By Frank Irigon
For Northwest Asian Weekly
On Feb. 9 and March 2, 1971, the Oriental Student Union, led by co-chairs Alan Sugiyama and Mike Tagawa, led demonstrations at Seattle Central Community College, closing the district’s administration building to protest the lack of Asian American administrators at the multiethnic college.
“If there are no Asian administrators working, there will be no one working,” Sugiyama declared at the beginning of the peaceful demonstrations.
Sugiyama pointed out that highly qualified Asian Americans applied for top jobs at the college, but were consistently not hired or passed over for promotions by lesser-qualified whites. Because of these injustices, the Oriental Student Union decided to seize the time and correct these injustices by holding peaceful demonstrations.
These demonstrations brought together the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, American Indian Students Association, Young Socialists, and sympathetic white students in support of the Asian American demonstrators and their demands.
Ironically, the top administrator at the college was an African American who, instead of being a harbinger for change, was an opponent of it. He decided that in no way was he going to capitulate to the demands of the Oriental Student Union. Instead, he was going to fight them.
These demonstrations were a portent of things to come in the metamorphosis of Seattle’s Asian American community in the coming decades.
These demonstrations turned a community that chose to let things slide and not cause waves, into a community dedicated to direct action to change things for the better. Once baptized in the waters of civil disobedience and taking it to the streets, the Asian American community was emboldened to challenge the status quo. They were no longer going to be the model minority. They were going to stand up and be counted among the brothers and sisters who clamored for peace and social justice.
Out of the cauldron of the demonstrations at Seattle Central Community College arose many more direct action activities, from the founding of the Pacific Northwest’s truly Pan-Asian community newspaper, the Asian Family Affair, to the Kingdome demonstration. The former published news that was important to the Asian American community that the local media wouldn’t report. The latter prevented loss of the character of the International District/Chinatown due to construction of the Kingdome and kept it as a neighborhood for its primarily Asian elderly residents.
In the end, though it didn’t happen immediately, the Seattle Community College District appointed an Asian American, Dr. Peter Ku, as its president and later as its chancellor. Presently, Asian American Mark Matsui is the president of North Seattle Community College.
But there is room for improvement, and not just on this campus, but at other community and technical colleges in the state of Washington.
In the face of today’s economic challenges and while the burden of paying for the state’s financial solvency is falling on the backs of the poor, the middle class, retirees, and labor unions’ right to organize, isn’t it time for all of us to seize the time, again? ♦
This commentary was originally printed in the March issue of Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans. It has been reprinted here with permission.
Frank Irigon has had various social service leadership positions related to International District and Asian/Pacific Islander issues. He was co-founder of Asian Family Affair and has served as executive director of Washington Asian Pacific Islander Families Against Substance Abuse.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.