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Student workVirtual 2021

For Asian American activists, police brutality, anti-Asian hate are two sides of the same coin

What role should policing play in Asian American communities?

Published August 26, 2021

Headshot of Tiffany Nhu Bui Tiffany Nhu Bui
Headshot of Ha-kyung Kim Ha-kyung Kim
Headshot of Megan Munce Megan Munce
Headshot of Praveena Somasundaram Praveena Somasundaram

Protesters gather at a neighborhood park in Minneapolis in a rally against anti-Asian hate on March 18, 2021, days after a gunman opened fire at spas in Acworth and Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Jon Stegenga.

Hao Nguyen is a former police officer turned prosecutor for one of Minnesota’s most populous counties. Nguyen, 38, has worked alongside police officers whom he trusted with his life – and him with theirs.

But, he said, when his white colleagues took off their badges, they still had the privilege of skin color. He couldn’t escape his identity of being a Vietnamese refugee in a predominantly white Minnesota town.

When Nguyen watched the video footage of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, he said what he saw above all else was a person of color being murdered.

His response was simple, Nguyen said. In his “heart of hearts,” he felt intensely that he had to go out and protest Floyd’s death last summer. But those in law enforcement who knew him as one of their own felt betrayed seeing him at protests.

They called him and demanded answers.

“What are you doing out there?”

“Why are you out there?”

Nguyen said it seemed like his actions were an affront to the “white majority” who had accepted him.

“But it was not an acceptance of me — it was an acceptance of who they wanted me to be and who I was to them in this system,” Nguyen said. “I don’t think that they would critically ask themselves all those levels of questions. They were just offended.

Outside of Minneapolis, many non-Black communities began to have their own conversations — about how to be a good ally, about racial solidarity, about what to read and what to say to your family. The fact that a Hmong man, Tou Thao, was one of the officers involved in Chauvin’s sparked conversation about where Hmong and other Asian immigrants stand within the issue of police brutality.

At the same time, hate crimes against Asian Americans swelled. Between March 19, 2020 and Feb. 28, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks anti-Asian hate, received 3,795 reports of hate incidents. Some cities, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, increased police presence in Asian neighborhoods to prevent such crimes.

Just a few weeks before Chauvin’s trial, a white man opened fire at massage parlors located in metro Atlanta. He killed eight people, six of them Asian women.

Standing at the crossroads of these two events were several Asian Americans who began to see racial injustice in policing as an issue for all people of color, not just Black Americans, and started to question: What role should policing play in Asian American communities?

The push against more policing

For some Asian activists, tackling anti-Asian hate means banding together with other marginalized and racialized groups.

This past year, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. However, over 80 Asian American organizations signed a statement denouncing the bill because it expands the reach of the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies.

“The bolstering of law enforcement and criminalization does not keep us safe and in fact harms and furthers violence against Asian communities facing some of the greatest disparities and attacks,” the statement read.

As an alternative to law enforcement, the coalition instead advocates for investing in community-based interventions and non-carceral alternatives to address violence, calling the law’s fundamental assumption that “the police are safe” unsound: “We know that police are devastating and deadly for BIPOC, trans, undocumented, sex workers, and many other communities.”

Across the country, polling shows Asian Americans are recognizing racial divides in law enforcement.

In 2016, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund conducted an exit poll asking roughly 14,000 Asian Americans the question: “Do you think that police departments treat racial and ethnic groups equally?”

Results were split between ethnic and age groups. Half of all Asian Americans responded that they do not believe police departments treat racial and ethnic groups equally. In comparison, 64% of Korean Americans and less than half of Cambodian Americans and Vietnamese Americans agreed that police departments do not treat racial and ethnic groups equally.

The polling results also showed a generational divide in perceptions on policing. Only 15% of Asian Americans ages 18 to 29 agreed that police treat racial and ethnic groups equally, versus 40% of Asian Americans age 70 and above.

Anthea Yur, 27, launched the Kokoro Project, a collective focused on empowering the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

As an activist, she encourages marginalized people to seek solidarity with each other. She critiqued American news media for downplaying the racially motivated nature of the Acworth and Atlanta shootings — narratives that she says similarly exonerated police after the shooting of a Black person.

To Yur, who also works with the multiracial coalition Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, police brutality and anti-Asian hate are two sides of the same coin.

In the “equation” of racial equity, the “common denominator, in my opinion, is that we have the same oppressors: white supremacy,” she said.

