This summer I had the privilege of being able to spend some time with a group of Civil Rights Era veterans—folks who were Freedom Riders, organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, people who in a big way I feel like are movement elders. I was in North Carolina for Moral Monday and we had a great national convening of the collective called the Freedom Side that coincided with the march. It was amazing to feel like a part of that energy and experience this amazing historical through-line from the Civil Rights Era to the present, seeing the parallels in the moment we are in.
One of the questions that we asked the SNCC veterans was: did you really feel like when you were organizing, you were in a magical time? And their answer was definitively yes. I think it makes sense for us to trust our instincts when it comes to the importance of our moment. It’s crucial to take it seriously.
And it is serious. It’s serious as the racist police and vigilante violence that’s been raised to a national conversation. It’s as serious as Citizens United and the fact that corporations have the same rights to free speech as you and I. It’s as serious as the unaddressed climate crisis. It’s as serious as the systematic dismantling of our rights under the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the attempt to declaw net neutrality rules, and the undermining of democracy and the public good across the country, whether it’s emergency management in Detroit or the explosion of the private prison industry.
You’re probably thinking, oh my god, how is this at all a magical time?
The thing that makes this a magical time is that across the country, around the world, people are responding to this as a call to action.
The thing that really makes this a magical time is an explosion of organizing. I’m thinking of the groundswell that started after Trayvon Martin was killed, boiled into a fury after George Zimmerman was acquitted and as the Dream Defenders occupied the Florida state capitol for thirty days, that’s gained momentum in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Rekia Boyd. Or the movement for a living wage in fast food and home care work. Or that ordinary people are coming up with solutions to seemingly intractable problems by banding together, from Occupy Sandy to the Detroit Water Brigade. Or the fact we have emerging electeds and hopefuls who are willing to push the envelope, from Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu’s rejection of the New York State political machine to Kshama Sawant’s inspiring third-party victory in her race for Seattle City Council. That longstanding gatherings like the Allied Media Conference are bearing visionary fruit in art, music, literature, and technology.
I’m also thinking about small, everyday things. The fact that as communities respond to racist police violence they’re asking questions about why police and prisons are the only options we have to address crisis in our communities. That we’re starting to get real about the effects of intergenerational trauma on our bodies and our minds. That movement leaders are stepping up to accept critique and change the way they do their work to center the historically marginalized. And we’re more connected than ever before. We’re stronger and smarter and faster because of the internet, for all its limitations.
So when you look past the problems and let your eyes adjust to the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s easy to start seeing the magic. When we asked the SNCC veterans whether they knew their time was magical, they answered yes with a sparkle in their eyes. They knew exactly why we were asking. To be young and doing organizing in America today is to feel simultaneously a powerful optimism about our capacity to change as well as a profound fear about what’s at stake.
The death of Michael Brown and the subsequent repression of protest and the press in Ferguson has meant all eyes are there, but we must look with minds ready to learn. If Ferguson teaches anything, it’s that we have a long way to go against incredible odds. Some of the challenge is about the hurt we all carry inside of ourselves. Said the organizers in Ferguson some three weeks ago:
We are striving for a world where we deal with harm in our communities through healing, love, and kinship. This means an end to state sponsored violence, including the excessive use of force by law enforcement. We are committed to an America that comes to terms with the trauma of its painful history and finds true reconciliation for it. Mass incarceration and the over criminalization of black and brown people must forever end, leaving in its place a culture that embraces our histories and stories. This means an end to racial bias and white supremacy in all its forms. Our dreams are directly linked with those resisting militarism, war, and state repression around the world. We will achieve this new beloved community hand in hand, step by step, in global solidarity with all people committed to lasting peace and full justice.
My heart is encouraged by words like these. We are learning how to be visionaries in public again.
In Grace Lee’s documentary about the unparalleled Grace Lee Boggs, Boggs says that she thinks that too many organizers emphasize action over reflection, but that action and reflection go hand in hand. I want to take a moment from this heart-thumping action to talk about us–and I mean the us in this room, Asian Americans from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, who care about the future of our country.
I want to echo the words of Soya Jung, a senior partner at Changelab and someone who has been a major star in a constellation that has guided me in my work over the past year or so full-time at 18MillionRising. In her essay “Why Ferguson matters to Asian Americans,” she writes that often, as Asian Americans, we find ourselves pulled toward two different sides of the what she terms “the color line,” that divide in the United States that separates white hegemony from historical Black disempowerment. This is the work of the model minority myth, this idea that somehow, as industrious, quiet, obedient Asians, we are the minorities and immigrants who made good on the promise of the American Dream and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.
The reality, as we know, is much more complex. A combination of immigration policy, popular culture representations of Asians and Asian Americans, and the invisibility of Asian bodies and lives, like attacks in the past and the present from Vincent Chin to Sandeep Singh, all contribute to the perpetuation of this myth. Even as South Asian American communities experience heightened surveillance, Southeast Asian American communities experience some of the highest poverty rates in the U.S., or that nearly a ten percent of undocumented immigrants are Asian, and many of our communities across the spectrum grapple with the afterimages of war, violent revolution, and genocide, this myth persists.
Jung writes that the model minority myth is a major buttress to the everyday violence that the Black community is subject to: it is held up against the assumption of Black criminality as evidence of the failure of the Black community, of Black culture. As we engage in the struggle to find justice, we must call the model minority myth out for what it is. We must find an Asian American identity that is rooted in values of community, healing, and anti-racism. We must not forget that, before we were Asian Americans, we were “orientals,” and we named ourselves Asian American as we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other people of color during the heady days of the Black Liberation movement.
So I leave you with a challenge. In this magical time, we can stand on the sidelines, or we can roll up our sleeves and make magic happen. We can heed the clarion call of this upswell of organizing, but we must know that means making some tough choices. It means sticking our necks out. It means doing the hard work of developing our identities and healing ourselves as part of the praxis of dismantling racism, whether we’re at the ballot box or in the classroom, in our neighborhoods or at work, online or in the street.
As Jung writes, we have a choice to make about where we stand. I choose to embrace the infinite power of this magical time. I choose resistance.