The racist criminal legal system won't save Asian Americans from gun violence
MONTEREY PARK, CALIFORNIA - JAN. 25: A person reacts while visiting the memorial outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio where a deadly mass shooting took place on January 25, 2023 in Monterey Park, California. Eleven people died and nine more were injured at the studio near a Lunar New Year celebration last Saturday night. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited the memorial and was scheduled to meet with families of victims in the predominantly Asian American community of Monterey Park. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

CW: This article mentions anti-Asian slurs, racist violence, state-sanctioned violence, and mass murder.

I was a Filipino American kid in a primarily white Midwestern suburb when a young Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit on the night of his bachelor party. The culprits were two white autoworkers who wanted to take out their racist, xenophobic rage over the success of Japanese automakers on anyone they thought looked Japanese. I remember how my white neighbors sympathized with the murderers’ anger more than the loss felt by Chin’s family. I remember how legislators referred to Japanese people as “little yellow people”, and how media outlets suggested that the U.S. had been “too good” to Japan after World War II. 

Many Asian Americans haven’t forgotten how that decade of “Japan-bashing” is only one instance of a long and ongoing history of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. Since 2020, we’ve been caught in another wave of violence, driven by political and public figures’ anti-Chinese rhetoric following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as heightening political and economic tension between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Much of these tensions are disturbingly reminiscent of the building blocks that led to the U.S.-Japan trade war in the 1980s.

As news of a mass shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio and Lai Lai Ballroom in Monterey Park, California broke Saturday night, many of us feared that another racist attack had hit our community. The fact that the murders occurred at the onset of the Lunar New Year felt like particularly cruel timing, having already lived with more than two years of violence that targeted us, our communities, and our loved ones. 

The fact that Asian Americans immediately feared that the shooting was motivated by racism is a sobering reflection of the reality we navigate. In California alone, violent crimes targeting Asians rose by 177% from 2020 to 2021. Nationally, during the same time period, the rate rose by 339%. These numbers are likely underestimated, given how many in our communities are reluctant to report these kinds of attacks. 

According to reports, the suspected shooter was a 72-year-old Asian man, and early investigations revealed that his home contained hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Just two days later, before our communities could even grieve, a 66-year-old Asian American man in Half Moon Bay, California killed seven of his coworkers in another mass shooting. What should have been a celebratory Lunar New Year instead became a time of shock and despair as we processed how endemic gun violence was to American culture—the same culture that Asian people are pressured to internalize and assimilate into. 

What will not be a balm or solution to gun violence is the violence of the criminal legal system, which puts us and our Black, brown, and undocumented neighbors at risk for further abuse and state-sanctioned murder. Our fears should not fall prey to what author Tochi Onyebuchi calls “a poverty of imagination” when it comes to envisioning public safety and demanding more from the media and our leaders. 

The insistence that more police and stricter hate crime laws will keep us safe flies in the face of reality. Studies consistently show that hate crime laws do little to deter or prevent racist violence, and these laws can further entrench a legal system that disproportionately criminalizes young Black men. Despite how many Asian American communities demanded more police protection as anti-Asian violence spiked during the onset of the pandemic, we have still been harassed, attacked, and killed. According to a report by Stop AAPI Hate, there were at least 11,400 racist incidents targeting Asians in the U.S. between March 2020 and March 2022.

We can still choose to respond to the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay tragedies in ways that don’t further compound harm and injustice.

Advocates have continually pointed out how the availability of more multilingual and culturally responsive resources demonstrably improves the quality of life for Asian Americans. Expanding the practice of disaggregating data around Asian American communities can also help pinpoint the different areas of concern that impact specific populations and support the development of community-centered solutions. These are all initiatives that could be funded instead of the police.

