By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
If you’ve been to Volunteer Park, you may have unwittingly been exposed to American propaganda about some of its worst deeds.
A panel of academics from the University of Washington on May 7 met to justify a decision by the city to take down a commemorative plaque last year. They described the park as infused with the racist and imperialist history of the United States.
“Volunteer Park is one of the most important public spaces in Seattle, and yet like many of the public spaces in Washington and the U.S., it is permeated with the legacies of the U.S. Empire,” said Vicente Rafael, professor and historian of Southeast Asian history and American colonialism.
Christoph Giebel, an associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies and of history who focuses on colonialism and imperialism in Asia, moderated the May 7 panel. In a press release, speaking of the plaque, he said, “There is simply no way around this misrepresentation.”
Giebel’s May 2021 op-ed in this paper, along with a community complaint, led to the decision to remove the plaque, which glorified the U.S. conquest of the Philippines from 1898-1906 as one of liberation.
Over 250,000 people of the Philippines were massacred in the most brutal ways, with the violence justified by racism that duplicated the racism inherent in the U.S. at the time, said the panelists.
So unnerving was the presentation and subsequent panel discussion that members of the audience in the Stimson Auditorium in the Seattle Asian Art Museum were driven to outrage.
“We are the only empire in history in which we grab lands, but the populace doesn’t even know about it,” said one man.
“Will Volunteer Park itself be renamed?” asked another, in a chat discussion.
For the most part, the presenter and panelists laid out a straightforward history of the depredations committee by U.S. “volunteers” in the Philippines, which make Russian atrocities in Ukraine appear less singular.
The panelists, experts in colonialism, also put the brutal conquest in perspective: as part of a “long story” that is entrenched in the West about the desirability of empire and the need to convert people seen as sub-human.
Abe Ignacio, the co-author of a book about political cartoons about the war, led off by noting the history as one of the “most forgotten” of all American wars.
What led to the loss of 50-fold the numbers of dead as compared to the nearly contemporaneous Spanish-American War is taught only as “a footnote about an insurgency,” he said.
Some of the brutalities he mentioned—including soldiers hunting down thousands of Filipinos in “rabbit shoots” and cutting off women’s arms to get bracelets—were fueled not only by racism but by a perspective that had dominated westward expansion since the founding of the 13 colonies: white supremacy.
Giebel said when he first sighted the plaque and its false narrative, he thought of the parallels between the conquest of the Philippines and the war against Vietnam, “particularly the racialized agenda.”
At the same time, U.S. interests were motivated by a desire to secure coaling stations for steamships and a jumping off place for access to the China market, said Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, associate professor and historian of Latin American and Caribbean history.
In securing the Philippines for itself, which it bought from Spain for $20 million, the U.S. also hoped and anticipated gaining access to a captive market.
As the people of the islands became “civilized,” the U.S. expected to be able to sell a wide array of products to them, Garcia described the calculations.
There were, however, notes of protest. Black soldiers, sent to fight in the Philippines, wrote to American newspapers devastating accounts of the looting and burning alive of Filipinos.
Out of 127,000 U.S. troops deployed, 6,000 were Black.
Figures such as Mark Twain spoke out against the war, marking it as a turning point in which America had become an imperialistic power.
Even the presidential election at the time hung on the war, as William Jennings Bryan ran on an anti-imperialist platform. He lost.
Still, Giebel said that there is no excuse for supporting such a war given the presence of opposing voices.
“Nobody can hide behind the argument that people back then didn’t know better,” he said.
Rafael said the period should also be understood as only one part of “a continuum” of the Philippines’ struggle for independence. He described the revolt against the American invasion as the first revolution against western imperialism in Asia.
After the defeat of the Spanish in 1898, the Philippines had established a Republican government with a separation of powers and sent ambassadors to other countries, including the U.S.
But U.S. propaganda at the time, rooted in genocidal and racist social underpinnings, fulminated that “Orientals” were unable to have self-governance.
U.S. troops provoked a minor retaliation by Filipinos, then proclaimed their troops had been subject to an “unprovoked attack,” shortly before Congress was voting whether or not to annex the Philippines. It passed by one vote.
Vicente argued that U.S. imperialism had deep roots in a Christian narrative of needing to convert others. In answer to a question about the Catholic church’s role, he said it had played a significant part in oppression by keeping people uneducated. But he said during the Marcos era, it had risen to the challenge of helping to end the dictatorship.
One of the goals of understanding the colonial history of the West, he said, was to question the narrative that the only safe world is one in which there is one empire led by the West.
He described the process of becoming aware of our own biases that further such a narrative as seeking to “decolonialize” our thinking.
Asians are still seen as “forever immigrants” here.
“And the wrong kind,” he said.
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.