Archives for posts with tag: civil rights

On November 27, the Black Lives Matter, Not Black Friday protest shook up the retail core of Seattle. I stayed for as long as I could and documented it.

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1 PM: Signs in Century Square, the de facto heart of the retail district.

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Protesters strain to hear the speaker’s bullhorns over the blare of Christmas carols, Century Square.

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Holiday shoppers watch the protest from the safety of Westlake Center, a popular downtown mall.

Blocking intersection_mic checkSeveral hundred demonstrators occupied intersections while POC (people of color) speakers used an Occupy-style “human microphone” to spread their message.

Blocking intersectionDisrupting traffic in Seattle: some motorists were frustrated, while others were empathetic and waited patiently.

WP_20151127_096Occupying a popular intersection beside corporate retailer Nordstrom–fuck the holiday season, start a revolution!

Signs outside Westlake Ctr
3 PM: First attempt to get into Westlake Center, at the north entrance …

Altercation_Westlake Ctr… which doesn’t end well (cops 1, POC 0)–the first arrest of four arrests made that day.

White allies at protest
The crowd of protesters was diverse, with many white allies.

Cops and WTFAn attempt by protesters to enter Pacific Place, an upscale shopping center, brings cops–and a few incongruous self-designated “superheroes” (costumed vigilantes).

Forever 21 protestProtesters occupied all four floors of Forever 21, a corporate retailer guilty of unethical practices.

The organizers of protest4:15 PM: A quick conversation, as police block off streets, before heading to Westlake Center for the tree lighting–and the latter half of the protest.

BLM protest_Black Friday
The Slog, the daily blog run by The Stranger (one of Seattle’s weekly papers), covered the protest and captured, among many other people, me (in dark glasses, foreground). I lost most of my voice shouting and leading chants.

I need to figure out how to upload some video footage here. It features protesters infiltrating Macy’s, even as a security guard tried to shut its doors, and occupying Forever 21. At the latter store, I was right behind one of the march’s organizers when she simply and miraculously opened one of its doors and said, “Come on in.” I patted her on the shoulder and said it was a good idea, and then we all swept in–an unstoppable tide of people that took about 15 minutes to all get through the door. We rode the escalators to the top of the store, shouting chants like “Black lives matter, not this shit.” Shoppers were flummoxed or pretended to ignore us while scurrying to the dressing rooms, but a few pumped their fists in solidarity.

The Black Lives Matter march went on to effectively disrupt the tree lighting ceremony and finally infiltrate the two downtown malls. Some great photos and coverage can be found here. Four arrests were made, but there were no blast balls, tear gas, or major violence like I’d experienced during the WTO. And unlike the Martin Luther King Day Black Lives Matter march earlier this year, it didn’t end in the cops going crazy with the pepper spray. So in that respect, the protest was a relative success. However, many white shoppers became irate, completely overlooking the point of the protest: black lives matter more than consumerism.

Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Tanisha Anderson. LaQuan McDonald. The countless unnamed by the media.

So many. Too many. Black lives matter. Say it with me–not all lives matter”that’s also true but missing the goddamn point here.

Black lives. Their black lives. Our black lives everywhere. All of them. Protected and respected. That may sound like a liberational fantasy, but that’s what protests like these are working toward.

Affecting corporate retailersAmerica’s moneylike Chicago’s protesters did on North Michigan Avenue, is the best way of getting attention and pointing to where the real value lies. Not in 40% off the Kindle Unlimited, but in the black lives lost and those that need to be fiercely and lovingly cherished and preserved.

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The progressive pyro
Book burning
So my paternal great-grandfather had his share of bad days, dragging his son around by the hair and trying to set fire to his own home. But believe it or not, he was a successful and well-educated landowner. In fact, the Korean government (who were actually Japanese, since it was during the occupation*) was so impressed with him that they sent him to Tokyo to study economic systems and policies. His task was to come back with suggestions for the betterment of Korea—because obviously Japan was a very enlightened country with progressive ideas, like the best ways to brutally occupy lesser nations.

My great-grandfather came to Japan, saw, and was conquered (already), and he returned to Korea with one major recommendation: abolish slavery for good. (Yes, Japan supposedly disavowed slavery as an institution, even as it was busily establishing systems of forced labor for comfort women, POWs, and Korean civilians. Go figure.) Large landowners in Korea, including my great-grandfather, still owned slaves—mainly impoverished Korean peasants and farmers—in spite of earlier reforms.

Great-Grandfather Cho decided to set an example by liberating his own slaves, to much rejoicing and confusion in his household. Then he marched over to the town hall, where he collected all the official slave registry books. Carrying these heavy ledgers to the center of town, he dumped them on the ground and set them on fire.

