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Activists Counter Anti-Asian Racism Through Community Safety Initiatives

As anti-Asian attacks soar, stoking fear, grassroots groups are creating safety initiatives that don’t rely on policing.

Demonstrators march through the Chinatown-International District during a "We Are Not Silent" rally and march against anti-Asian hate and bias on March 13, 2021, in Seattle, Washington.

Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition formed to address anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, reported that Asians and Asian Americans reported approximately 3,800 racist incidents, including threats and physical attacks, this past year. More than two-thirds of those reports were about violence against Asian women.

Reported anti-Asian violence has soared since Donald Trump initially blamed the coronavirus on China, calling it “the China virus” and “kung flu” from his bully pulpit as president. Even after his ouster from the White House, his remarks linking the coronavirus with China continues to spark harassment, threats and violence against Asians and Asian Americans across the U.S.

On March 16, this violence caught national attention after suspected gunman Robert Aaron Long, a white 21-year-old, opened fire on three Atlanta-area massage parlors, killing eight, six of whom were Asian and Asian American women. Long’s arrest did not deter others from engaging in random violence against Asians, particularly those seen as vulnerable. The following day in San Francisco, a 39-year-old white man reportedly attacked first an 83-year-old Vietnamese man, and then attacked 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie, who picked up a stick and fought back, sending her assailant to the hospital handcuffed to a gurney. Xie, who was also taken to the hospital for treatment, suffered two black eyes, one of which is still swollen and cannot open, as well as severe post-traumatic stress disorder from the unprovoked attack. In New York City, five attacks were reported over the weekend.

Politicians in cities with large Asian populations have condemned these assaults, calling for increased policing. Police departments have announced they will increase policing in Asian communities. These announcements have been denounced by many Asian and Asian American advocacy organizations, which have noted that law enforcement, including police and immigration authorities, have not kept their communities or residents safe, and instead act as perpetrators of racialized and xenophobic violence.

Calls for policing ignore community-based safety efforts, both those created over the past year as well as more long-standing efforts. They also ignore the long history of systemic violence against Asians and Asian Americans. In the week that followed the shootings, marches, protests and mass demonstrations were held across the U.S.; in many, attendees called for an end to anti-Asian violence while also rejecting calls for more policing.

“Policing Has Never Kept Sex Workers or Massage Workers or Immigrants Safe”

On March 18, two days after the shooting, more than 200 racial justice, sex worker, and a wide variety of advocacy organizations co-signed a statement by Red Canary Song, a New York City-based collective of Asian sex workers, massage workers and allies, highlighting the stigma against sex work, as well as the racialized and gendered nature of the Atlanta attack, and refuting the claim that police provide safety.

“Policing has never been an effective response to violence because the police are agents of white supremacy,” the statement read. “Policing has never kept sex workers or massage workers or immigrants safe.”

Red Canary Song was created in response to police violence against sex workers and massage workers. In November 2017, police raided a massage parlor in Flushing, New York. Yang Song, a 38-year-old massage worker, fell to her death from a fourth-floor apartment when police attempted to arrest her for allegedly engaging in sex work. Song had previously been sexually assaulted by a person claiming to be a police officer and arrested on sex work allegations two months before.

Red Canary Song initially formed to provide legal support for Song’s family and assist with funeral expenses. The group then expanded to offer support for other massage workers, connecting them with legal help and medical resources. Organizers also worked with other groups to monitor the city’s human trafficking courts and joined Decrim New York, a coalition demanding that New York decriminalize sex work.

By the time COVID hit the U.S., Red Canary Song had built relationships through two years of door-knocking, assistance and advocacy. Learning that many of their contacts had lost income, the collective shifted to mutual aid efforts — providing groceries and cash assistance to out-of-work massage workers on a bimonthly basis.

Yves Nguyen, a Red Canary Song organizer, told Truthout that the organization typically plans to provide groceries and cash to 50 people, but at times, more people show up than anticipated, forcing volunteers to recalculate both funds and food on the fly.

“Our big dream is community support,” Nguyen said, adding that Red Canary Song would like to see “more community-designated resources, not just our small collective handing out groceries and giving out cash aid.” This dream goes hand in hand with decriminalization, which would prevent police from exploiting and assaulting people who engage in massage work, regardless of whether they are also engaging in sex work.

Meanwhile, “mutual aid is keeping people safe [by] meeting people’s needs in the immediate that are not being met by the systems that are in place,” Nguyen said, noting that these same systems criminalize Asian migrants, including massage workers, assuming that they are all engaged in criminalized activity. “We’re meeting people’s needs by giving them money, food, supplies, etc., so that they can survive and build and transform the world.”

“Call on Me, Not the Cops”

In February 2021, after a video of a young Black man violently shoving a 91-year-old Asian man went viral, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information about the assailant(s). Their offer drew criticism from Asian and Asian American organizers, who compared it to a bounty at the expense of Black people upholding the white supremacist policing system that systematically targets and kills Black people.

Cayden Mak, executive director of 18 Million Rising, a national digital advocacy organization for Asian Americans, noted that the actors’ offer “completely takes agency away from the community. Asian American community orgs have been working on police alternatives here for ages.”