In light of another instance of anti-Asian violence that happened earlier this month, in which a 56-year-old white woman targeting Chinese people in Bloomington, Indiana stabbed an Asian American student waiting to get off the bus, the Indiana Chapter of the National Asian and Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) called for both the University of Indiana and the broader Bloomington community to provide greater support for Asian Americans. NAPAWF also renewed calls for Gov. Eric Holocomb to bring more Asian Americans and representatives from other marginalized groups to have a say in the development of state policies—not just through constituent feedback forums, but through active participation in committees and leadership opportunities. Nowhere did the NAPAWF mention the desire for more law enforcement.

There’s a reason that anti-violence advocates focus on the provision of social services and why NAPAWF didn’t include the need for more police or stricter hate crime laws among their clear and concrete suggestions. As we’ve learned time and again from Black abolitionists, Indigenous activists, queer communities, and others, a system of law enforcement that rests on entrenched inequity and exists to protect privilege and property more than people will do nothing to end the violence that impacts our communities. 

Let’s be clear: this is not about reform, because there’s no amount of marginalized representation and data that can erase how deeply interwoven white supremacy is within the existence and enforcement of our criminal legal system. It’s about how and why we must re-envision different forms of safety and accountability that will benefit everyone and work in solidarity with others who’ve been denied justice. The truth is that, when officials deign to provide more “police protection” in local Chinatowns or promise to use anti-Asian hate crime laws in prosecution, they do so to claim that Asian Americans have the full legal protection of the state—at least on paper. 

We can keep believing in this illusion of safety so long as we ignore how others who already suffer inequitably under our criminal legal system will continue to pay the price as we further assimilate into the white supremacist “American Dream.” 

On the other hand, we can listen to what the data tells us, listen to those whose lives have been irrevocably shaped by unjust systems, and free ourselves to examine—with clear eyes—the hard and necessary questions about what equitable systems of safety and justice could look like without the police state.

We must fight for systems of safety and accountability outside of a criminal legal system that cares for nothing but itself. 

We know what’s coming. Every mass shooting in America follows a predictable pattern: shock, anger, investigations, promises to “listen” and “make changes,” and inevitably, a push to return to normalcy. White supremacy protects itself, especially by claiming that the only way our communities can avoid future tragedy is to expand the reach and power of the police, regardless of how they routinely fail to prevent violence like the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings in the first place. 

White supremacy will demand that we keep using and trusting in the criminal legal system, even though we know it serves the interests of institutional power and depends on the capital generated through the disproportionate incarceration of our Black, Indigenous, Latinx, trans, disabled, and undocumented family and neighbors. It will insist that unquestioning acceptance of the police and the courts are the only way we can ever be safe, and it’s useless to imagine otherwise (and there are consequences for trying).

Remember, police didn’t stop the Monterey Park shooter. Lai Lai Ballroom operator Brandon Tsay disarmed the shooter when he attempted to enter the dance studio in neighboring Alhambra while police were still responding to the aftermath at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio.

Remember too that, two years ago, when a white man killed eight people—including six Korean women—across three Atlanta-area spas, the police said that he “had a really bad day.” They accepted the shooter’s claim that the murders he committed had nothing to do with racism because he was “a sex addict”—never mind the well-documented stereotypes that surround Asian women, Asian-style spas, and sex work.

Finally, remember that when Vincent Chin was murdered, his killers claimed that they shouldn’t be held responsible for his death, and the criminal legal system agreed. The killers were fined a mere $3,000 plus court costs in addition to three years probation. Not only did the prosecutor not press for more severe penalties, but he also didn’t even attend the sentencing. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Charles Kaufman justified his insultingly light sentence by stating that the two murderers “weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”

We owe it to Chin, to the victims in Atlanta, Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay, and to the Asian Americans and countless others throughout this country’s history who’ve suffered violence and been denied justice, to ask: Who is justice really for? What should it look like? From there, we must fight for systems of safety and accountability outside of a criminal legal system that cares for nothing but itself. 

Michi Trota is an essayist and speaker who often focuses on exploring issues of identity, culture, community, representation, and social justice through analyzing and deconstructing narratives around pop...