By Sunita Sohrabji/Ethnic Media Services
WASHINGTON DC — Approximately 15,000 people gathered June 25 at the National Mall here for the first-ever Unity March, organized to draw attention to the dramatic spike in hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander Community.
The enthusiastic young crowds gathered against the backdrop of the Capitol Building in the sweltering humidity of a mid-summer day in DC. Harking the Supreme Court decision a day earlier, many men and women carried handmade signs equating reproductive rights with civil rights for the AAPI community. Others had added handwritten statements about reproductive freedom to pre-printed signs.
The overarching theme of the rally — echoed by many of the speakers onstage — was the hope that what Americans share in common is greater than what divides us. More than 40 organizations, representing the full spectrum of AAPI sub-ethnicities, arranged the noon event, led by APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
MSNBC news anchor Richard Liu moderated a portion of the four-hour event, which can be watched here in its entirety.
Over the past three years, the Web portal Stop AAPI Hate has recorded more than 11,000 incidents of verbal harassment, physical violence, and bullying targeting AAPI persons. More than two-thirds of the attacks are against women.
The afternoon put many human faces to the statistics of anti Asian hate crimes. Several speakers were themselves victims of hate crimes, or had lost family members to attacks motivated by hatred.
“White supremacy has taken hold of our American lives. Asian Americans are fighting for our God-given rights just to simply exist,” said the Reverend Yena Hwang, one of the few ordained female Korean ministers to serve in the Presbyterian Church.
Filmmaker Pardeep Kaleka recalled the morning of Aug. 5, 2012, when avowed white supremacist Wade Michael Page stormed the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, as Sunday morning prayers were being held. Page killed six people, including temple founder Satwant Singh Kaleka, Pardeep’s father.
Satwant Singh Kaleka confronted Page during the massacre and tried to prevent him from going to the kitchen, where women were preparing the daily feast known as langar.
“My dad’s final words were a prayer: he did not pray for himself. He prayed for all of us,” said Kaleka.
New York City resident Esther Lee was verbally abused and spit upon when she refused to engage in a fist bump with a man, while she rode the subway. Her attacker called her “a miserable, f**king carrier,” a charge often leveled at the Asian American community since the pandemic began. None of the other subway passengers stepped in to help Lee.
“It was 57 seconds of pure terror,” she said.
Lee went straight to the police station to file a report, but was told her case was not a hate crime. Police told her she should not have filmed the incident, and blamed her for triggering her attacker.
Robbyn Lewis, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, interrupted a hate crime as it was occurring at Washington DC’s Union Station. An Asian woman was being harassed by a man on a bicycle. “I was born in Maryland,” shouted the woman, as the aggressor escalated his taunts.
“I had to do something,” said Lewis. “I was afraid, but how could I not?” She confronted the aggressor, who turned his venom on her, calling her a “bi**h” and other foul names.
“I put my body between the woman and that man,” said Lewis. “As he circled, I circled too. I had this terrible feeling that he was going to raise his hand and strike her.”
As he left, the man spit in Lewis’ face. The politician called police: spitting at someone is a felony. Federal prosecutors are working to identify the incident as a hate crime.
“I think about this and how many times women experience harassment, and they are completely alone,” said Lewis.
Gareth and Fe Hall shared the tragedy of their only child, Christian, who was killed by police at the age of 19. The Halls adopted Christian from China when he was just a year old. “He totally embraced every race around him. He told people he was a Black, Filipino, Chinese American,” said Gareth Hall, who is Black. Christian had dreams of becoming a rap star.
But the young man struggled with his mental health, joining his peers in what is often referred to as the shadow pandemic of youth mental health crises. On Dec. 30, 2020, Christian experienced a serious bout of suicidal ideation. His parents called 911. Pennsylvania troopers fatally shot Christian, justifying their actions by stating that Christian was carrying a weapon.
“The very people that were supposed to protect my son killed him instead,” said Fe Hall, who is Filipina.
Komal Chohan paid tribute to her grandmother, Amarjeet Kaur Johal, who was one of nine people killed as 19-year-old Brandon Scott Hole opened fire at a FedEx Ground facility in Indianapolis, Indiana on April 15, 2021. Four of Hole’s victims were Sikhs.
“This was a wake-up call to me: that we had to take the fight into our own hands,” said Chohan, noting that she and other 20-somethings organized to fight back against hate. “We were feeling unsafe in the place we called home, a fear many Asian Americans have had to face, and we feel that no one is listening.”
Many of the speakers referred to pioneering activist Helen Zia, who co-founded American Citizens for Justice shortly after Detroit, Michigsan auto factory worker Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white men. Zia spoke briefly at the march, via video.
“We march here where so many have marched before in the struggle for justice. For too long, our communities have been pitted against each other, fighting for the crumbs that are thrown our way,” said Zia.