The Asian American Movement
In the late 1960s, America was all in a fury. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for civil rights. Malcolm X was calling for black nationalism and self-determination of African American communities. Chicanos were fighting for farm workers’ rights and economic justice. But what were the Asian Americans doing? I’ll tell you what they were doing. They were raising hell in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and the entire US of A. They were fighting for their Chinatowns, Manilatowns, Japantowns, and other ethnic enclaves. They were fighting for liberation, social justice, and a valid education. They taught their communities lessons of self-determination, courage, ethnic consciousness, and resilience. They were the pioneers of the movement, the Asian American Movement.
Now these folks, these pioneers, did not have covered wagons, oxen, or beautiful, white faces. What they had was hystory—a rich, ethnic hystory of subjugation, inequality, courage, and ongoing determination. What they had was knowledge—knowledge about the hardships they were facing, knowledge about the social and economic needs of their communities, and knowledge about their culture, heritage, and ancestors. But they struggled—they struggled with the aggressive and verbally abusive interrogations at Angel Island, they struggled with having to live in poor, impoverished neighborhoods, they struggled with the name-calling, the bullying, and the hate crimes, and they struggled with their education, an education that erased them from the textbooks—an education that refused to give them a place in hystory. But they lived, they thrived, and continued to fight, and in the late 1960s, the Asian American Movement had begun.
It was a couple—Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee—two students at UC Berkeley who organized every Asian American student they could contact—that founded the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA). AAPA was the first group who called themselves “Asian American”—a term proposed by Ichioka. “Asian American” wasn’t just a term to signify their race or birthplace—it was a term that called for Asian American panethnicity, a term that served to empower communities and unite Asians in America under a collective identity, a collective voice, and a collective goal. Many AAPA chapters and other Asian American groups spread across the United States. These groups served to educate, empower, inspire, serve, and change their communities. They wanted to reclaim their hystory, redefine their identities, and liberate themselves from oppression.
Soon, the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) began at SF State. African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans united under a collective front to fight for a valid education—a Third World College. For so many years, the hystories, struggles, and successes of people of color had no place in our public school system. Native Americans were only visible in romantic simulations of prairie romance and bad Western films. African Americans were only mentioned once students reached the unit about the American slave system. Chicanos were only briefly mentioned as “losers” of the Mexican-American War. And Angel Island was nothing more than a piece of land floating in San Francisco Bay. We were invisible, and yet, we were still there. We were always there, and now was the time to reclaim our hystory and proclaim our presence. As a result, ethnic studies departments were established in America, and people of color finally had a place in hystory.
But the fight doesn’t end there. Even though so many members of our Asian American communities have lifted themselves up from their boot straps, about 14% live in poverty today. Even though we now have Comparative Ethnic Studies, Native American Studies, African American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Asian American Studies at several institutions, we still don’t have a Third World College. We were able to establish these departments and programs through struggle, but we are still struggling to keep them. There have been so many threats to cancel these programs, to take away our majors, and cut the resources and funds of our departments. This shows that the movement is far from over. The movement is ongoing. We must continue to struggle, fight, and unite for our place in America.
Asian Americans were never your quiet, passive-aggressive, model minority. We’re still not. We’re out there raising hell—fighting for our families, our communities, and ourselves. Try putting this in your chop suey.
Remembering Vincent Chin
I have no idea when I first heard about the Vincent Chin case, but I think it was some time in my sophomore or junior year of college (2008, 2009), maybe in an APA studies-related reading. Hearing about the case always angers me, but I want to reflect on the case a bit, given that this week, Thursday, June 23rd, marks the 29th anniversary of his death. I rewatched a few clips of the film Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987) and watched parts of Vincent Who? (2009). Most of the former is available on YouTube. The latter film is available on vincentwhomovie.com for this month, in commemoration of Chin’s death. Summary (partly for readers, partly so I can remember the case) and some reflection/analysis below.
The Vincent Chin case
Setting: Fancy Pants strip club, Detroit, Michigan.
