Community members gather on the 9th floor of the King County Courthouse on March 7 around a commemoration altar for Susana Remerata Blackwell, a stuffed animal to represent her unborn child Kristine, and two friends Phoebe Orbiso Dizon, and Veronica Laureta Johnson • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

A few dozen people gathered on the 9th floor of the King County Courthouse March 7 to honor and remember lives ended by domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, and envision a violence-free future.

This reflection and call to action was the driving force behind API Chaya’s 29th annual vigil, “Kapwa: For our Futures.”

Api Chaya provides free, language accessible and confidential wraparound services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. The nonprofit was started to address violence in Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander communities.

In 1995, Susana Remerata Blackwell, her unborn child Kristine, Phoebe Orbiso Dizon, and Veronica Laureta Johnson were shot and killed at the King County Courthouse by Susana’s abusive husband. At the time, Blackwell was seeking a divorce.

The tragic murder was one of the reasons API Chaya formed, out of former organizations the Asian & Pacific Islander Women & Family Safety Center; and Chaya (“shelter” or “shade” in Sanskrit), which was created to serve South Asian women and raise awareness of domestic violence.

Angeli Bhatt, a staff member of API Chaya, said everyone can play a role in creating a future free of gendered violence.

“If you are here today, if you have ever reached out to support a family or friend experiencing harm, if you are a survivor who’s trying to make a better life for your children, if you are organizing at your school, at your temple, at your job you are a part of that collective body of work,” said Bhatt. “Each one of these acts makes our futures possible.”

Guest speaker Janet Gwilym was a volunteer attorney helping Blackwell on her case when Blackwell was murdered.

A kapwa tree activity at the vigil • Photo by Chetanya Robinson
Added leaves to the kapwa tree from API Chaya’s annual vigil • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Gwilym could not attend in person; instead, Priya Rai, co-executive director of API Chaya, read the speech on her behalf, at times with emotion in her voice.

Gwilym recalled working on the team helping Blackwell with her case – a team that included the other two women who were murdered, Dizon and Laureta. While Blackwell by necessity spoke with the team about the painful things she had been forced to experience, she spoke about much more too. “We didn’t just talk about the bad stuff,” Gilym said. “We also talked a lot about her hopes and her dreams. These dreams including building a life of safety and independence, and living in loving relationships.”

Blackwell’s support team was hopeful and could see the light ahead for her.

Gwilym was at the courthouse during the morning session of Blackwell’s hearings shortly before the attack. On March 2, when Blackwell, Dizon, Lauretta were killed, Gwilym’s world was turned upside down. “The initial shock subsided, in place of grief, rage, and depression,” Gwilym said. “The rage was not only with the man who had done this but with our whole society. The overt racism and sexism in the media around the event, the lack of acknowledgement of the brave women, Phoebe and Veronica, who had died with Susanna… The system that kept her family from traveling to her funeral, kept them from the criminal trial, and so much more.”

What pulled Gwilym out of the darkness was the community of people who had worked with the murdered women, connecting and supporting each other. Gwilym joined a group of women who organized to create the API Women and Family Safety Center, which eventually combined with Chaya.

Priya Rai, Co-Director of API Chaya speaks • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

In the 29 years since, Gyilym has continued working on legal cases for survivors. Gwilym still talks to Susanna in her mind about the impact her life had. “Tonight I want to tell her, I miss you and I wish you were here. Look at the amazing, beautiful programs happening at API Chaya, others who are surviving and building lives like you dreamed.”

The vigil also featured longtime activist and community leader Cindy Domingo. In 1981, her brother Silme Domingo, a union reform activist in ILWU Local 37, was assassinated alongside fellow union leader Gene Viernes. For ten years, Domingo sought justice for the murders, an effort that eventually resulted in the conviction of the former ILWU Local 37 President and family friend Tony Baruso for organizing the assassination, which was proven to be ordered by the Marcos regime with U.S. government knowledge.

“Grief never goes away. Sometimes it ebbs, but it also flows,” Domingo said, her voice emotional. “And when you are reminded of other people’s grief, your grief is also shared with them.”

Domingo was invited to speak by Derek Dizon, the son of Phoebe Dizon, and founder of A Resting Place, a support center for grief in the Chinatown International District.

Domingo herself was at the King County Courthouse on the day of the murders, and recalled the lockdown, and the sorrow and grief when people learned what had happened. “That tragedy may have been prevented,” Doming said. The County Council had been debating whether or not to put metal detectors at the entrances of the courthouse, but Republican members objected that it would violate people’s right to be armed. “But they never asked what harm would come from those that were at the barrel of the gun,” Domingo said.

Domingo said the tragedy has a powerful legacy in the social movements that resulted, including API Chaya. Speaking shortly before International Women’s Day, Domingo connected the work to honor these women’s lives with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, which killed 146 people 123 women and 23 men mostly Italian or Jewish immigrants. The tragedy popularized International Women’s Day worldwide.

Domingo also brought up the worldwide violence that she said makes it difficult to celebrate at all: Israel’s assault on Gaza, in which an estimated 70 percent of those killed are women and children, as well as the war in Ukraine, ethnic violence and massacres in Ethiopia. Domingo noted that U.S. economic sanctions against over 25 countries disproportionately impact women, as does the U.S. right wing’s efforts to curb the federal right to abortion in the U.S. and attacks on the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

“But this vigil has been Kapwa, it has been the interconnectedness that has kept our movements alive, and that interconnectedness happens within this room, outside of the city, outside of the state, and outside of the country,” Domingo said. “It happens amongst people all over the world, especially amongst women.”

The evening ended with a song by Roger Rigor called “Lupa (Earth),” about the place all human beings return to. Rigor served as an interpreter for Blackwell during the trial, but by chance he was absent on the day of her murder.

“Kapwa is nothing without the heart it’s in the heart that we have Kapwa,” Rigor said before singing. “To be vigilant, to be militant, is not violent. I challenge you all. Militancy against violence is the most human thing we can all do.”

API Chaya’s helpline is 1-877-922-4292 (Toll-Free)/206-325-0325. Helpline hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.   

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