18 Million Rising began in 2012, the same year that Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was murdered. His death immediately set the stage for the group to challenge members to think about safety beyond policing. At the same time, organizers partnered with groups supporting people in prison and immigrant detention, writing letters to incarcerated and detained people and participating in anti-deportation campaigns.

“White supremacy is invested in pitting us against each other,” Mak told Truthout. In 2020, 18 Million Rising put out “Call On Me, Not The Cops.” It was an abolitionist tool for Asians and Asian Americans to use when talking with family members about safety, policing and police violence against Black people. It also served as a way to talk about the racial divides encouraged by decades of government policies restricting resources, sensationalist media stories pitting Black and Asian communities against one another, and fears about street violence.

The letter, which is available in 12 languages, notes the desire for safety — and that that desire should not come at the expense of Black lives. “We want the world to be safer, and that means changing what we do,” it states, urging family members to call each other, a friend or a neighbor when they are scared or need help. “Calling someone else instead of the police is a safer option for you and everyone involved. I want you to know I love and care for you and we can make a safety plan together that doesn’t involve the police.”

Mak also points to ongoing efforts in Oakland to ensure community safety — efforts that would have benefited greatly from Kim’s and Wu’s $25,000 offer. This includes the Community Ambassador Program, originally established by Asian Health Services and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, to allow formerly incarcerated people to rebuild their relationships with the community. Now, members, who are not always formerly incarcerated, act as volunteer patrols to both deter random street violence and help residents, including acting as escorts to elders and others on their daily errands around the neighborhood.

“We’re Here for Our Community”

There is a rich (and often underreported) history of cross-racial solidarity in the United States. Some of the newer safety efforts continue that legacy.

In Oakland, Jacob Azevedo, a 26-year-old Latino, put out a call to provide an escort to anyone in Chinatown who felt unsafe on the streets. Four others immediately responded to his call and in February 2021, Compassion in Oakland was created. The group now has hundreds of volunteers who work in pods to escort seniors and other vulnerable people on their daily errands, as well as provide translation services and help those with limited English or computer skills.

In New York, what started as a safety initiative to prevent assaults against women quickly expanded to encompass safety for Chinatown residents. Peter Kerre, a Black Brooklyn resident and founder of Street Riders NYC, saw photos of several women who had been badly beaten at the Morgan Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. Kerre put out a call on social media for volunteers to escort residents who felt unsafe. Hundreds responded. Now, people who need an escort can send a message in English, Chinese or Spanish through SafeWalks NYC’s webpage or Instagram and be walked home by a pair of escorts sporting bright yellow and orange safety vests.

In February, SafeWalks expanded to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where volunteers spread the word through fliers and word-of-mouth. “We’re here for our community and ready to go into the fire, not to fight but to just show up for our neighbors,” Kerre told Bushwick Daily. “It’s about compassion.”

“We Have to Build Relationships”

The Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP) began in 2018 to support massage workers in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District. Organizers took inspiration from labor organizers in Hong Kong and China, who utilized hot pot and shared meals to cultivate space for worker resistance.

In 2019, the Seattle Police Department raided nearly a dozen massage parlors on the pretext of rescuing trafficking victims. But, said MPOP organizer Shuxuan, the people arrested were charged not with trafficking, but with money laundering and promoting prostitution. Those not arrested were displaced, leaving them more vulnerable to economic exploitation and violence.

The raids pushed MPOP organizers to organize around safety in spite of policing and raids. But doing so, Shuxuan told Truthout, meant building relationships, a process that takes time. “If we don’t have trust, then no matter what happens, they won’t look [to us] for support. We need to build relationships before another raid or deportation happens.”

MPOP visited massage workers each month, bringing care packages containing candy, fruits and feminine hygiene supplies. Each package also contained a zine in Chinese with information about Seattle labor laws and health care, including places that did not ask about immigration status.

When COVID hit, MPOP continued visiting on a bimonthly basis. The group included information in Chinese about COVID, including prevention, testing and now vaccinations, as well as local politics, such as the Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police protests that were either underreported or demonized in Chinese-language media. Shuxuan said that many of the workers saw their incomes drop by half or even two-thirds; some began asking for MPOP’s assistance in navigating unemployment insurance or for assistance applying for small-business grants.

The day after the Atlanta shootings, Shuxuan and other MPOP organizers visited the dozen massage parlors that remain in the International District. Half of the workers they spoke to had not heard about the shootings, which had yet to be covered in the Chinese-language media. Those who had felt unsafe. COVID had already decreased the number of workers in some parlors; in one instance, a woman was attacked by a man who noticed that she often appeared to be the only person working in the parlor. They discussed safety strategies — leaving for work earlier, walking with their boyfriends, and being more cautious when opening the door to an unknown client. Some suggested that community-based patrols and self-defense classes would help. None said they wanted more policing.

At 9:30 am on Monday, March 22, approximately 200 people gathered at Seattle’s Hing Hay Park for a vigil commemorating those killed in Atlanta. The morning vigil was scheduled so that massage workers could attend before work. The attendees included Native organizers with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, who tied the shootings to the legacy of colonialism, as well as Black sex workers who showed up in solidarity for their Asian sisters.

Incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders penned a solidarity statement (which did not arrive before the vigil). “The message is about cross-racial solidarity,” Shuxuan reflected. “We all need to see white supremacy and colonialism as the enemy.”

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