Many Koreans were emancipated that day, but it took 35 years—and larger fires—to ultimately free Korea from Japanese rule.

*The language of the colonizers still lives on in the home of my parents, who were barred from speaking Korean in their childhood. They still unthinkingly use the Japanese words for common household objects like toothpicks, onions, and underpants … and as their child, so do I!

The shoes
Shoes by lake

In his later years, my great-grandfather took exceptional delight in his shiny Western shoes. When he walked, they gleamed from underneath the traditional white robe that he wore on a daily basis. He enjoyed hearing the enunciated clopping noise they made, which the traditional Korean rubber shoes (gomushin) could not rival.

Great-Grandfather Cho enjoyed a life of luxury as a wealthy landowner until 1950. When the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea and began to burn farms and kill the owners, my great-grandfather knew his days were numbered.

So he drove to a nearby lake, took off his beloved brogues and set them neatly, side by side, on the bank. Then, hitching up his robe, my great-grandfather sauntered into the lake and never came out again.

My great-grandfather In-Suk Cho was a walking paradox. He was a man who loved Korea enough to bring back methods from Japan to improve it, a slaveowner turned abolitionist, and a man who favored fire as a means of terminating things—slavery and even his own family line—but who ultimately chose water to end his own life.

My heart’s been hanging at my knees, with the one-year anniversary of Ferguson and the controversy around the BLM disruption of Bernie Sanders’ visit to Seattle. There are feelings I’m finding hard to articulate right now—they exist only as a molten mass in my head—but I did convey some of them as abstract drawings on paper, using permanent marker and a very blunt pencil.

Divided ever
Divided Ever
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The past few days have reminded me that as whites and people of color, we live in radically different worlds. The ferment around Ferguson and the Sanders disruption has shown, with very few exceptions, the grievous lack of understanding we have toward each other. Our comprehension and empathy still hinge on social constructs, and this often creates an impasse, and enmity, between groups.

It pains me to see this kind of fracture happen, and I don’t know how else to talk about it beyond carving marks into paper with a blunt pencil (as in 90% wood, 10% graphite)—a study in impotence and a physical reminder of the emotional limits to our subjectivity. We say we support a movement outside of our experience but still remain ensconced in our respective paradigms.

There is a movement to emphasize that black lives matter. And there are many non-black allies, but how much do we really understand about being a racial minority without wearing it on our skin and seeing how it feels?

We cannot understand
How We Cannot Understand/Stand
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The drawing above came out of the hostile response to the disruption of Bernie Sanders’ talk in Seattle. Some of the most mean-spirited comments came from those who should be the best allies to the BLM movement, white progressives. It occurred to me that as different races with differing agendas in that moment, we could not understand, or even stand, each other. We simply cannot stand if we continue operating this way.

I’m frustrated by the impotence in racial discussions. We are bound by our limitations, so how can we unite and fight?

Scan 1
We Hate You/They Hate Us
Sharpie and pencil

There are allies out there with deep hearts and broad imaginations. These are the people who can help, and yet today I’m feeling discouraged, haplessly bound by my own skin and embroiled in conflicting, mutually uncomprehending discourse. I’m especially tired of hearing stubborn but futile attempts to analyze the Sanders situation. These are as effectual as a blunted pencil, whose insignificant marks cannot rival the deep, plush darkness of a brand-new Sharpie, a symbol of the stark and unyielding truth of racial inequality.

I know you’re tired of it. Race. Race in America. It’s a topic ripe enough to burst, and it dominates the headlines: racial terrorism, police brutality, Obama using the “N” word. I’m sick of it too, but it’s what people of color, like me, live and breathe every day. We talk, cry, and yell it; it’s the key in which we sing.

Lately, I have been developing a body of work that deals with the fraught and beleaguered issue of race in America. These paintings are a continuation of my recent show at Seattle’s Zeitgeist Coffee, Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race. After Ferguson, I began this series as a way of processing the rage and grief that I felt.

Using a large housepaint brush, I flung acrylic paint on more than 30 feet of raw canvas. Working in such a visceral, often violent way–and on such a large scale–was cathartic for me. Although the Action Painters of the ’50s used the same methods, they produced work that was largely apolitical (and most were Caucasian men). My work is firmly rooted in the discourse of racial disparity.

The first piece in the series is Denatured, a tribute to Michael Brown.

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Denatured, nailed to the wall at Zeitgeist Coffee, March 2015

Most of the other pieces use the same splatter method to represent the squandered lives that racism takes by force. The random patterns of the paint form tumultuous narratives of struggle, evoking bodies rent apart through physical or psychological violence, the disemboweling of entire communities, and the quest for liberation.

