More than a month after the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests continue to reign. For Chinese Americans, the demonstrations sparked a dialogue about allyship that divided the community. In an open letter, Yale student Eileen Huang urged fellow Chinese Americans to recognize anti-Blackness amongst Asians and stand in solidarity with Black protestors. Around the same time, another article emerged from US-based Chinese blogger Zhao Fendou alleging that her daughter was cyber-bullied for not posting about George Floyd. She claimed that it should not be a “crime” for Chinese Americans to remain silent. The discourse around Chinese American responsibility largely hinges on our history with Black Americans and the police force. One piece of that history is the Chinatown protests of May 1975. The protests solidified anti-police brutality as part of the Chinese American identity and indebted us to Black activists.
Peter Yew Is Beaten By Police
On April 26, 1975, in Chinatown of New York City, police arrived to disperse a crowd that formed following a heated argument between two drivers. The police allegedly pushed the onlookers forcefully, with one child even being knocked to the ground. Peter Yew, a Chinese architecture engineer, yelled, “Don’t push like that.” According to the crowd, Yew was immediately beaten, taken under custody, and charged by police. How he was treated angered Chinatown’s inhabitants and elevated tensions between them and the Fifth Precinct force. After Yew’s beating and arrest, incidents of Chinese residents being mistreated by local police reportedly increased.
May 12, 1975: The First Protest
Asian-Americans for Equal Employment (AAFEE), a radical group formed by young Japanese- and Chinese-Americans, incited the first anti-police brutality protest in light of Yew’s case . AAFEE demanded the New York City Police Department dismiss Yew’s charges, suspend the officers who beat him, and end police violence towards Chinese people. They also made demands to the US government to end employment, education, health, and housing discrimination towards all minorities. The group drew from the techniques of Black civil rights leaders to mobilize their community by distributing pamphlets and leveraging disruption.
On May 12, 1975, over 2500 residents of Chinatown peacefully marched to City Hall while chanting in Chinese. Among the speakers of the rally was Black Economic Survival, a coalition for Black workers. Faced by the protest’s shocking turnout, then-commanding officer Edward McCabe suggested to reporters that Chinatown residents simply “held resentment” because his officers were cracking down on “parking summons [and] illegal gambling.”
May 19, 1975: The Second Protest
The second protest was staged by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), a more established delegation. CCBA originally attempted to postpone AAFEE’s protest for fear of violating city ordinances. Nonetheless, witnessing the success of their rally and infuriated by McCabe’s comment, CCBA decided to hold a follow-up demonstration on May 19.
On the day of the demonstration, all Chinatown businesses closed their doors and 10,000 residents walked the streets. The protest drew people of all ages, from young mothers holding their children to elderly men marching with canes. When they reached City Hall, Man Ban Lee, the leader of CCBA went in to meet with the first deputy mayor and police commissioner. The association presented demands that emphasized justice for Yew, nonetheless dismissing AAFEE’s measures of addressing structural inequality. After the meeting, Lee and his fellow delegates came out to disperse the crowd. Their actions angered AAFEE, who had hoped for a public forum.
Captain McCabe was transferred to another command and a grand jury dismissed Yew’s charges, following the two protests,. Later on, the police officers involved in Yew’s case were indicted and charged. The police commissioner also stated that there would be no more harassment against Chinatown residents. The city went on to establish a crime-reporting line for Chinese speakers. They made promises to recruit more Chinese policemen. They planned to hold dialogues between law enforcement and the community. Lee believed that relations between the two groups had improved. However, AAFEE continued to stage protests after four Chinese youths were accused of being armed (they were not) and body-searched by the police in Chinatown. In an interview with the New York Times, AAFEE spokesman Donald Chong stated, “The dropping of charges against Peter Yew is not a complete victory.” The anti-establishment group went on to blame CCBA for being placated by city officials.
An Ideological Divide
The protests created an ideological crack in the Chinese American community as represented by the CCBA and AAFEE. On one hand, there were traditional, conservative principles—on the other, vigorous and radical leadership. Nevertheless, through the involvement of both parties, anti-police-brutality became a core issue for older, reactionary Chinese Americans as well as younger, progressive ones. The protests showed the nation that Chinese Americans are capable of mobilizing against racism and creating political change.
What The Protests Tell Us About Today
How can we use the Chinatown protests to contextualize the present? For one, we can recognize the limits of the work that has already been done. The CCBA were given a chance to negotiate. While they did bring benefits, systemic racism and structural inequalities were left untouched. The AAFEE sparked the fuse but were never able to fully realize their goals of ending minority abuse and discrimination. What ensued was not an inspection into the roots of police brutality but the absorption of more Chinese Americans into toxic law enforcement culture.
In tandem, Black Americans have already witnessed the integration—and failure—of changes within the system. Currently, over 15% of law enforcement is Black, more than the percentage of Black U.S. citizens. The Obama administration provided funding for tens of thousands of police body cameras after Michael Brown’s death in 2014. A year later, Minneapolis (Floyd’s death place), implemented implicit bias and de-escalation training programs. Nonetheless, Black Americans continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. Police behaviour seems to be impacted very little by both body cameras and bias training.
What Black Lives Matter activists are demanding is not reform, it is defunding. We must listen to them and stand with them. As Chinese American history reminds us, our liberation is beholden to Black liberation. Silence is not an option.
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