Date: June 23, 1982
Ronald Ebens is recently laid off from his job as superintendent at the Chrysler auto plant near the strip club. Ebens, like many of the Chrysler auto workers, frequent the strip club of topless women as a form of entertainment and to bond. With Ebens is his stepson, Michael Nitz.
Vincent Chin is a 27 year-old at the strip club with some friends for his bachelor party an evening before his wedding.
Stripper Racine Colwell recalls that from across the stage, Ebens makes a comment about Chin as a “little motherfucker.”
Chin approaches Ebens and says: “I’m not a little mother fucker.”
Ebens responds, “I’m not sure if you’re a big one or a little one. . It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” Ebens wrongly assumes Chin is Japanese, whom he blames for the unemployment and weakness of the U.S. auto industry.
Chin throws the first punch and a heated argument ensues, prompting security to kick out both groups. After a brief fight in the parking lot, Chin and his friends split up. Unable to tail Chin, Ebens and Nitz drive around the neighborhood for 20-30 mins. When they located Chin and a friend at a local McDonalds, Nitz held Chin down as Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Chin with a baseball bat. Before Chin slipped into a coma, he whispered, “It’s not fair.”
Briefly, the state court charged Ebens and Nitz with manslaughter, sentencing them with no jail time, a $3000 fine and 3 years probation. (If you want to think about how much the court values a Person of Color’s life, refer to Soon Ja Du’s 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins, which resulted in Du receiving a $500.00 fine, 5-year probation and 400 hours of community service).
In the federal court, Asian American activists tried to push for a prosecution of Ebens and Nitz as violating Chin’s civil rights, i.e. a hate crime. Activists charged that the two white men had attacked Chin based on his perceived ethnicity. Ebens was found guilty and Nitz was found guilty. Ebens’ conviction of 25 years in prison was later overturned, and he was acquitted of all charges in 1987.
Critical Points of Discussion
“I understand the reasons for wanting to call this "Oscar Grant Plaza," but it's difficult for me to understand the movement's choice to erase/overlook the memory of Frank Ogawa. There are very few locations in America that recall our Japanese American history and this plaza is one of those few memorials. Frank Ogawa was one of 110,00+ Japanese Americans stripped of their rights/property and unjustifiably incarcerated (without due process) by the US government during WWII. So, when I think of this movement I think of my grandmother, my grandfather and every single one of my other family members who, in 1941, lost everything within 48 hours before being shipped to live in horse stables stinking of manure for six months followed by years of incarceration in Utah and Arizona. To me, Frank Ogawa and Japanese American history seem like absolutely appropriate symbols for any movement based on equality, rights and liberation. His name, our Japanese American heritage and our U.S. history of incarceration should not be erased, overlooked or painted over by re-naming Frank Ogawa Plaza with Oscar Grant Plaza. After all, isn't this movement coming from a fear that the gov't can strip us of everything without notice? Isn't that what Ogawa endured? If the plaza was originally named "Cesar Chavez Plaza" would you still be renaming it "Oscar Grant Plaza?" Point is: I love your message, but I wish it manifested itself in a way that didn't ignore/erase my people's history of struggle and oppression.”—Kendra Arimoto, a Japanese American activist on a proposal at #OccupyOakland to rename the square they’re occupying
What Is Wei Min She?
January 1971, Wei Min She, “Organization for the People” was formed out of the experience of the Asian Community Center. “What Is Wei Min She?” is a handout written in 1971 explaining the organization.
WHAT IS WEI MIN SHE?
