By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Standing before the councilmembers, who sat in a row like judges, Kim Nguyen, a beauty school owner in the Chinatown-International District (CID), asked the one question that might very well define past and present efforts of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community to survive in this country.
“We are your people, aren’t we?” she asked.
Nguyen was speaking at a King County Council budget meeting on Oct. 19 as part of a group of about 60 protesters from the CID asking, for the first time, for something back from the government, which they had supported with taxes and complied with as it harassed and persecuted them over centuries, with exclusion laws, redlining, and environmental injustice.
The protesters were asking for a $20 million investment fund for behavioral health services, economic recovery, and public safety.
In the wake of catastrophic damage to the CID, not only during the past century, but also as a result of a huge increase, in the past few years, in shootings, homicides, arson, rape, and assaults, community advocates were asking for the county to redress past harms and prevent further destruction.
“We’re coming to you. We want safety. We want clean streets. We want our businesses to prosper. We want our neighborhood to thrive. Magnolia has that, Laurelhurst has that, View Ridge has that, Madrona has that. All beautiful safe neighborhoods,” said Amy Chen Lozano. “The CID deserves that as well.”
A trial plan
It was a moment that had several precursors. The county had agreed to scrap plans to expand a megaplex homeless shelter on the border of the CID after months of protests by residents.
Community advocates said they were also inspired by a recent plan put forth by Deputy Mayor Greg Wong to provide more services to the CID on a trial basis for eight weeks. This would include directing officers from other parts of the city to the CID, increasing clean up services, and working to remove graffiti, according to Tanya Woo, a member of a work group with city and county officials.
In her remarks at the council meeting, Woo thanked the county for halting expansion of the homeless shelter, saying that there were already 20 shelters in a one-mile radius of the CID.
Echoing comments of other protesters, she said the increase in crime was linked to those who preyed on the homeless.
As one illustration of the difference between the CID and the rest of the city, she said that there was an average of one homicide a month in the CID, while in every other community in the city, it is one a year.
“Please don’t walk away from us, please help us,” she said.
The last of its kind
The request for an investment fund to provide grants to community organizations was a major step forward, said Woo, in a separate interview.
Culturally, Asian and Asian American communities are not accustomed to be outspoken about their needs, she said.
“We’ve never asked for anything before,” she said.
Ronald Takaki, a fellow of the Society of American Historians, in his book, “A History of Asian Americans: Strangers from a Different Shore,” argues that because of their history of both being excluded from the mainstream through centuries of systemic racism and their more recent stereotype as a “model minority,” Asian Americans are uniquely positioned to question issues of belonging and identity in the broader American culture.
Protesters at the meeting returned to this theme, even arguing that the Seattle CID is the last of its kind.
Matt Chan, a community advocate, said centuries of systemic racism, including redlining, had
created the neighborhood, forming a unique space where communities of color mingled and
learned to live side by side.
“We all were pushed to this area, and we made it work,” he said. “There’s nothing like this that exists anywhere in the country, not even in the world.”
“No good news”
Donald Liu, in urging the council to grant the investment fund, said he and his wife were both in their 80s but now no longer dared to go out at night.
Crime, vandalism, and harassment has increased so much that businesses remain boarded up and the Bartell drug store, where residents got prescriptions, has closed.
“We see drug addicts shooting up, homeless people roaming around, mentally ill people shouting profanities,” he said. “There’s no good news for business in the CID.”
Nguyen, the beauty shop owner, said there was an encampment of 300 unhoused people behind her building and described encounters in which some had exposed themselves to her young students, prompting their parents to force them to leave the school.
The failings of government
Takaki also argues that Asian Americans could play a unique role in reminding America of its troubled history.
From the moment they started out on their protest walk to the King County Council chamber, the 60 odd protesters seemed, on some level, to be among the few in the region who were standing up to the failings of the government.
On a day when the air quality in Seattle was the worst in the world, residents gathered in Hing Hay Park before commencing the 20-minute walk.
Woo and other organizers told the senior citizens joining them they should consider staying behind, and if they did come, to at least wear masks.
As they marched, the air was like “gunk,” said Woo. “I could feel it in my whole body,” she said.
Gary Lee, another organizer, described the air as “ugly brown.”
He said, “It was like breathing in smoke, it was nasty. I could feel it fully in my chest.”
When they arrived, Lozano described to councilmembers what she said were the reasons the senior citizens had decided to come.
“Our community is here because multiple government agencies have failed the CID, from the city to the county, to the state,” she said. “Did you know that every time we march here to speak to you, or to speak to the Seattle City Council, we have members who come who are in their 90s. This is not an easy walk for them. The city building has so many stairs, and yet they’re here every single time, because it matters.”
The Save CID members attended two more budget meetings on Oct. 25. One for Seattle City Council and the other King County Council.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.