“What do we want? Asians NOW!”
The chant echoed throughout Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) as a crowd several hundred strong marched on campus and closed down the administrative offices. It was 1971. Chains around the doors signified the “lockout” of Asian administrators. Leading the demonstration was the Oriental Student Union (OSU), founded by Alan Sugiyama and Mike Tagawa. Following a lengthy and unsuccessful series of talks with SCCC’s President and Board of Trustees about the issue, the OSU had no other option but to rally.
In the late 1960s, Alan Sugiyama began his college education at SCCC and it was there that he emerged at the forefront of the Asian civil rights movement in Seattle. Activism was at its peak; the Black Panther Party was well-established in Seattle and the Black Student Union forced the school to hire its first black president, Dr. William Moore, Jr.
Yet one prominent minority group remained silent. That was until OSU spoke up.
“There was a Black history class but there was no Asian history class, yet Asians represented the largest student enrollment,” says Sugiyama.
With nearly 1000 petition signatures, OSU demanded an Asian history course. When challenged to find a suitable teacher, they brought in Ben Yorita, a history teacher from Franklin High School.
From there, OSU went on a hot streak: hiring of an Asian counselor, obtaining culturally relevant books for the library, and establishing an office of minority affairs. But throughout this time, there was one underlying problem.
“Whenever there was an issue, there was no administrator there. We always had to sneak around to try to figure out who to go to. And meeting with all these people, we noticed that just about everybody we met was white,” Sugiyama explains.
So he looked into the statistics. Out of 90 administrators at the three campuses, none were Asian. Sugiyama wanted equal representation but this match would prove much harder.
The meetings that followed only elevated tension as SCCC administrators and the Board kept up their rhetoric, stating irrelevant facts and figures, without showing any tangible outcomes. Finally, SCCC’s Board displayed “the ultimate form of disrespect” when it no-showed after having changed a meeting time on three occasions. It was time to “take it to the next level.”
Even with the success of a previous rally, the school remained unyielding so on March 2, 1971, the OSU once again took to the campus. This time, they meant business.
While most remained outside, Sugiyama and Tagawa led a group to occupy the offices and began the sit-in, effectively shutting the school down. In one office, walls were covered with yellow paper – it was the only “yellow” object. Other damages filed by the school included a bent typewriter keyboard, knocked-over decorative plants, and dirt on rugs.
With “watchers” in place to keep track of police activity, everyone exited through the front door as a police squad entered the building from the back a few hours into the event.
Up until the March demonstration, the OSU had received support from various groups in Seattle but, ironically, lacked support from the Asian community at large.
“[The demonstrations] was a real break with the Asian community because before that the Asians tended to stay in the background. After all, we were evacuated (Yorita spent time at Minidoka internment camp during WWII), so we tried not to rock the boat but then these guys were rocking the ship!” Yorita begins solemnly but ends in laughter.
The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was the first of these groups to come out and support OSU. They organized a group of community leaders to meet with the Board and Presidents in the aftermath of the sit-in. Subsequently, a promise to hire Asian administrators was made and a public apology issued.
Four decades later, there are many Asian teachers at SCCC, books of all languages available, and the Seattle community colleges have kept their promise by having Mark Mitsui as president of the North campus. But is there still work to be done in the social justice arena?
“Absolutely, absolutely. These kinds of things, unfortunately, are like pushing a rock up a hill. As soon as you stop, that rock comes back down. As soon as you let it go, it’s going to tumble on you,” Sugiyama warns.
At the 40th anniversary of the sit-in, he wants to invite both the young and the old to reminisce and to learn about how a small movement broke the silence of the “quiet Americans”.
The event will be on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 7 p.m. and will be held, appropriately, at Seattle Central Community College’s Broadway Performance Hall. This time, there will be a lot of “yellow” on campus.