Stephanie Drenka, 35, is a transracial Korean-American adoptee who grew up in Southlake, Texas, a predominantly white suburb near Dallas. To Drenka, the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence during the pandemic is just an amplified wave of what she’s seen throughout her life.

Drenka now works as the communications director for Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation — an organization that aims to create a radically inclusive city by addressing race and racism through community-driven change.

One pillar of Dallas TRHT’s mission is narrative change, which involves understanding the truth about the city’s racial histories. Drenka said the other two pillars — racial healing and transformative policies — cannot be achieved without understanding racial histories.

For Drenka, confronting the problems facing Asian American communities today means confronting Asian American and Pacific Islander history — to understand what the communities have faced in the past and to learn how to stand in solidarity not only with one another, but with all marginalized communities in the wake of targeted violence.

Yur points out that police brutality has historically happened to Asian Americans, too.

In Minneapolis alone, police have shot and killed two Hmong men — Fong Lee in 2006 and Chiasher Fong Vue in 2019. Lee’s mother, Youa Vang, led a Hmong 4 Black Lives Rally to the Minnesota state capitol in June 2020. Vang told NBC News Asian American that families of all racial backgrounds must join together “to speak out and to support those voices that have been taken away from us.”

But that proves difficult for communities of color, Drenka said, whose narratives have been missing from the mainstream for generations.

“It really is the uncovering of truth that has been hidden for a reason,” she said. “We are not taught historically, specifically to make sure that existing power structures remain in place.”

A long history of abuse

Asian American hate crimes have existed for as long as Asian Americans have, according to Erika Lee, a professor of American history at the University of Minnesota.

Asian immigrants first arrived en masse in the 19th century seeking work, particularly on the West Coast. White Americans looked down on this first generation of Asian Americans as cheap foreign labor and believed they were unintelligent and disloyal.

These prejudices coalesced into the perpetual foreigner myth — a racist stereotype that all Asian Americans are alien outsiders, despite deep roots in the United States.

In her book, “The Making of Asian America,” Lee writes that Chinese residents were “systematically harassed, rounded up, and driven out of cities and towns across the West” beginning in the 1850s and continuing through the end of the century.

Economic depression in the 1870s turned the myth into a political tool as major politicians blamed Chinese workers for low wages and scarce jobs.

In 1871, nearly 500 Los Angeles residents lynched 17 Chinese Americans after a Chinese suspect shot a policeman — the largest recorded lynching in American history, according to Lee.

No legal respite existed for the victims of these early hate crimes — in 1854, the Supreme Court of California had ruled that Asian immigrants, along with Black and Native American residents, could not testify in a legal case in which a white person was one of the parties, claiming that Asian Americans were of inferior knowledge.

The immigration system became a particularly harsh weapon for these stereotypes.

In 1875, Congress passed the Page Law, banning women from any “Oriental country” from immigrating to the United States for “lewd and immoral purposes,” such as prostitution. The law gave free reign for immigration officers to deny Asian women based on stereotypes that they in particular were responsible for spreading sexually transmitted diseases.

Soon after, Congress followed up with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — an unprecedented near ban on Chinese immigration and naturalization for the next 10 years, after which the ban was extended for another decade and then made permanent until 1943.

The ban didn’t keep all Asian Americans from entering the country. After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco destroyed many public birth records, thousands of Asian men immigrated by claiming to have been born in the U.S., according to the Museum of Chinese in America.

These “paper sons” often arrived through Angel Island Immigration Center, an island off the coast of San Francisco where immigrants were separated by race and detained for as long as over two years.

Subjected to poor conditions, invasive searches and near constant policing, Asian immigrants painted and carved hundreds of poems detailing their detainment on and into the walls of their wooden prisons — now preserved by the Angel Island Immigration Center Foundation.

“A thousand sorrows and a hatred ten-thousand-fold burns between my brows,” one immigrant scratched into the wall of their barrack. “Hoping to step ashore the American continent is the most difficult of difficulties.”

Though these laws and decisions have since been overturned, the mark of the perpetual foreigner myth had already cemented itself into the American ethos.

In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer, was beaten to death by two white auto workers who witnesses said called Chin Japanese and accused him of stealing their jobs.

At the time, Chin’s murder did not make national headlines, but many see it as a turning point for Asian American activism.

Thirty years after Chin’s death, Frank Wu, then-chancellor and dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law, wrote in a 2012 New York Times op-ed titled “Why Vincent Chin Matters” that “no single episode involving an individual Asian-American had ever had such an effect before.”

“‘Remember Vincent Chin’ turned into a rallying cry; for the first time, Asian-Americans of every background angrily protested in cities across the country,” Wu wrote.

