History is a vast early warning system. — Norman Cousins
Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. — George Santayana
The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) Virtual Town Hall on Anti-Asian Bias and COVID-19 had just ended (May 31). As a lawmaker and panelist, Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco had been asked, “When does freedom of speech become a hate crime?” He thought for a moment and said, “If language is associated with violence, it becomes a hate crime.”
Immediately, Trump’s incendiary tweets that morning regarding the George Floyd protests – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – jumped into my mind. One of many Trump tweets evoking violent responses to communities of color and even Nancy Pelosi. (He claims he’s joking, or being misinterpreted by “fake media” when called out.) He is a lawmaker and a lawbreaker!
I began writing a column on “Lawmakers and Lawbreakers.”
Then I started getting photos from Little Tokyo from Steve Nagano and Mike Okamura. Obscene graffiti on Go For Broke’s brick wall, RIF’s windows smashed and broken, and business owners in Little Tokyo boarding up their small shops and restaurants to ward off potential vandalism that might spread from nearby planned demonstrations later that evening.
These were protests against police brutality and the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man who had died gasping, “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis police officer held him down with his knee on his neck for 8-9 minutes. It was caught on video and replayed on national and social media. Minnesota officials mismanaged the situation, waiting too long before charging the officer with murder, giving rise to pent-up national anger and outrage.
It was a perfect storm. Another incident of unchecked police aggression resulting in the death of an African American man. Add to this situation the social isolation, the dire health and unemployment issues exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and you have a situation that had been simmering over the last four months.
The lack of national leadership, lack of empathy and tangible support from the White House for those hit hardest by the pandemic has further intensified the socio-economic divide; and heightened insecurity, confusion and anger. Multiple daily Trumpian tweets added fuel to the racial divide. And it finally boiled over.
The early warning signs were ignored, and now we are condemned to repeat history. It was Rodney King all over again.
Protest organizers planned peaceful demonstrations. But the protests took a dark turn. By around 9 p.m. there were 1,500 fires in L.A. County. Downtown buildings and restaurants in the Fairfax area, Melrose, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica were looted. Mayor Garcetti called for an 8 p.m.-5:30 a.m. curfew first in downtown and Little Tokyo; then in all of L.A. Later, Gov. Newsom expanded the curfew area.
All night I channel-surfed between local news and CNN and MSNBC. What began as peaceful but angry demonstrations was degenerating into setting fires, looting and random destruction in 34 cities to date.
Voices of Peace Hijacked by White Supremacists, Right Wing
Protest leaders were concerned and distraught that the looting and violence by outsider agitators was taking away from the message. CBS News and most other newsrooms are now reporting that extremist organizations infiltrated the peaceful demonstrations. White supremacists, anarchists and other right-wing organizations instigated the fires and the looting. Most were from outside of the area/neighborhood.
Minnesota reported that 80% of the arrests made were people from out of state. The L.A. Times spoke with a woman from Minneapolis who stayed up all night to guard her elderly neighbors after spending the previous night watching cars with out-of-state license plates zoom down their street, shooting.
I couldn’t tear myself away from the news and the horrifying, vivid images now coming from cities across the nation. I felt all the worse being in social isolation. Texting back and forth throughout the night with a group of five friends who were experiencing the same feelings really helped. I finally turned off the TV at 1:30 a.m.
I thought back to the AAJA Town Hall, which was only that morning. It felt like so much had occurred in the few hours since. I recalled that each panelist wove in the importance of remembering our history as they spoke of fighting anti-Asian bias towards their communities. They also all wove in the importance of collaboration and coalition-building with other communities of color. And they all spoke strongly in support of standing with groups like Black Lives Matter in protesting the murder of George Floyd. I felt like I had come full circle.
Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Congressman Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for a weekly radio program, “East Wind.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.