By Christoph Giebel
For Northwest Asian Weekly
After George Floyd’s gruesome killing triggered a national reckoning about anti-Black violence, toxic legacies of slavery, and systemic racism, the recent massacre in Asian-operated businesses in Atlanta has broadened the debate to include endemic anti-Asian violence and hate in America. The alarming increase in anti-Asian violence over the past year, however, is far from an aberration. Like violence against Black and Indigenous people, anti-Asian violence has deep historical roots and manifests itself in our institutions and dominant culture. The moment to address the habitual public white-washing of Indigenous genocide, U.S. colonialism, and racism is long overdue. Seattle, built on Coastal Salish lands, faces its own moment of reckoning. Our introspection about anti-Asian violence must include a stone marker next to Volunteer Park’s water tower telling the city’s most barefaced public lie.
There, a plaque on a stone slab explains the name of its pastoral surroundings. “Volunteer Park,” it reads, “Renamed 1901 in tribute to the volunteer services of Spanish-American war veterans who liberated the oppressed peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands, April 1898-July 1902.”
The marker’s words grotesquely falsify a gruesome past, for the Spanish-American War marked the moment when the United States chose to become an empire lording over “little brown brothers.” In reference to the Philippines—others can speak to colonized Cuba and Puerto Rico—to call America’s violent conquest of Asia’s first constitutional republic a “liberation of oppressed peoples” constitutes an “alternative fact” so shameless as to render the plaque’s continued display scandalous.
What had happened? In the 1890s Philippines, a nationalist movement rose against Spanish colonial rule. Largely successful by early 1898, its forces besieged Spain’s last toe-hold, Manila, and a Provisional Republican Government declared Philippine independence. Meanwhile—the U.S. had declared war on Spain—a U.S. flotilla sailed into Manila Bay. Now besieged from land and sea, the Spanish surrendered in August 1898, but only to the U.S. as fellow whites to “save face.” U.S. troops, having earlier aided the nationalist revolution, occupied Manila, but now refused to recognize Philippine sovereignty. While Filipino and U.S. forces faced each other at Manila, two telling developments happened: in January 1899, a constitutional assembly formally established the Philippine Republic. Yet, half a world away, ignoring Philippine independence and sovereignty and rendering Filipinos invisible, the US-Spanish Treaty of Paris had Spain “sell” the Philippines (and Cuba and Puerto Rico) to America.
In February 1899, fighting between Filipino and U.S. troops broke out at Manila, likely US-provoked, and the U.S. Senate ratified the Paris Treaty by one vote. U.S. forces began the conquest of the Philippines. Given vast US technological superiority, forces of the Philippine Republic were no match and soon resorted to guerrilla-style resistance. The ensuing years of U.S. conquest were a ruthless, bloody affair. Foreshadowing military tactics in Vietnam some 60 years later, the population in resistance areas was frequently brutalized, villages razed, entire regions forcibly depopulated, fenced-in relocation camps run under inhumane conditions.
Conquest was abetted in the U.S. by an unrelenting racist, pro-imperialist propaganda. It portrayed America as the benevolent white civilizer, but caricatured Filipinos as scheming savages incapable of reason or self-governance, called “insurrectionists” rather than rightful defenders of their Philippine Republic. In the unquestioned white supremacist tenor of the times, U.S. forces denigrated Filipinos as “goo-goos,” “gooks,” or the N-word, justifying their remorseless killings. For massacres, when exposed, U.S. commanders faced laughable, if any, accountability. Estimates of Filipino casualties are pegged around 300,000, maybe higher, with many more traumatized. America would be the Philippines’ colonial ruler until 1946.
Let this sink in: Between 1899 and 1902, U.S. forces killed 300,000 Filipinos in a brutal war of colonial conquest with racist overtones. Yet, a public marker in Seattle daily mocks these victims of anti-Asian violence as “oppressed peoples” who were “liberated” by American soldiers honored in the naming of Volunteer Park.
This blatant public lie has persisted far too long. Horrified by the murders in Atlanta and multiple other instances of anti-Asian violence, we are in a renewed national soul-searching over an unbearable past and present injustices. Yet, how can we be serious about all of this while our own public memorials still glorify instances when white supremacist violence became official policy? The little marker on Capitol Hill cruelly denying anti-Asian violence and re-writing it into its polar opposite belongs squarely into that conversation and call to action.
Christoph Giebel teaches Southeast Asian History at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle.