By Mahlon Meyer and Ruth Bayang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) activists organized three rallies against hate crimes last weekend, bringing hundreds of people out under the rain to demand public officials denounce racism and provide funding for community education. The turnout exceeded their expectations, with speeches from community leaders and bias crime victims.
Noriko Nasu and her boyfriend, walking the streets of the Chinatown-International District (ID), were attacked last month by a man swinging a rock in a sock. Sean Holdip is charged with two counts of second degree felony assault.
Nasu told the crowd at Hing Hay Park on March 13 that other Asian Americans have contacted her since her story became public.
“I was horrified to know that so many of us have experienced, and are experiencing, pain, and nothing has been done,” she said. “We’re not going to be silent anymore…it’s time for us to get angry, it’s time to demand justice!”
Former Gov. Gary Locke led the same crowd in a chant of “Hate is a virus!”
“This violence against Asian Americans, and especially our elderly, has got to stop,” he said and called the attacks “nothing but cowardly, racist thugs.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is married to a Japanese American, vowed to allocate funds in the upcoming budget to address “racially based hate and bias in our community.”
Other prominent speakers at the March 13 Hing Hay rally included Frank Irigon, Larry Gossett, Girmay Zahilay, state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, state Senators Joe Nguyen and Bob Hasegawa, Toshiko Hasegawa, Michael Itti, Port Commissioner Sam Cho, Janice Zahn, and Kim-Khanh Van.
Additional rallies were held in Maple Valley on March 14, and in Renton on March 15.
Organizers stressed that recent hate crimes against Asian Americans have made them feel as if they no longer belong in this society.
“I grew up in Renton and called this city home my whole life,” said Anson Huang, 19, a University of Washington student who organized the rally there. “That’s why, when the Renton City Council took nine days to denounce the Asian hate incident, which occurred on Feb. 13, I was infuriated.”
In the incident, a local woman castigated a Chinese American woman on the street using racial epithets.
“When we don’t speak up, our elders are left shoved to the ground. Grandparents punched and abused when they’re simply minding their own business. Our faces are crushed and slashed leaving scars that leave a life-long mark, telling us that we aren’t accepted. That we don’t belong. That no matter what, we will always be seen as foreigners,” he said during an impassioned speech on the steps of Renton City Hall.
“We are here today to stand firm and sing proudly that we DO belong. We are proud. We are resilient. And we will not let hate, bigotry, and racism win.”
Disinformation and vitriol spread by the Trump administration, particularly blaming China for the pandemic and using racist epithets, has encouraged an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
New data released on March 16 by Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian American discrimination, indicated that it received a total of 3,795 reports of hate incident against AAPIs across the United States between March 19, 2020 and Feb. 28, 2021.
That prompted the organizers of the local rallies, AAPI Against Hate, to take action.
“Our youth came together when we recognized the need and rising tension to defend our elders in our own communities,” said Madeleine Magana, co-coordinator of AAPI Against Hate.
Activism for the AAPI community has been building for some time. In June, activists founded a night watch of volunteers that patrols the streets of the ID, said Tanya Woo, one of the leaders of the patrol.
“We started because we wanted to fill a hole when the police were preoccupied with rioters,” she said. “We wanted to stand up for the community. But we are not militant, we don’t carry any weapons.”
Since then, groups of at least four volunteers and sometimes over a dozen intervene in conflicts in the ID, using techniques of de-escalation. In one case, they stepped in when the occupants of a car were yelling at someone to leave the area, believing he had tried to rob them.
“We listened to both sides for an hour. It turned out it was just a misunderstanding. In the end, the people in the car ended up sharing pizza with the person in the street,” said Woo, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose family owns an apartment building there.
Professional organizations and the police have also responded to the spate of anti-AAPI crimes.
The Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA) hired a public safety coordinator two weeks ago to advocate for more services from the city. The position had been empty for a year. The CIDBIA already provides receptacles for the night watch to use for needles their members pick up off the street and assists in cleaning up the area.
“We work with them, but we are not Batman,” said Cecilia Liang, the new hire.
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said in a video statement on March 5 that the police department was finalizing the hire of a new public safety liaison for the ID. As of press time, SPD told the Northwest Asian Weekly that it will be accepting applications until the end of this month.
Demonstrators at the rallies said a common feeling of disillusionment and shock led them to march and hold signs that said such things as “hate is a virus,” as cars sped by, many honking in support.
In Maple Valley, Debra Erdenemandakh, 16, said it was important to rally because “the entire Maple Valley area is more right-wing and not exposed to diversity.” Her parents immigrated from Mongolia to Chicago, where she was born, but later returned to found a nonprofit.
“We’re here to show them we’re the ones who get the hate crimes and we’re standing our ground,” she said under an overcast sky that occasionally dribbled rain on the more than 50 people who showed up.
While most cars honked in support at the line of demonstrators along the main road, an occasional large pickup truck jetted its engine and roared away. When the same thing happened the following day, in Renton, a demonstrator said he didn’t know if that was meant as a condemnation.
“We are asking officials to denounce hate crimes and small businesses to show support for us, we want our government to protect our elders,” said Erdenemandakh.
Nam To, 46, who grew up in Oregon, was with his three daughters and his wife. He said he faced racist taunts even when doing something as innocuous as snowboarding.
“That sticks with you, that makes you feel not good about yourself, and that’s where my faith helped me get through my adolescence,” he said. “I want to impart to my kids that we are all made in the image of God, and I pray that they will grow up in a society where there is diversity and love and peace.”
The rallies also drew people who were not Asian American but wanted to show support. A white mother with two young girls with blonde hair had earlier approached Erdenemandakh and thanked her for organizing the rally.
“Love has no color,” said a sign held by one of the girls.
Looking around at the crowd, To said, “It’s cool to see not only Asian Americans out here, it shows solidarity, a sense of oneness.”
Yet the presence of some from other marginalized communities also highlighted the complexities of a coalition seeking solidarity with other movements, yet navigating concerns particular to the AAPI community.
Leaders of the coalition do not support any measures to defund the police (some do not even want to mention the word), but among individuals there are gradations of opinion.
“We as a movement don’t agree with defunding the police. Even that word is not helpful. We want community-based solutions, otherwise people will not come to the table,” said Kim-Khan Van, a Renton City Councilmember who was at the Renton rally.
Many members of the CID night watch, for instance, prefer to seek social workers or other resources when they encounter a person in emotional distress.
“On a recent patrol, we encountered a woman who had been raped. This woman was Black and she was combative. We were afraid if the police were called, something terrible would happen,” said Woo. So they called a social worker instead, who came and offered assistance.
Other organizers expressed support for diverting excess funding to social programs.
“I don’t fully support getting rid of the entire police force, but reimagining policing,” said Huang. “Police aren’t equipped to handle issues of homelessness and mental health.”
For the most part, though, demonstrators felt more concerned with raising awareness about the pervasiveness of hate crimes and racism against Asian Americans.
“We were just fishing at Camano Island,” said Elsa T., a sixtyish Hong Kong immigrant, holding a sign in Renton, who preferred to withhold her last name. “And this group of white men yelled at us and said, ‘You Asians have eaten all our fish!’”
The men took photographs of them and their license plate.
“So we took photos of their license plate, too,” she said.
Thirteen-year-old Allison Leber, who came to the rally with her mother, a teacher at Benson Hill, said she had written a research paper last year regarding the question, “Is America a racist country?”
“Yes,” she found. “Systemically.”
Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said, “Hate incidents are not abating. We cannot let anti-Asian American hate be a legacy of COVID-19 or the last presidential administration, but that’s exactly what will happen unless we demand concrete action.”
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