Chien-An Yuan wants everyone to read the poems carved by imprisoned Chinese immigrant laborers on the barrack walls of Angel Island.
“America has power, but not justice,” one poem reads.
“With a hundred kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese,” another says.
“We mourn you. When will they wrap your corpse for return?” reads another.
The laborers were imprisoned at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which passed amid growing anti-Chinese violence as more Chinese laborers came to America.
Yuan is planning a project with his AAPI performance collaborative, IS/LAND, to read the Angel Island poems to students across the country. The laborers on Angel Island were seen as a disease threat—similar to how people have directed unwarranted blame toward Asian Americans for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These are systems of oppression that are every day,” Yuan said. “Things like Angel Island happen because they’re accepted. When dehumanization is accepted and othering of people is accepted and part of the status quo, this is what happens.”
Two years after COVID-19 made its way to the U.S., Yuan and other Asian American advocates say the steady rise in anti-Asian hate crimes is rooted in state-sanctioned violence against Asian Americans—and that the solution to preventing anti-Asian hate crimes requires combatting the root of the issue.
Connecting the dots
A recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found anti-Asian hate crimes increased 339% from 2020 to 2021. Asian women are specifically being targeted at alarming rates, but anti-Asian violence isn’t new to America.
“People don’t realize that Asian bodies are seen as disposable because of state-sanctioned violence,” said Melanie Kim, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC). “Western powers have always seen Asia and other countries as disposable—not only their countries but their people too.”
Kim pointed to the carpet bombing of Cambodia by the U.S. military as an example of state-sanctioned violence. In 1969, the U.S. bombed eastern Cambodia under Operation Menu, which was later expanded under Operation Freedom Deal. The bombings targeted Vietnamese and Cambodian communist revolutionaries but killed tens of thousands of civilians. More recently, the NYPD opened a satellite office in the Philippines in 2012 and continued to work with the Philippine National Police amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which has targeted impoverished urban Filipinos and killed thousands as a result of a police “shoot to kill” order.
The “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, or when Asian Americans are seen as outsiders, is often the basis of vitriol against Asian Americans by both individuals and the state.
Recently, Asian American lawmakers warned anti-China rhetoric used by politicians could fuel violence against Asian Americans. State surveillance and individual hate against Muslim Americans during 9/11 parallels hate crimes against Asian Americans and state targeting of Chinese scientists amid the pandemic, said Hammad Alam, a staff attorney with ALC’s national security and civil rights program.
“You do not see the same kind of dragnet investigations and efforts on the part of the government when, for instance, there’s a white supremacist who attacks Asian Americans in Atlanta,” Alam said.
Addressing the root of the issue
Advocates say teaching students the history of Asian Americans will help dismantle the perpetual foreigner stereotype forming the basis of many hate incidents. Coalitions with other communities harmed by white supremacy are also essential to combatting anti-Asian violence, and teaching the history of solidarity between communities of color can teach kids how to build power, said Jona Hilario, a statewide co-director with OPAWL, an Ohio-based feminist AAPI group.
“Part of white supremacy is pitting us against each other,” Hilario said. “If we show our children our people have been working together, then our children will see there’s no reason to be seeing each other as competition.”
Hilario has been pushing a bill in the Ohio Statehouse that is part of a nationwide effort by advocates to bring AAPI studies into K-12 schools. Illinois recently passed the TEACH Act, which requires public school students to learn about Asian American history and contributions.
Advocates have also pushed for bills weakening policing over Asian Americans, such as the VISION Act in California, which is currently under consideration in the Senate and, if passed, would protect incarcerated refugees and immigrants from being deported immediately after release.
California also recently introduced two bills to curb anti-Asian hate incidents and protect vulnerable groups in public areas. One bill aims to create passenger safety initiatives amid attacks of Asian American women on public transit and the murder of Michelle Go at a subway station in New York City. The other bill would launch a public education campaign to raise awareness of street harassment that would be accessible to people with limited English proficiency.
“We’ve tried tough-on-crime policies in the past, and it resulted in mass incarceration of people of color. We acted out of fear,” said Kim, who helped draft the VISION Act. “How can we act out of a place of love?”
Community safety outside of policing
While abolition is the eventual goal for Chicago’s Hana Center, organizers at the Korean and multiethnic immigrant advocacy group feel an obligation to help victims of hate crimes who want to go to the police by providing translation services or help with legal proceedings.
“We’ll talk about what the police will lead to or how the police might not be the answer, but the immediate need we need to address at that moment is the harm that’s been done to our community members,” said Won Joon Lee, a youth organizer at the Hana Center.
As an alternative to policing, the Hana Center has also started putting together a community resource guide based on community listening sessions and currently offers mental health counseling to victims of anti-Asian violence.
Rohan Zhou-Lee, who founded the Blasian March, a solidarity movement between Black and Asian communities, supports pod mapping, an idea from Korean disability justice organizer Mia Mingus. Pod mapping involves looking at your existing relationships and deciding on “pods,” or groups of people and organizations that you feel comfortable calling on for support and protection when harm has happened.
Bystander intervention training is also supported by Zhou-Lee and Hilario.
“These are solutions that have been generated by our community, by Asian American, Black feminists, feminists of color,” Zhou-Lee said. “So clearly, these are people who would have the best solutions after personally experiencing the harm.”
Call to action
Activists say they want to acknowledge the pain people are feeling amid the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Vicki Niu of Asians 4 Abolition, a coalition in New York, said educating herself on the roots of the violence has helped her feel less hopeless.
“The violence still occurs,” Niu said. “But I feel as if I know what I need to do, and what my community needs to do, to move toward a world where that violence doesn’t happen anymore.”
Pong Muangchan, another organizer with Asians 4 Abolition, said mutual aid—or direct resource exchange as a form of community support—is one of the easiest ways to transform society in a small way.
Zhou-Lee said people should consider what they love to do—such as artwork or poetry—and use it as activism.
“The best movement work is the work that brings you joy,” Zhou-Lee said. “Joy is one of the greatest weapons in the colonial states. It’s one of the most powerful ways we can move against our oppressors.”
Hilario wants people to know they don’t have to start their own movement.
“You’ll find there are good things happening in your community, that people are helping each other out,” Hilario said. “There are people already doing the work. Join them.”