Last week, sitting in on the last day of my Asian American Race, Law, and Justice class at the University of Washington, my professor instructed her students to take out a pen and paper for our last assignment. In a moment of reflection, she told us to inscribe a quote we heard in class that stood out to us.
Rambling in my head over cliché truisms I could use to impress her, I ultimately found myself staring blankly at a Table of Elements chart. She must have noticed our lost expressions because within moments she stated: “‘Silence is violence.’ Aki Kurose.”
Exhausted and delirious from finals, I scribbled down the first thoughts that came to mind in response to her quote. At that moment, I couldn’t recognize what gravitated me toward it. But now, reflecting over what I learned in that class, in the midst of the events in Ferguson, Missouri and the nationwide solidarity with those taking part in civil disobedience, I understand why those simple words meant so much to me. And I understood why as an Asian American community, we must recognize their value and reassess the way we understand violence.
As a society we generally associate violence solely with evil, criminalizing it and shaming the perpetrators. And as Asian Americans we are expected to be anything but violent. But for me growing up, violence was not taught to only be inherently evil. In elementary school, my grandmother, the daughter of a former Jodo Shinshu Minister at the Seattle Buddhist Church during World War II, would have my cousins and I recite verses from our church service books.
“I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing and protect all who are weaker than myself … knowing that what I do now depends not only my happiness or unhappiness, but also that of others.”
—Amida’s Golden Chain III
From my experience, violence was a choice. It could be used for the sake of good. It can come in forms like self-defense or protection, forms we commonly forget are associated with it but must also recognize equally in this time of racial and political tension.
To further explain, one of the greatest misconceptions about Martin Luther King, Jr., is that he only preached for a passive movement. Yes, his message was to never respond to hate immediately with violence, but he also understood violence and nonviolence were interdependent. In April 1963, after witnessing the disturbing realities of Alabama, Dr. King inscribed in the margins of newspaper articles, his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” speech.
“We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action. … Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Between the racial tension in the South and atrocities in Vietnam, King’s perspective began to radicalize. Most notably demonstrated in the 1965 Selma march and “Bloody Sunday,” when King led protesters toward Montgomery. They were met with billy clubs, dogs, and police brutality. Although King’s practices were non-violent, he knew his actions would perpetuate a violent outcome. Understanding it would take violence to gain universal attention. And it worked. It was these images of violence streaming through the family televisions that led to nationwide pressure for government intervention. And within months, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 1969 it was the movement of Pan Asian Americans leading the Third World Liberation Front. Frustrated with the U.S. educational system, Asian, African, Chicano, and Native American students of San Francisco State College and UC Berkeley led mass protests demanding representation of minority culture within the classroom. Using the concept of “Third World,” students demonstrated that there was a history of colonialism, racial oppression, and exclusion that needed to be addressed in a dominantly Eurocentric realm. They picketed their institution, blocked entrances, held teach-ins and mass rallies and were met with militarized law enforcement.
Perpetuating actions they knew could have violent consequences, these students understood it was what was necessary for their voices to be heard. For these moments, violence played a strategic role in the path for justice. Therefore, we must use these actions to further reflect over the injustices of Ferguson and systematic oppression.
Which leads to the following questions: How does this relate to the Asian American community? And why is the Asian American experience still commonly unheard?
Understanding Asian America and its relation to Ferguson can be seen in parallels between Mike Brown and Vincent Chin, a Chinese American male murdered in 1982 by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, on the night of his wedding celebration. A racially motivated crime, Chin’s death galvanized the Asian American Civil Rights movement. Like Brown, it became a lightening rod that unified communities across ethnic borders—a movement demanding representation and protection under the law. Yet, despite outrage and injustice, Chin’s death is relatively unknown in this generation.
To this day, Asian Americans are somewhat lost in the racial hierarchy, and still forced into the model minority sphere. Angelo Ancheta, author of Race, Rights and the Asian American Experience states: “The ‘model minority’ stereotype of Asian Americans becomes a two-edged sword, breeding not only incomplete and inaccurate images of Asian American success but resentment and hostility on the part of other racial groups.”
Expected to be passive, Asian Americans are foreignized as the “other,” told we are the “privileged” minorities, yet still face subordination from Anglo hegemony. Sometimes resented or unacknowledged by other racial groups, we are seen as detached and silent. And lastly erased, unknown, or omitted in U.S. history are the decades of discrimination and disenfranchisement inflicted upon the Pan Asian American population.
The Asian American community must continue to be active in the events of Ferguson and others alike. Debunking the model minority myth, we must take our experiences and unite them with other communities in a universal fight towards justice. And just like the events in Selma, Alabama, we must recognize the interplay of violence and revolution. So before you shame the actions of rioting, we must remember the historical significance of these acts. Yes, violence with the intention to hurt an individual is wrong. But violence is and has also been a strategy for social justice.
“And unless we want to live in terror for the rest of our lives, we need to change our view about acquiring things. We have the opportunity to take a great leap forward in these very challenging times.”
—Grace Lee Boggs
Violence can protect those who are in need. Violence means speaking up and shaming the institutions that have betrayed us. Change never came to those who stood still. It came to those who provoked the system. We must remember those who demanded to have their voices heard by any means necessary, because of the subordination upon their community.
Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Tanesha Anderson, John Crawford and, in Seattle, First Nation member John T. Williams. It is for these individuals and the tragedies alike, that we must continue to practice civil disobedience. We must look beyond the sole action of violence.
Like Aki Kurose said, “Silence is violence.” It has many forms. We must reassess the way we perceive it. Violence should never be the immediate answer, but at times, it is necessary. And as Asian Americans we have the advantage to have the element of surprise. Because of model minority stigma, we are the least expected to be militant. So let’s use that as a catalyst for change. We understand how it feels to be systematically oppressed. And so we must keep protesting in solidarity, and provoking the system so that the next generations do not have to endure the injustices we face today.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones. … Every man (and woman) of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must ALL protest.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “Beyond Vietnam,” 1967