They manned the phones. They fired off scores of e-mail messages. They laidout tactical plans prepared for just this moment. When their contacts in Albany sent down the word—acquittal—they sprang into action. The next day, they converged on midtown Manhattan with thousands—organizers say over 10,000, officials say more than 2000—of other angry New Yorkers to protest the scot-free release of four officers in the killing of African immigrant Amadou Diallo. They are Asian.
When Jane Bai says, “It’s not about how many we are or how much we do,” she’s not being stereotypically demure. The executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities deflects credit for staging the February 26 march partly because of her political convictions, but also out of a concern for accuracy. Indeed, while Asian activists worked around the clock to mobilize in response to the February 25 verdict, so did other members of the multiracial, multiethnic coalition called People’s Justice 2000 (PJ2000). The group has promised to carry out at least 41 days of action—which started the day after the controversial verdict came down—against police brutality.
“Any hope of ending police violence depends on the united efforts of black and Latino communities, queer people of color, and Asians—all of us,” Bai says. “While the prevailing black-white model of police brutality reflects, in part, the particular history of repression of blacks in the U.S., it is incomplete. By ignoring so many of us, officials and the media underestimate the scope of the problem.”
In fact, Peter Kwong, director of Asian American Studies at Hunter College, points to a significant trend in anti-Asian police violence in New York City that is grounded in a particular perception of Asian communities. “There is this racial attitude, ‘These people are immigrants, most of them illegals, so we don’t have to give a damn; they don’t complain about it anyway.’ Asians, in terms of political power, particularly as a voting bloc, are considered weak. So police, like many other government institutions, feel they do not really need to respond. For the same reason, they are very brutal, throwing street vendors around, cussing Asians, insulting them,” he says.
Hyun Lee, a colleague of Bai who organizes vendors and young people in Chinatown, says another misleading perception obscures the plight of Asian victims of police brutality: “The model-minority myth—we work hard, we succeed—is very dominant, so people ask stupid questions like, ‘Oh, does anti-Asian violence exist?’ ”
A look at news coverage and official numbers would suggest that it barely does. Richie Perez, an organizer with the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights and a member of PJ2000, complains that, to the mainstream press, “There’s a hierarchy of who gets noticed—it’s black and white, on some occasions it’s Latino, in almost no circumstances are Asians included, or Native Americans or Arabs or all the others.” Indeed, in the city’s three major dailies, only a few articles out of dozens—since the trial began in January—have included Asians when reporting on the Diallo trial and its implications.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board reports 1710 incidents of police misconduct or abuse involving blacks in 1999, 746 involving Latinos, 741 involving whites, but lumps together the remainder of the city’s racial and ethnic communities in the “other” category. An extensive study of police brutality released by the state attorney general’s office in December 1999 similarly fails to identify Asians as a distinct, targeted group. Public opinion polls about police brutality also ignore Asians’ opinions, citing numerical insignificance.
But testimony by residents of the city’s Asian communities tells a different story. The nature of police brutality in areas like the Fordham section of the Bronx, Jackson Heights and Flushing in Queens, Chinatown, and Sunset Park in Brooklyn may not always make for sensational copy; there are no recent reports of cases as extreme as that of 16-year-old Yong Xin Huang, who on March 24, 1995, was shot in the back of the head and killed by a police officer. The officer was never indicted; the city eventually settled in a civil suit.
But to people like former cabbie Abid Baig, police abuse and harassment are a part of the daily routine. Immigrant taxi drivers, he says, are subject to a common rule when it comes to police intervention: “Whenever there are two people [in a dispute], one Asian and one white, the cops always favor the white person. They give you a hard time.” And Steve Yip, a longtime anti-police brutality activist and Chinatown resident, says cops routinely hassle Asian street vendors with the excuse of checking on permits or other minor compliance issues.
Young Asian males in low-income communities complain of frequent stop-and-searches and wrongful arrests. Chinatown resident Steve Wu, a senior at Seward Park High School, recalls being ticketed along with six friends on November 10 while standing outside a local Pathmark waiting for other friends to emerge from the store. “The cops are real concerned you’re about to do a bad thing. They look at you like maybe you’re a criminal,” he says. The group was ordered to appear in court on the morning of December 15, a Wednesday, but the tickets were promptly dismissed. Wu remembers with a quiet laugh, “On the way back to school that day, I was afraid that if we met up with cops, they might ticket us again. We’re not supposed to be out on the street during a school day.”
A young Cambodian woman in Fordham reports her encounter with an officer. Several months ago, says 16-year-old Rorth Chy, a police car pulled up near a pay phone from which she was calling a friend. A white officer beckoned her over, she recalls with a slight grimace, asked her age, and, after looking her up and down, insisted that she must be older. He then inquired about her family’s dating policy and her plans for the weekend. When she resisted his advances, she says, the officer nevertheless pressed his telephone number on her. “If a cop calls me over, I have to go. If I don’t, it’ll look like I’m doing something wrong,” she explains.
“I didn’t believe [about police harassment] when my friends told me, until it happened to me,” she says. So far, she has not reported the incident, but is holding on to the number in case she decides to.
Asian advocates say verbal misunderstandings or outright xenophobia often characterize interactions with police, and non-Asian activists confirm similar problems in other immigrant communities. There is no official procedure for dealing with language barriers in the NYPD, according to Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund executive director Margaret Fung. And Catholic school teacher Susan Chan recounts how, when in late 1995 she was wrongfully arrested by cops while trying to mediate a landlord-tenant dispute, a white officer called her a “Chinese bitch” and sang “God Bless America” in response to her protestations. Such incidents often go unreported, advocates say, because immigrants are afraid of revealing their undocumented status or simply do not know where or how to complain.
But Hunter’s Kwong observes that Asians are an ever growing community in New York and, citing trends in California, predicts that greater numbers and increased political organization will eventually force police and the government to be more responsive to their grievances. Meanwhile, a multiracial coalition strives to keep controversy brewing around the Diallo verdict and hopes the combined numbers and organizational strength of various minority groups will prompt a commitment to condemn police violence in all communities.