Asian Americans are crying out against an escalation of anti-Asian attacks in San Francisco, San Jose, New York, and all across the United States. In light of the scant media coverage, Asian American celebrities like Daniel Dae Kim, Daniel Wu, and cast members from the blockbuster film Crazy Rich Asians have taken to social media to raise awareness of Asian elders who have been brutalized and killed. While calling out anti-Asian racism and violence is vital, the violence that Asian Americans experience is deeper than just hateful attitudes or interpersonal racial bias, it is also a story of state violence, including police-perpetrated violence– a truth that has received even less public attention.
Christian Hall, a 19-year-old Chinese American, was killed by the police on December 30, 2020. Hall was experiencing a mental health crisis when confronted by Pennsylvania state troopers. The troopers alleged that Hall had a weapon in his hand, although footage shows he had his hands up with no weapons in sight, which is when the police shot and killed him. Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney who represents the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is now representing Hall’s family to demand justice. Meanwhile, the celebrities drawing attention to anti-Asian attacks are not demanding justice for Christian Hall or his parents, Fe and Gareth Hall.
In 2017, Tommy Le, a 20-year-old Vietnamese American, was shot in the back by deputies in Washington State. The sheriff’s office claimed that Le was brandishing a knife and charged at the officers. The sheriff’s office would later admit that Le was not holding a knife, but a Paper Mate ballpoint pen. Le was supposed to graduate from high school the day after the police killed him.
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In 2006, Fong Lee, a 19-year-old Hmong American was fatally shot eight times by Minneapolis police. In 2020, when the Minneapolis police garnered national attention for killing George Floyd — after a white officer placed his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck – Fong’s mother, Youa Vang, expressed her support for Floyd’s family. In speaking out, Vang expressed her solidarity with the Black community, and connected the police violence that killed her son to the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggles of so many Black families.
We can also look to the story of Yong Xin Huang, a 16-year-old Chinese American teen, who was shot and killed by New York City Police Department officers in 1995. Huang was at a friend’s house. Huang’s friend, who witnessed the officer shoot and kill Huang, later testified in court that when the officer shot Huang at close range, Huang had his back to the officer and was not resisting arrest.
How many more families are grieving in the shadows? And what are we prepared to do about this violence?
Lessons From Black Lives Matter
The Black uprisings of 2020 can teach all of us some important lessons on demanding justice, accountability and real change. As a society, many of us have been taught that the police keep us safe, and that the police, prosecutors and judges will dispense justice through the criminal legal system. However, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed this lie time and again when the police are the ones continuously brutalizing and killing Black people in the U.S. There is little to no justice or accountability to be found in the same criminal legal system and policing apparatus that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Tommy Le, Fong Lee, and now Christian Hall.
Black abolitionists such as Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie describe how arrests and prosecution of individual police officers lead to dead ends and disappointment. Unsurprisingly, Christian Hall’s father, Gareth Hall, posted on social media that the troopers who shot his son “are back on the job.”
If we are to understand the police violence that killed Christian Hall during a mental health crisis to be systemic, then we must know that our collective response must also be systemic in nature. Kaba and Ritchie write: “We need to use our radical imaginations to come up with new structures of accountability beyond the system we are working to dismantle.” Instead of snake oil, abolitionists offer up collective movements and a broader vision of justice to transform the systems that produce and reproduce harm and violence. This is a vision of justice — of freedom — that requires a long-term commitment to constant struggle.
Despite ongoing calls for cross-racial solidarity, there are forces that play into racial divisions and readily pit Black and Asian Americans against one another. While the Movement for Black Lives is demanding that jurisdictions across the United States defund the police, some Asian Americans are seeking more policing and prosecution in response to anti-Asian attacks.
The pro-police approach has highlighted political tensions among Asian Americans, as seen when the New York City Police Department created a hate crimes task force last summer— a development that was welcomed by some Asian Americans and simultaneously opposed by a coalition of Asian American community organizations. In the Fall of 2020, the Asian American Feminist Collective aptly wrote, “Despite historically massive policing budgets and endless task forces, these reforms have never stopped anti-Asian racism from happening in the first place. We question the city’s decision to supply more funds towards policing of already criminalized communities.”
More recently, 72 Asian organizations in the Bay area issued a statement, in response to the surge in Bay area attacks, demanding action and making it clear that, “As organizations with a long history of protecting and advancing the rights of communities of color, we know that an over-reliance on law enforcement approaches has largely been ineffective and has been disproportionately harmful to Black communities and other communities of color. We believe the solution to violence is to empower our communities with resources, support, and education — this is how we make all of our communities safe.”
This is not quick or easy work, but we should not expect the transformation of systems of violence, death and white supremacy to ever be easy. As journalist Sam Lew writes, “It is easy to demand convictions and harsh sentences. It is harder to address the root causes of racial violence and to commit to the real day to day work of collective healing.”
In uplifting the memory of Christian Hall, and so many others whose lives have been brutalized and extinguished by the police, I do not simply want us to raise awareness or to publicly grieve, as important as that is. I want us to transform the conditions and systems that allow for acts of violence and killing to be possible. I want us to demand so much more than the criminalization and incarceration of those who have harmed us. As the abolitionist activist and scholar Angela Davis famously said, “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.”
Until we address the root causes of harm and violence in our society, we are doomed to repeat and relive the trauma of racialized violence and police violence.