Asian Americans create resources to aid discussions on anti-black violence

Philando Divall Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop July 6 by St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez in Falcon Heights, a suburb of Saint Paul, Minn. While Castile, an African American male, had been carrying a gun, he had reportedly told the police that he had a permit to carry it and was reaching for his license and registration. The aftermath of the shooting was streamed online by Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, and took the Internet by storm.

John J. Choi, Ramsey County attorney, said the county will investigate whether to prosecute or take the case to a grand jury once it receives a report from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, but did not indicate how he would proceed. As of July 20, the investigation is ongoing. Choi, the first Korean American chief prosecutor in the country, however said the country must do better with the issue of police violence.

“We must do better, in our state and in our nation, to improve police-community interactions to ensure the safety of everyone in this country, but particularly the safety of African Americans, who disproportionately lose their lives as a result,” he said in a press conference. Later he said, “The last thing I want to add is that, regardless of the outcome of this case, it is clear to me that we need to come together as a community — law enforcement included — to improve our practices and procedures so we don’t experience any more of these tragedies, ever again.”

The shooting came a day after Alton Sterling, another African American man, was shot by police in Baton Rouge, La. and a day before five police officers were shot and killed during a protest in Dallas of the two black men’s shooting by police. As the Black Lives Matter movement once again captured much of the nation’s attention, Asian Americans have also come forward to lend their voices as allies against police brutality.

Their activism took a personal approach, in the form of a letter to educate relatives who may not understand why there is a need to focus on black lives today. The letter has been translated to various languages. According to organizers of the Letters for Black Lives project, more than 200 writers and translators helped draft an English letter and the first 22 translations of the letter. Another 40 people are currently working to record readings of the translated letter in various languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Khmer. The volunteers are using Google Documents, which can be simultaneously edited by multiple users and the Slack messaging app to coordinate and relay information about the project’s status.

Christina Xu, an organizational designer and ethnographer based in New York, helped start the project when she suggested on Twitter that Asian Americans should show their support for Black Lives Matter. After Reynolds had initially described Yanez, the police officer, as Asian, Xu said in a July 7 tweet that there was a “need to get ahead of our community organizing another pro-Liang rally.”

Xu was referring to how some Asian Americans came to support Chinese American police officer Peter Liang of the New York Police Department after he had shot and killed Akai Gurley in 2014. Protestors claimed that Liang was being used as a scapegoat because of his Asian heritage, whereas white police officers in similar situations are not prosecuted for shooting and killing African Americans. Some, however, countered that Liang should face the consequences for shooting Gurley, regardless of race.

The letter illustrates this point of view, stating, “(w)hen someone is walking home and gets shot by a sworn protector of the peace — even if that officer’s last name is Liang — that is an assault on all of us, and on all of our hopes for equality and fairness under the law.”

According to Tim Huey, who is helping to coordinate the letter project in the San Francisco Bay Area, language barriers divide Asian Americans from African Americans on the issue of police violence. “Asian immigrants may have relied on pop culture and the dominant American Dream narrative to form their ideas about the U.S.,” he said. “Pop culture/mainstream media has often done a poor job, sometimes downright oppressive job of portraying black Americans.”

While the project aims to engage non-English speaking family members, Huey said it is also activating young professional Asian Americans “to be more vocal and active in explicitly social justice efforts.”

Following the initial letter, Letters for Black Lives is working on a follow up piece to provide the next steps in addressing police violence and anti-black racism. “There are a lot of resources online on what people can do to address anti-blackness in their communities; however, those are often lists of resources, not necessarily easily digestible to the first letter’s audience,” Sara Onitsuka wrote in the project’s Slack channel.

“Lists of resources are amazing, but we wanted to take a more empathetic approach, to start small and gradually build on their knowledge,” Onitsuka wrote.

Similarly, Larissa Pham developed her own “Ally Toolkit” on Google Documents for non-black allies. “I was inspired to compile the document because I was thinking about how difficult it is to have conversations across different identities and across different groups of people,” Pham told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail. “There’s a real pressure to get it right and to have the right response — but the right response varies from person to person, and it can be very scary to try to enter a conversation or become politically active, especially if you haven’t had much experience having these kinds of discussions or participating in this kind of activism before.”

While the toolkit centers on violence against African Americans, Pham stressed that it was important for her to speak to her own community. “I really don’t think I could ever speak for the black community. Which isn’t my job, really, just as it’s not a black person’s job to educate me,” she said. “So that’s the other part, the ally component of the toolkit — I wanted to make something specifically for people who don’t identify as black but who want to get involved.”

Pham drew upon her own experience as a hotline crisis counselor and through her work at New York’s Anti-Violence Project in creating the toolkit. “I really did it mostly on my own, not out of a sense of ownership but because collaboration takes quite a bit of effort and I thought it’d be better to just take responsibility for any mistakes I might have made in putting it together,” she said. Pham added, however, that she has only received minimal suggestions from its viewers.

The toolkit has received considerable attention. Pham said the link has been clicked at least 3,000 times as of July 14, and that a press in Portland, Ore. has also printed it as a free zine.

Pham said the main takeaway from her toolkit is that everyone is equipped to fight against police violence and anti-black racism. “There’s no reason that any of us should be incapable of having these conversations with our friends and loved ones and family members,” she said. “And when we are thoughtful and aware of our privileges, of how our voices operate in different spaces and across different identities, it becomes easier to have these conversations.”

To read or copy the Letter for Black Lives letters, visit: https://lettersforblacklives.com.

To access the “ally toolkit,” visit https://t.co/McVHRlL9ap.

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