Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | How are Asian Americans reacting to the news from Ferguson?
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How are Asian Americans reacting to the news from Ferguson?

One of the few times I heard a reference to Ferguson was in this panel: from left, Hansi Lo Wang (NPR),  Shefali S. Kulkarni (PRI), Ernabel Demillo (CUNY-TV), Emil Guillermo (AALDEF) and moderator Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man).

One of the few times I heard a reference to Ferguson was in this panel: from left, Hansi Lo Wang (NPR), Shefali S. Kulkarni (PRI), Ernabel Demillo (CUNY-TV), Emil Guillermo (AALDEF) and moderator Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man).

I just got back from a week in Washington, D.C. attending the Asian American Journalists Association’s annual convention. I sat in on a lot of interesting (and some not-so-interesting) sessions about social media and journalism, issues in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, and lots of other current topics in the news.

But one topic was barely mentioned as part of the panel discussions: The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man who was shot by a local police officer in the small town of Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

He was killed on August 9, and for the next week – during the AAJA convention – the tension in Ferguson between protesters and law enforcement has been front and center in the news.

The scenes during the first nights, when local police brought their military hardware and went after protesters with tear gas, evoked nothing less than the civil rights era of the early 1960s, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or anti-war protests on college campuses across the country and the deadly volley of gunfire that killed four students at Kent State University in 1970.

That night led to a brief peace, when the state’s governor assigned state patrol to take over for the over-militarized local police force. The state troopers are led by an African American Ferguson native who chose a community-based, non-confrontational approach to calming the neighborhood.

But tensions and violence resumed after a bungled announcement of the name of the police officer who shot Brown, and the next night the governor announced a curfew. The National Guard have been called in.

It’s been a huge ongoing breaking news story, and it’s not over yet.

It’s easy to assume that the original shooting, the heavy-handed military reaction and curfew are racially-based. The suburb of Ferguson is mostly black, but the local police department of 53 officers only includes three black officers. That’s why images from the civil rights struggles – marchers being attacked with water cannons and snarling police dogs – come to mind with little prompting.

These parallels should have all of us, including AAPIs, thinking about the state of race relations in America, both then and now.

At the AAJA convention, if conversations about Ferguson were held, they were among attendees, not on panels. I’m sure it was mentioned more than I know because I couldn’t be in every session, but I personally heard Ferguson mentioned only twice, once in a panel about covering the Asian American community, and then by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino journalist who’s an undocumented immigrant, who mentioned Ferguson during his Gala dinner talk.

Richard Prince, an African American columnist for the Maynard Institute, an organization for training journalists of color, noticed. He attended the AAJA convention and wrote a column titled “Do Asian American Journalists Have a Stake in Ferguson Story?” that calls out the lack of reaction to Ferguson. (The column also ran on The Root)

I don’t have an easy answer why Ferguson wasn’t the official buzz at our convention. The programming was decided months ago, and the organizers probably weren’t prepared to fold in an all-new topic in an ad hoc fashion; and “people here are focusing on jobs and career, and you tend to be in a bubble” at conventions (according to AAJA’s president).

When I think about it, there haven’t been many instances of Asian Americans protesting and marching as a group. Individuals have been involved in political activism – some high-profile Japanese Americans were involved in the civil rights movement, for instance, and marched alongside black leaders (and even with the Black Panthers, though it turns out, as an FBI informant). There were protests during the era that established Asian American studies in universities. And there were protests after the Vincent Chin murder in 1982, arguably a pivotal moment when an “Asian American” identity came together.

But there weren’t mass protests when Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to concentration camps during World War II.

Maybe our cultural values keep us from such public displays of anger and frustration, until we’re pushed too far.

I wish the speeches at the gala dinner mentioned Ferguson more than just by Vargas. It would have been cool to change a panel on the fly and turn it into a discussion of Ferguson. I hope we as a group didn’t keep quiet because we think this is “not our problem.” I know we don’t think that. And I hope we don’t let our cultural values hold us back in the face of such injustices anymore.

It would be a real shame if as a community, Asian American accept this meekly, like my own community accepted incarceration.

Because that was terribly wrong, the same way violence against people of color is wrong, the same way crackdowns on Vietnam war protesters was wrong, the way Vincent Chin’s murder was wrong, and the way Michael Brown died was wrong.

We should always call out what’s wrong in the world.


Here are some AAPI blogs and news stories about AAPIs commenting on Ferguson.

Aug. 20, 2014

OK, I feel compelled to add a mea culpa here. When I shared this blog post on my social media networks I called it “Early thoughts” and I I should have also noted that in the post. I’m not going to add it up top now because that would be a wimp out.

I’ve received some great comments and Facebook reactions about this post that I completely agree with.

I was half-assed and half-baked, and just plain dumb and forgetful in some of my assumptions: Asians certainly do have a history of protesting (Tiananmen and current ethnic protests, lots of Japanese protests, etc), and Asian Americans did protest in the ’70s and ’80s. not just for Asian American Studies programs in school and after Vincent Chin, but in response to black-Asian racial tensions.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Asians have cultural values that hold us back from protesting but I think in some ways this is true. Can I verify it scientifically? No. But within the JA community, I see it all the time, as a result of intergenerational transmission of trauma from the concentration camp experience, not to mention in more recent immigrant generations who are still fresh with Confucian values.

Here’s a terrific and passionate Tumblr post by madaznwithahat about my blog that’s worth reading: “Solidarity: You are doing it wrong. I agree with a lot of what he says, though I think he mistook my mention of Richard Prince’s column: I agree with Prince and I’m glad he called out the AAJA and Asian American journalists. I should be more outraged, I know.

AAJA should have put out a statement right away when the protests started. As it is, madaznwithahat points out AAJA did release a statement about Ferguson, but really it’s just about the treatment of journalists. That doesn’t surprise me — the org probably doesn’t want to take a stand on the militarization or the racial issues, because it’s a journalism org. By the way, I was appalled by the quote from the AAJA prez that attendees were more focused on the job prospects. I was glued to coverage of Ferguson every moment I was in my hotel room.

I’m more flabbergasted that JACL, the oldest Asian civil rights organization in the country, and an organization that has in recent years apologized for its position on internment during WWII and the treatment of “No-No Boys” and draft resisters, and has been pretty good about standing up for civil rights of all people, hasn’t come out with a statement yet.

Aug. 21, 2014

Great piece by Soya Jung in Race Files: Why Ferguson matters to Asian Americans

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans just announced its support for the protests in Ferguson.

The untold story, about Asian businesses in Ferguson that have been vandalized

From 18 Million Rising: “Three ways AAPIs can help seek justice for Michael Brown

This blog post was originally written and submitted in an earlier version for the Pacific Citizen newspaper of the JACL.