A month ago, I didn’t have the will to write what I am about to write. I was already planning on having an exhausting week when six Asian women and two others were murdered in Georgia. Up until then, individual Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander people had been attacked on streets and in public, drawing national attention. I’m Filipino and white, and I write about myself, a lot, but I immediately felt that I didn’t want to write something about the violence.
Part of this was because I was trying to protect myself from the pain, but a stronger part was because I was tired
Wright was killed by the very system that so many have turned to as a solution to curbing the violence against AAPI people. Overwhelmingly, the mainstream media and political response to the Atlanta shooting and to the other acts of violence from before and after has been that we — the United States? politicians? white people? police? perhaps all of them — have not taken anti-Asian violence seriously enough, and that the path to stopping these attacks is through increased law enforcement. But if investment in these systems means that traffic stops will continue to be death sentences for Black people, that seasoned cops will continue to kill people despite their countless hours of purported training, and that marginalized communities will continue to be over-surveilled and over-policed, then I don’t want it. If this “solution” for my community’s supposed safety hinges upon other people becoming even less safe, then I don’t want it.
Almost immediately after the Atlanta murders, police departments jumped to respond, increasing their presence in neighborhoods with larger AAPI communities. And local and federal leaders followed suit. From the Justice Department, to President Joe Biden, to Congress, politicians proposed solutions for addressing anti-Asian violence that relied on defining these violent attacks as “hate crimes,” doing more to expand the use of hate crime charges and collection of hate crime data, and changing the way that police treat violence against AAPI people.
Biden’s initiative, announced last month, includes a $33 million study on bias and xenophobia and a $50 million Department of Health and Human Services fund for AAPI sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, all fine and good things (though I do wonder how community-focused solutions for preventing violence might be better served with $33 million). But his plan also involves the Justice Department, “improved” hate crime data, and police training. From NBC News, emphasis mine:
The Justice Department will also establish a cross-agency initiative to respond to anti-Asian violence that will include an online tool to better study and share data about national hate crimes statistics, as well as new training for state and local law enforcement agencies to promote accurate reporting of hate crimes.
On Wednesday, the administration also named Erika Moritsugu, a former vice president at the nonprofit National Partnership for Women & Families and HUD assistant secretary under Obama, as “deputy assistant to the president and liaison to the A.A.P.I. community” after catching heat from Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth for a lack of AAPI representation.
And similarly to Biden’s initiatives, the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, sponsored by Hirono, the first Asian American woman in the Senate, and New York Rep. Grace Meng, also has its scope on hate crime data and law enforcement, and was advanced in the Senate on Wednesday. And it’s maybe even garnered support from Republicans—if not because they didn’t want to look like bigots for opposing hate crime legislation, then because the bill will provide money for police departments. From The New York Times, emphasis mine:
[The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act] would create a new position at the Justice Department to expedite the review of hate crimes related to the coronavirus pandemic, expand public channels to report such crimes, and require the department to issue guidance to mitigate racially discriminatory language in describing the pandemic.
[…] Most [Republicans] rallied around it after Democrats said they would add a bipartisan provision […] to establish state-run hate crime hotlines and provide grant money to law enforcement agencies that train their officers to identify hate crimes.
The legislation would also allow judges to mandate that individuals convicted under federal hate crime laws receive education about the targeted community.
I understand the intentions of the people behind these initiatives, many of them Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders themselves. People are afraid of what’s happening to their loved ones, especially their elders. That fear resonates with me too, thinking about my mother and aunties and cousins.
But what about the people we personally know who likely could be harmed by the expansion of these powers? By investing in racist, broken policing, and methods of surveillance like hate crime tracking, we’re further enabling the systems that have destroyed so many lives. And some Asian American advocacy groups are aware of this, too. “We must invest in long-term solutions that address the root causes of violence and hate in our communities … We reject increased police presence of carceral solutions as the answers,” the legal advocacy nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta said last month after the shootings.
Getting cops to “recognize” hate crimes against AAPI people won’t stop the violence from happening. What it will do is ramp up the surveillance state and funnel even more money and power to the police. Even if it might make people feel safer, police are no allies to Asian Americans, and many AAPI people, including undocumented people, sex workers, and massage parlor workers, are left behind by this solution. There is a fundamental lack of foresight in how these policies will affect the people who policing already hurts the most.
Daunte Wright reminds us of the hollow limits of these kinds of reforms. In August, the Star Tribune featured Brooklyn Center and other Twin City suburb police departments as a “police reform model.” As part of that model, suburb residents volunteer to be part of a “Multicultural Advisory Committee,” for the area police departments, where they “advised police on body camera policies and helped them understand consulate ID cards carried by immigrants. They’ve helped inform hiring practices and crafted more inclusive interview questions. And they’ve organized community events to bring officers into diverse spaces.”
But it seems that these efforts still put the onus on Black residents, instead of the police, to bridge the gap. From the Star Tribune, emphasis mine:
The members have also advised on ways to educate immigrants about local law enforcement and helped resolve cultural misunderstandings as simple as staying in the vehicle when pulled over by an officer — something that many Liberian immigrants, for example, had thought was disrespectful.
As the model moves into more suburban cities, against the backdrop of calls for police reform, leaders and committee members hope to see more engagement from residents, particularly African-Americans.
Wright was not helped by the supposedly new and improved Brooklyn Center policing. What reason do we have to believe that Asian people would be? How can we find comfort in being assisted by the same institutions that bring harm to so many?
This is what policing ultimately does. We don’t have to do it this way — the alternatives to these proposed solutions exist, like investing in community safety and building coalitions with neighbors to be advocates for one another. Yet, our country’s leaders, much like after the Capitol insurrection, rushed to react and feel like they were getting something done and taking these acts of violence seriously, prioritizing a system that is designed to protect the ruling class.
I don’t want the protection of Asian Americans to come at the direct harm of our Black communities. We cannot give in. That is non-negotiable, and it should be for all of us. I wish it was easier for advocates of law enforcement solutions to understand that we’re much stronger standing together than we are in giving the state more power. I can see how, in a country where policing is normalized and encouraged, in a moment where Asian Americans are vulnerable and afraid, this lack of foresight persists. But still, this solution fails us all. If we do not hold this line, we will lose more than we gain.