Race 2_FergusonRace 1

Race 3

The following pieces talk about structural racism, the bias written into institutions and systems in America. From the Confederate flag flown over Southern government buildings to racial stratification in housing, vestiges of white supremacist ideology are still present in our culture.

Race 5
If this reminds you of a penitentiary, then you’re on the right track.

Race 4

What does experiencing racism feel like? I can say from firsthand experience that you feel eviscerated, stripped of agency, and blinded to everything except the incident itself. Your perspective distorted and self-worth negated, you feel like sawdust or, worse yet, nothing at all.

But as an Asian-American, I have it easy compared to the struggles of the black community. According to writer Julia Craven, “To be black, specifically in America, is to be in a constant state of fear. There is no refuge. There is no escape. There is no sanctuary.”

Even so, you still get some wildly posturing, colonialist asshat like Rachel Dolezal, who commodifies Otherness (in the words of bell hooks) in the ultimate appropriative act of white privilege. As if race can be simply performed and adopted. As if we all had the luxury of that choice.

That’s why we have to frankly and openly address race in America–and run it ragged: understand its ins and outs, all its vagaries and gray areas. And then do something about it. From rewriting the policies and laws to subverting the dominant media narrative and its outdated tropes (see the Wall Street Journal coverage of Charleston for an example) to supporting communities of color.

This all takes thinking critically, listening carefully, and acting compassionately. Not turning the other way or pretending it’s someone else’s job. It’s our job because, goddamn it, it’s our world.

On Martin Luther King Day, I joined hundreds in Seattle at a rally in front of a downtown federal courthouse. Speakers addressed the growing movement against police violence and racial inequality, and the rally concluded on a high note—but there was unfinished business. As the crowd dispersed, an independent group of protesters headed north to join #blacklivesmatter activists who had lain down in the middle of Highway 99, using the “sleeping dragon” tactic of locking their arms together in pipes. I joined the group, knowing this unsanctioned march was an act of civil disobedience that carried the risk of arrest. As the sole breadwinner of my household, I felt deeply apprehensive but compelled to see, photograph, and march in solidarity, like I had in the WTO protests a decade and a half ago.

MLK protest march to SLU
Marching through downtown behind an IWW (“Wobbly”) flag

MLK protest stop Va St
Occupying the road, on the edge of the Amazon.com campus  

We entered the sprawling campus of Amazon, half of it under construction (talk about a sleeping dragon). The road was lined with partially built condos and apartment buildings for the nouveau riche. Our chants echoed through the urban canyon: “Hey hey, ho ho, new Jim Crow has got to go!” and “Fight back! Fight back today! The USA killed MLK!”

MLK protest marc to SLU II
Protesters link arms, unfazed by lines of bicycle police

MLK protest march Hands Up
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” chants the crowd. Jesse Hagopian, a writer, history teacher, and Black Student Union advisor at Seattle’s Garfield High School, on the left.

MLK protest Derek phone
Some protesters, such as community organizer Derek Orbiso Dizon (pictured), had the phone number of a network of pro bono lawyers written on them, in case of arrest.

MLK protest BLM wrap
Others showed solidarity with #blacklivesmatter.

I warily noted the bike cops encroaching on both sides of the crowd and remembered the rubber bullets and tear gas from the WTO, anti-Bush/anti-war protests, and countless other demonstrations since. Then the inevitable happened: we approached a line of cops blocking the road and a few protesters who attempted to cross the line were seized, beaten, and pepper-sprayed. They were soon pinned on the ground and in handcuffs.

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The police’s violent response causes confusion, outrage, and disappointment among protesters.

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One of many arrests made on Martin Luther King Day 2015, Seattle

Some high-school-age protesters looked on, cowed and in disbelief, before vanishing from the scene. Some jeered, others moved to the sidewalk, and one intrepid black man stood in front of the police and shouted at the top of his lungs, “As a protest of one, I say: FUCK THE POLICE!” He refused to budge and was escorted into a waiting police SUV. My heart sank.

A young protester wept on the sidelines, so I gently approached her and asked if she was okay. She had marched all the way from Garfield High School and was distraught at how a peaceful protest could end in such an ugly way. I listened to her talk and then gave her a hug and told her that, as disheartening as it is, this is how the world eventually changes. I urged her to keep coming out to protests and silently reminded myself to do the same.

MLK protest lone protester
A disillusioned young protester

The crowd of protesters began to thin out; some went home and others took the back roads to join the activists blocking the state highway. Feeling unnerved and sickened, I seeked out a quiet corner and sat down to process what I’d seen. A good part of me wishes I’d gone on to show solidarity and help block an interstate on-ramp. After all, disrupting traffic on one afternoon only starts to convey what it’s like to be constantly disrupted, on a day-to-day basis, as a racial minority.