Wei Min She is an Asian American anti-imperialist organization in the S.F. Bay Area. Our name means “organization for the people.” Our organization is committed to building an anti-imperialist, multi-national, revolutionary mass movement in this country. Our strategy is to build a united front movement of all who can be united against the system of imperialism, led by the working class. The system of imperialism is controlled by the small class of capitalists who own the majority of the world’s wealth, while everyone else must work to live. We see the system of imperialism as the root cause of oppression of workers, national minorities, students, and women. While it exploits workers and national minorities at home, imperialism oppresses and exploits the people of .the world. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has become the most powerful power in the world. Its tentacles have reached out and seized political and economic control of the underdeveloped nations of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
In the last couple of years, we have seen US, imperialism on the decline. The rise of national liberation movements in the underdeveloped and oppressed nations have been kicking U.S. Imperialism out of their countries. Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America have cut off the ability of U.S. companies to make superprofits. In other parts of the world, the political and economic strength of the U.S. is being challenged by other capitalist nations in Europe and Japan. Competition with another imperialist power, the Soviet Union, has also weakened the U.S. position.
Because of the rising struggles and economic and resistance abroad, the U.S. has found itself in a vise, US .imperialists find that they cannot maintain their rate of profits. They are turning to the working class at home to insure the profits they lost abroad. Nationwide, the living standards of the people are being attacked in a thousand different ways. People are being confronted with work speedups, mass layoffs, elimination of protective work laws, cutbacks in social services, increased police terror in Third World communities, energy freezes and food shortages.
Immigrant and minority workers are being attacked even harder. Because of the economic crisis, the companies are coming out with all sorts of propaganda to prevent unity in the class. The recent wave of anti-alien propaganda in the news and the massive deportations of Mexicans in California are bringing back reminders from the past. In the 1890’s, when the capitalists no longer needed the labor of Chinese and when the workers’ movement was on the rise due to the depression, the employers put the blame for the economic crisis on the large influx of Chinese workers into the country. Hence, a misguided workers’ movement began to develop around the slogan, “The Chinese Must Go:” instead of “The System Must Go:” When the Chinese were kicked out or forced into hiding in the Chinatowns throughout the West, unemployment was not solved and economic depressions continued on.
Today, immigrant workers are kept unorganized and used as cheap pools of labor. They have little job protection and work the longest hours at the lowest pay. The present crisis only intensifies their exploitation even further. However, this does not mean that working people are not resisting. These attacks on the people‘s living standards have been met with a militant and ever growing anti-imperialist movement. People everywhere are fighting back. Together with the peoples of the world, the American people are uniting across national lines to begin building the struggle against imperialism.
The anti-war movement, the struggles for childcare, and the increasing numbers of strikes arid walkouts are powerful testimonies to this development. Asian American and other Third World people are fighting for our democratic rights arid against national oppression. The Lee Mah and Jung Sai organizing drives in the S. F. Chinese Community, the struggle for equal employment in N.Y. Chinatown arid the fight for Ethnic Studies at U. C, Berkeley are a few examples. As Third World people, we must fight both oppression as minorities and exploitation as working people. Not only must the struggle be taken to the Asian communities, it must also be linked-up with the overall struggle of the multinational working class against the system.
The development of the mass movement into one is key to building the United Front Against Imperialism. Through this united front, we can rally various sectors of the American people against this system which must exploit in order to survive.
In building this united front, Wei Min She is involved with these areas of work:
1) Building labor Struggles—building the movement of Asian workers to link up with the larger working class movement to be able to lead the fight against imperialism. We have had practical experience in building support for the Farah strikers, Farmworkers, Nam Yuen Restaurant Busboys walkout, Asia Garden Restaurant workers dispute, S.F. Gold garment factory organizing drive, and now, Jung Sai and Lee Mah.
2) Student Organizing—fighting for ethnic studies and building the anti-imperialist student movement through various forms of student organizations.
3) Fighting For Democratic Rights—building a movement in the community around the issues of health, housing, education, equal employment etc.
4) Building the Friendship of the Peoples of U.S and the People’s of China_—through film programs on China, forums, and. U.S.-China.People’s friendship events such as the 1974 Friendship Fair and October 1st Celebration.
5) Building the Struggle Against the Oppression of Women—forums, supporting struggles of working women on the job, building the fight for childcare, and. participation in initiating events such as International Women’s Day.