Protesters gather at a neighborhood park in Minneapolis in a rally against anti-Asian hate on March 18, 2021, days after a gunman opened fire at spas in Acworth and Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Jon Stegenga.

Even so, the glaring sense of being unable to fit in with the predominantly white community still haunts Asian Americans today, such as what Drenka faced in Southlake, Texas.

“It was something I was very cognizant of,” she said. “It gave me a lot of internalized racism trying to fit in. I really had never been around more people who looked like me until I went to college.”

While at DePaul University in Chicago from 2004 to 2008, Drenka was part of the Korean Student Organization and Asian Culture Exchange — the latter of which she eventually became president.

As she transitioned into leadership of the Asian Culture Exchange, DePaul University started offering courses from its first department for Asian American Studies.

Drenka credits being able to finally learn Asian American history — struggles, triumphs and collective work — and her participation in advocacy work campaigns during college as the foundation for what she does today.

“That was sort of the beginning of my work in activism and Asian American coalition building,” Drenka said.

The push for abolition

Renewed discussions about policing within the community coincided with the rise in voter turnout among young Asian Americans, despite being overlooked by political organizations, according to the nonpartisan research organization Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

According to CIRCLE, 43% of Asian American youth reported being contacted by the Democratic Party or Joe Biden’s campaign leading up to Election Day, versus 61% of Black youth and 55% of Latinx youth. The trend was similar to contact from the Republican party.

The research found that youth instead relied on friends, family and other social networks for election information. Asian American youth, ages 18 to 29, cited racism as one of their top concerns during the 2020 presidential election, according to a post-election poll conducted by CIRCLE.

The poll found that 69% of Asian American youth identified “combating violence against people of color” as a somewhat or very high priority. Fourteen percent of Asian American youth said “police treatment of communities of color” were among their top three issues when choosing the next president.

The Southeast Asian Diaspora Project is a nonprofit in Minneapolis that made voting more accessible by providing information in Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese and Hmong.

The organization also joined the police abolitionist movement in Minneapolis within the last year, and created an “abolition deck” of slideshows with words like “defund,” “accountability” and “demilitarize” translated in those same languages.

SEAD executive director Chanida Phaengdara Potter calls the deck “nuggets of messaging” that are easy to reshare.

That’s all where we’re coming from is like, let’s have a conversation about this. How do we begin to talk with our friends and families about abolition, rather than, ‘Hey, we don’t need policing.’ [That] type of messaging doesn’t quite work with our communities,” they said.

Instead, they said, SEAD is trying to explain the need for police abolition in a way that feels familiar to their community — within which policing alternatives have been employed for generations.

“For most of our communities, we have a village mentality,” Phaengdara Potter said. “When harm is done in our village, what do we do about it? How do we address it? You could talk to our elders who have plenty of stories where, when things like that do happen, they typically address it as a village.”

Phaengdara Potter calls policing “the umbilical cord” that people don’t want to cut unless they have alternatives. If SEAD can help the diaspora community reimagine safety and policing, they can turn to those alternatives when anti-Asian incidents happen as well, they added.

They also encourage people to expand their view of what constitutes hate: “Don’t call the police, don’t inform ICE, don’t don’t do any of those things. Because even deportations [are] a form of anti-Asian hate. And if we’re also not paying attention to that, and we’re only paying attention to our elders getting hit on the street … what are we actually truly dismantling?”

Reimagining the relationship 

Others don’t see the question as whether policing should or shouldn’t exist, but rather, what policing should look like.

For Nguyen, he didn’t become a police officer because he necessarily looked up to the police, but because it was better than being on the other side of the badge. He said as a person of color growing up in a white community, he didn’t feel like cops cared about him.

Nguyen’s family was sponsored to come to the U.S. after living at a refugee camp in the Philippines. They settled in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in 1989, where his single mother worked at the meatpacking factory in town.

“I didn’t want to be the one getting handcuffed … I didn’t want to be the minority kid having an officer say to me like, ‘Well, what are you doing here? Like, who are your friends?” Nguyen said. “I had experienced that. And I very much never wanted to experience that again.”

For Nguyen, addressing the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes doesn’t necessarily mean more police. But it also doesn’t mean no police.

When considering the future of policing, Nguyen said he wants to see one where entire police departments’ policies don’t encourage officers to resort to the most punitive option possible, as they have historically done.

As a police officer, Nguyen said he decided he would not conduct low-level traffic stops for Latinx drivers, as getting a ticket could put them at risk for deportation by immigration authorities. He said he didn’t discuss the decision with others in the department — he just chose to do it.

