outlined their vision of the future as racially unified.
“My vision is that we are a community [that] will defend each other, that will protect each other, that will treat each other like family,” said Rev. Deborah Lee, executive director of the Interfaith Movement For Human Rights. At the event, a racially diverse line of people stood in the background to support the Asian American community in its time of need.
“When someone is like family, you don’t even have to think about if you are going to show up in the middle of a pandemic,” said Lee.
The multiracial faces at the rally show what Asian Americans have historically always done — show up and build bridges across racial divides. Asian American activism is rooted in multiracial coalition-building. During the civil rights movement, Yuri Kochiyama’s friendship with Malcolm X radicalized her towards black nationalism. She is famously pictured in a Life magazine photo hovering over Malcolm X’s bloody body after he was shot in 1965.
But it is another photo of the Japanese American activist that exemplifies her fiery spirit. In the black-and-white photo, Kochiyama is young, dressed in a dark high-neck tank top. She speaks into a microphone, frozen in an image of power through horn-rimmed glasses.
It’s fitting to see an image from the Feb. 13 rally of a participant wearing a sweatshirt with the same illustration of Kochiyama with the tagline, “Asians For Black Lives.” I could almost picture her nodding in approval.
During my time at the Pacific Citizen as the assistant editor, examples of Asian American coalition-building leapt from the golden pages of the newspaper’s archives. The 92-year-old newspaper is published by the JACL, the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization. In the 1960s, Japanese American leaders from the JACL worked with leaders of the NAACP.
Asian American activism is rooted in multiracial coalition-building. In the time of the Coronavirus, coalitions come in the wake of violence caught on video. Screens can be both a medium that connects people and a source of alienation and pain, played and replayed. Screens can bear witness to horrific crimes and act as a catalyst for change. In recent months, surveillance cameras captured many of the violent attacks on Asian American senior citizens.
On Jan. 28, Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, died from injuries sustained from an unprovoked attack in San Francisco’s Anza Vista neighborhood. According to family members, Ratanapakdee went on a morning walk when a suspect charged and pushed the senior citizen to the ground. In the security video, Ratanapakdee, dressed in a dark coat, seems to brace himself before crumpling to the ground on impact. On screen, he lays motionless on the pavement in front of a residential garage door while the suspect walks away. Oakland Police arrested Antoine Watson, 19, in connection with the crime.
Ratanapakdee, who was Thai American, was a “nearly blind, gentle person,” according to the family’s Go Fund Me page. The family believes the motive was race-based.
“Racism has once again proven deadly,” the family wrote on Go Fund Me.
On Jan. 31, a 91-year-old Asian American man in Oakland was brutally pushed to the ground in a seemingly unprovoked attack, also caught on camera. The footage, shot in closer range than Ratanapakdee’s, shows a suspect in a dark hoodie and a mask creeping up behind the senior citizen before violently pushing him to the ground. Oakland police arrested and charge Yahya Muslim, 28, with the crime. Muslim allegedly attacked two other victims, ages 60 and 55, in Chinatown, according to Oakland police.
Footage of the 91-year-old’s attack played and replayed across many social media platforms like a reoccurring nightmare, triggering deeply embedded feelings of anger and shame. The victims look like our parents and our grandparents. Watching them fall motionless to the ground felt personal. The attacks, and lack of initial media coverage, made us feel helpless and invisible.
“We understand that the trauma and the violence that has happened didn’t just happen to a few people. In a lot of ways, it’s happened to all of us, collectively,” said Lee at the event. “From seeing the videos, from hearing the stories from seeing the news, we’ve all also been harmed.”
Anti-Asian sentiment and violence sharply increased since the coronavirus upended our everyday lives, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a website that includes a self-reporting tool for attacks and harassment. Since its launch on March 19, Stop AAPI Hate has recorded 2,583 reports of anti-Asian discrimination.
It didn’t take long for Subreddit discussions on the rise of anti-Asian violence to center on the suspects’ race. Both Watson and Muslim are African American. But in the spirit of healing and unity, one individual’s action does not reflect on the entire community. We are a family, remember? Instead, we have to address the root causes of violence — poverty and racism.
What does racial unity look like? It is embodied in Rachel Kirkwood, who identifies as both Asian American and African American.
“Both of my communities are in pain right now and it hurts me to see that, so this is more than a news headline for me. This is really personal,” said Kirkwood, digital organizing manager at Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ). “I say with our Asian and Black siblings we need to stand together when the world tries to divide us. We cannot afford another life to be lost.”