Many jaded armchair warriors can “tsk tsk” and claim that there’s a catch in protesting: you can take to the streets and yell all you want, but you will suffer consequences that include arrest. But there’s a bigger catch that the authorities who oppose civil disobedience need to realize, and it’s this: you can make arrests but you can’t halt social change. It’s larger than all of us, and it’s spreading more rapidly and prevalently than you think.

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Exuberant and empowered young activists block a downtown Seattle intersection, Martin Luther King Day, 2015.

Selma and Charlie
There were small, wet sounds throughout the theatre at the Selma screening. As a young black man lay dying on screen—too familiar a sight in today’s media—a gray-haired man in front of me dabbed his eyes, and somebody in a back row stated plainly, “Ferguson.” Selma is that kind of film, one that seamlessly enmeshes the past with the present and wrings out tears of recognition from its audiences. Though it has been criticized for factual inaccuracy, the movie reworks the historical narrative to better represent a truth that existed then as it does now: systemic racism.

While a new kind of activism is emerging in the aftermath of Ferguson, it is important to remember the pioneers of the civil rights movement. Selma does a good job of honoring them, particularly Martin Luther King, who projects both softness and strength. It is jarring to see an unvarnished Oprah playing civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper and to realize that just over 50 years ago, the queen of all media would barely be allowed a drink from a segregated water fountain. It’s downright hair-raising to see unarmed, ordinary African-American citizens approaching the huddle of white, racist state troopers and police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Selma opened in Seattle theatres a few days after Islamic extremists launched attacks in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket. The massacre resulted in a global outpouring of grief, outrage, and solidarity, including the largest rally turnout in France on record. Meanwhile, the remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo quietly prepared its next issue, unsurprisingly featuring Mohammed on the cover.

Initially, I felt like some of the Charlie Hebdo comics were cheap shots with unremarkable technique, but I came to understand that France has its own distinctively rich history of anticlerical satire. Even though the voices and images can be obstreperous and vulgar, they can be particularly effective tools for social critique. I fervently believe in freedom of expression and, like those working at the magazine, tend to be distrustful of all religions and authority figures.

Selma and the Charlie Hebdo killings have reminded me, in the most wrenching way, that ordinary citizens can and will make a difference in driving social movements forward. Whether marching or sketching, acts of resistance are necessary to combat the psychological and physical violence of racism and religious extremism.

Selma and Charlie: the names evoke a quaint couple of yesteryear. I envision a blood-spattered pair who have been brought to their knees but have risen up to plod forward, doggedly and painfully, on the long road ahead.

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A small drawing I made using Sharpie, Dec. 2014

From a racial perspective, 2014 has been a watershed year. In light of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it feels as if we are on the cusp of a new, reinvigorated and more media-savvy civil rights movement—one that is manifesting in intellectual and visceral ways. All of the sudden, being minority, and especially being black, has an urgency to it. Take, for example, the website of #BlackLivesMatter; its main text is telegraphic and immediate: Get Active, Get Organized, Fight Back.

The events of the past few months have forced race into the national discussion to an almost overwhelming degree. We’re no longer avoiding the topic; we’re glutted with it. There have been innumerable articles, from both mainstream and underground publications, that offer incisive social critique and cultural analysis. Ironically, the more the country talks about race, the less I feel compelled to write about it. I’m more inclined now to simply witness, and gradually process, the societal change this dialogue is fostering. There’s too much to take in; I’m speechless.

As a side note: For those who still believe that the police were justified in killing these black guys because they were criminals, you’re ignoring the national subtext—an entire cultural narrative—underlying these events. Wake up and smell the prejudicial coffee!

Even though this blog was originally designed to talk about race (it’s even built into the name, for better or worse), I’ve delved less into general musings around it and more into the specific experiences of being an Asian American. Life is politicized when you’re a minority, and as an Asian-American female, I’m reminded of that fact every single day. Even the minutiae of everyday life, such as habits, personal appearance and conversations, are charged with identity and difference.

My hope is that in the new year, the discussion around race continues and we learn to understand one another better. Increasing awareness and recognition engenders compassion and empathy—at least, ideally. With the President of the United States candidly admitting he’s been mistaken for the valet, and even multinational conglomerate Starbucks taking a stand on racism, this kind of bipartisan social change could very well happen, maybe even quicker than we imagined.

Unfinished business

Unite and fight, rinse and repeat.

Best words of the 2013 March on Washington, from John Lewis:

You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down.

You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out, and get in the way.

Make some noise!