What I learned when I was attacked—and spared—because of my race at a Black Lives Matter protest.
I knew the protest was going to spiral into something bigger when I saw a man in tears push a police officer. I had never seen anyone lay a hand on a cop, even amicably. But these people gathered now in the street were utterly out of patience. I wasn’t sure whether I would be caught in the crossfire. Then a community activist I had earlier asked to interview spotted me, and called me over.
“I can see from your face that you don’t think you’re safe,” he told me. He was black; I’m Chinese-American. “You are. You’re a minority, too.”
It was just the reassurance I was looking for. It would also turn out to be wrong.
It had all started earlier that day, around 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 13, when Milwaukee police officers pulled over two black men in the city’s predominantly African-American Sherman Park neighborhood. The men fled on foot with the officers running after them. Officer Dominique Heaggan caught up with one of the men, Sylville Smith, who was armed. After a confrontation, the details of which are still unclear, the officer shot and killed Smith.
Outrage at Smith’s death surged over social media, and hundreds of people came out to protest on the street where he was killed. It was the latest in a string of often-dubious police shootings in the city. I was sent to go report on the scene as an intern for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—my last assignment for the summer.
Shortly after I arrived, I saw the beginnings of a shoving match between a line of policemen in riot gear and the distraught residents of the neighborhood. I was the only non-black person there at the time—the other news crews had left—and my presence was soon questioned: Some pointed me out as an interloper; others, like the reassuring activist, told me I would be fine. I brushed off the more hostile comments as much as I could: They were angry, and anger doesn’t always hit its intended target.
As the confrontation went on, the crowd became more and more violent. What started as shoving and rock throwing escalated into smashing cars and setting businesses aflame. By nightfall, I was crouching behind a Chevy Suburban to avoid bullets. Another intern, a white man who had arrived later on to take photos, huddled beside me. After the gunfire ceased, he emerged from behind the car to take more pictures while I stayed behind.
“Get your white ass out of here!” he soon heard. “You better not let me fucking catch you!”
After trying unsuccessfully to defuse the situation, my colleague was flying down the street with a group of men chasing him. Wanting to help, but not knowing how, I decided to run after them. In order to run faster, my colleague dropped the two bulky cameras hanging around his neck. When I tried to retrieve them, and yelled at him to get out of the area, some in the group of rioters started chasing after me too. As a former back-of-the-pack runner in middle school gym class, I wasn’t surprised when they caught me. When they threw me to the ground, I reflexively curled up into a ball. Blows landed on my back, head and torso.
“Stop! He’s not white! He’s Asian!”
I wasn’t sure who said it, or how they knew my race, but within seconds, the punches stopped. Someone grabbed me by the arm and lifted me up. As my vision came back into focus, I saw a group of concerned black faces and heard someone repeating, “Don’t fuck with Chinese dudes.” My attackers had run off. Those who had intervened escorted me to safety.
The Journal Sentinel pulled its reporters off the scene that night once it got violent; thankfully, I walked away from the incident with only scrapes and bruises, and none of my colleagues were injured. Still, I was rattled.
The voice that stuck in my head over the next few days, as I talked to my relatives and friends about it, belonged to a woman who’d come up to me in the afternoon scrum: “You’re Asian, right?” she said to me. “Why are you even here?”
In one sense, the answer was obvious: I am a journalist. I’ve covered protests against police brutality before, and see it as a responsibility of the press to convey the pain and grief that can result from misuse of power.
But as an Asian-American who’s concerned with systemic racism, it would be naive for me to pretend—especially in moments like this, when anger over the treatment of African-Americans bubbles over into violence—that race wasn’t part of why people came out to protest in Milwaukee, or part of sifting out who belongs there.
As race and police violence become a higher-profile issue in America, many Asian-Americans are still trying to figure out where—or if—we fit in to the movement. Black Lives Matter is the highest-profile effort to push for minority rights in America right now. It was born of grievances just like those we’re seeing in Milwaukee; at each killing, whether Milwaukee or Baton Rouge or St. Paul, BLM emerges as the voice pushing for police accountability, for the full dignity of Americans who’ve been deprived of it. It’s also, explicitly, an African-American cause. Should Asian-Americans like me count ourselves part of the same effort to fight for minority rights, or are we at odds with it?
Asian-Americans—like all ethnic groups—are, of course, diverse in our origins and experiences, which means there are varying degrees of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve had lengthy arguments with my more conservative immigrant grandparents in San Francisco about stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration and racial profiling. We don’t agree on how much systemic racism versus personal responsibility factors into the plight of African-Americans. I’ve yelled at my grandparents, self-righteously accusing them of racism for failing to see how often the system cheats black people. I had thought this should be obvious to everyone, including Asian-Americans.
But the debate among Asian-Americans over BLM, I’ve since found, is messier and more nuanced. It is rooted in the immigrant experience, as well as political fissures within the Asian-American community. While it’s difficult to make generalizations about a population that’s made up of more than a dozen ethnic groups, there do seem to be two major camps that Asian-American activists fall into. One is supportive of BLM and sees the elimination of police brutality toward black people as a moral imperative on its own account, but also as a victory that will uplift all minorities. The other camp is much more skeptical of the movement, preferring to improve the justice system incrementally and focus on challenges that Asian-Americans face, such as difficulty accessing health care and low rates of English proficiency.
Relations between Asian-Americans and African-Americans were thrust into the spotlight in the case of Chinese-American police officer Peter Liang. In 2014, Liang killed Akai Gurley, a black man who was unarmed, in New York, by firing a bullet into a dark stairwell that ricocheted off a wall and hit Gurley in the heart. Liang was ultimately found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and official misconduct, and now must complete 800 hours of community service and serve five years of probation. (Last Tuesday, Gurley’s family reached a settlement with the City of New York for $4.1 million, and with Liang for $25,000.)
Among Asian-Americans, the reaction to the case was split. Thousands in cities around the country came to Liang’s defense with marches and money, arguing that Liang had been unfairly singled out: Many white police officers, they pointed out, hadn’t been charged after killing black men in similar circumstances. Others in the Asian-American community rallied for Gurley, asserting that it was important to stand in solidarity with BLM, and that all police officers need to be held accountable for violence against African-Americans.
With the recent eruption of police-involved shootings this summer—in St. Paul, Baton Rouge, Dallas and now Milwaukee—activists in Asian-American circles have renewed their dialogue about where they fit into BLM, with “a lot more voices [coming] out in solidarity in addition to voices on the other side,” according to Chris Kang of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a coalition of Asian-American policy organizations.
Read Full Story At Politico