“That’s what needs to be done. Critical leadership from the chiefs to the assistant chiefs, where they make complete clear rules that reverse the disproportionate contact [with people of color],” Nguyen said.

Officers will eventually be reassigned elsewhere, but discrimination against Asians would still persist. Instead, he supports community patrols and bystander intervention. He wants to see people in the criminal justice system stand up against anti-Asian hate too.

“We need more people in a courtroom or a squad car to say ‘No,’ [to anti-Asian hate],” Nguyen said.

Though some data on reported anti-Asian hate crimes exists, such as from Stop AAPI Hate and AAPI Data, incident reporting is another point of variance between different groups.

Some Asian Americans support the expansion of hate crime units within law enforcement agencies to help improve incident reporting. Agencies across the country have taken different approaches when it comes to Asian American communities.

In August 2020, the New York City Police Department announced a task force focused on hate crimes against Asian Americans — with department officials saying the community had expressed that police weren’t doing enough. Other cities, such as Oakland, California, designated specific liaisons to connect with local communities.

But expanded police protection, Drenka said, goes against the activism of communities of color for decades. Additional law enforcement protection for Asian Americans can be ignorant of what that type of expansion means for Black communities and other communities of color.

“Any policy that is giving more money to police, when [communities] are calling for defunding and for that money to be reinvested in communities and community services and social services as a preventative measure — we’re now going against the interests and our fellow activists who have been on the ground doing this work for decades,” Drenka said.

The learning, conversations and reckonings of the past year and of stories not previously known has taught Drenka a lesson of solidarity — and the importance of togetherness among communities of color.

The key to moving the needle, Drenka said, is for communities of color to band together and be allies for one another’s work, which hasn’t been done as much in the past.

“That’s what I’m trying to stop is that cycle of like ‘We don’t know any better, so we don’t do any better,’” she said.

‘A tidal wave of ramification’

For Nguyen, switching from the police to prosecution was about wielding power in the courtroom with words, rather than through force in the streets.

He recalls a night when his brother, who had begun developing symptoms of schizophrenia, fell asleep in a stranger’s garage.

“I think he ate like a candy bar and passed out because he was having delusions. He didn’t punch anyone, he didn’t hurt anyone, he didn’t enter, really, the home, he just passed out,” Nguyen said.

The homeowner called 911 and his brother was arrested and charged with burglary — a felony crime — which started a chain of deportation hearings since Nguyen’s brother was not a U.S. citizen. Nguyen said his brother was ultimately not deported because of a “technical error.”

But the situation could have been prevented if the prosecution had considered how the mistake would affect his brother’s life, he said.

“As a prosecutor, I think about those things now,” Nguyen said. “I get to make the decision, to not prosecute or to divert or to offer something else that doesn’t have such a tidal wave of ramification.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Yur’s organization. The organization is Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, not Families Supporting Families Against Police Brutality.

Tiffany Bui, Ha-Kyung Kim, Megan Munce and Praveena Somasundaram are 2021 Voices students. Aishwarya Kumar and Mallika Sen edited the features team.

Tiffany Bui (she/they) is a reporter for Racial Reckoning: The Arc of Justice, focusing on race in Minnesota after the murder of George Floyd. She is an Emma Bowen Foundation alum, and interned at the nonprofit newsroom MinnPost. Tiffany graduated in 2021 from the University of Minnesota.

Ha-Kyung Kim is studying Business at NYU Stern School of Business with a concentration in Econometrics. She was a Foreign Bureau Intern at NPR’s Seoul Bureau last year and was a Vox Media Writer’s Workshop Fellow this summer.

Megan Munce is a senior at Northwestern University pursuing a combined B.S./M.S. in journalism with a second major in political science. She has worked for The Daily Northwestern and The Texas Tribune and is currently interning with Bay City News through the Emma Bowen Foundation.

Praveena Somasundaram is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying journalism and biology. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s independent student newspaper. She has worked for The Dallas Morning News and The Charlotte Observer.

Aishwarya Kumar is a features writer for ESPN based in the Hartford, Connecticut, area. Mallika Sen is an editor at The Associated Press in New York.

Authors

Headshot of Tiffany Nhu Bui

Tiffany Nhu Bui

University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Headshot of Ha-kyung Kim

Ha-kyung Kim

New York University

Headshot of Megan Munce

Megan Munce

Northwestern University

Headshot of Praveena Somasundaram

Praveena Somasundaram

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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