LOS ANGELES — “Instead of going to class, I’ve been working with the Asian Student Mobilization Committee,” a college student wrote in a letter to their mother in 1972. “If nothing else, the events of the past week have convinced me … that prolonged struggle and political education are necessary to effect change.” So begins one young person’s politicization, borne out of opposition to the US wars in Southeast Asia and galvanized by the sight of “friends and fellow students getting their faces smashed with night sticks.”
The letter is one snapshot of Asian America contained in the Chinese American Museum’s Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles 1968–80s. Through books, posters, films, and music, the exhibit brings together varied local histories of movement building by Asians and Pacific Islanders, from anti-gentrification protests in Chinatown to Samoan community organizing in the South Bay. It’s a timely look at the shapes and forms of resistance that can inform today’s political struggles against an emboldened front of white supremacy and xenophobia.
According to the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, hate crimes against Asian Americans tripled in the US in 2015 as part of an overall growing rate of violence against people of color; one civil rights organization recently responded by establishing the first tracker of hate crimes against Asian Americans. After Donald Trump’s inauguration, the White House website was changed to remove all references to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), which had previously worked to increase AAPI access to federal programs, and no longer mentions Asian Americans, or any other minority group, as a policy focus. Since Inauguration Day, 16 of 20 members of the President’s Advisory Commission on AAPIs, among them prominent community leaders and public figures, have resigned in protest against the Trump administration’s discriminatory actions.
The hard-won gains of past activists, whether the establishment of ethnic studies departments at universities or social services for immigrant communities, now face threats by exclusionary policies that are nothing new to the US. But what has also not changed is the potential of self-organized communities to wrest power and resources away from oppressive institutions. The stories presented by Roots give a sense of how the early Asian American movement sought to overcome atomization and define itself. Importantly, it was not exclusively preoccupied with the struggles of its own members — solidarity with Latinx, Black, feminist, and third-world movements was a foundational and evolving part of its activism, one that defined liberation as social and economic justice for all, not just some, groups of people.
The Vietnam War was the major crisis that politicized Asian Americans, but events at home also became key battles that forced them to think of foreign and domestic policies as a unified attempt to disenfranchise people of color. Resembling the graphic illustrations of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas, a poster by artist Leland Wong celebrates 1971 as the “year of the people” and depicts armed resistance against police brutality. A 1970 newspaper, echoing today’s gentrification struggles, commemorates the effort to preserve low-income housing for the elderly Chinese and Filipino residents of San Francisco’s International Hotel. Another poster, from 1982, calls for medical aid to survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, with additional demands for an end to US military interventions abroad as well as racism within the country. These examples emphasize how Asian American activists perceived violence in and outside of the US as connected: calling for an end to one necessitated calling for an end to the other.
Art became a significant outlet for writers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers seeking to voice their identities and political struggles. The Amerasia Bookstore in Little Tokyo, which operated from 1971 through 1992, served as a hub for movement publications and writers like Lawson Inada, a Japanese American poet who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp during World War II. Inada, playwright Frank Chin, and others would go on to publish Aiiieeeee! (1974), the first major anthology of writing by Asian Americans. In her book Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, which is an indispensable companion to the Roots exhibit, writer and filmmaker Karen Ishizuka says:
The arts of activism intersected the lives of those touched by them, creating meaning, defining purpose, and acting as a catalyst for change. The preponderance of creative expressions alongside critical analyses of U.S. imperialism and manifestos of anti-racist programs attests to the cultural as well as political revolution that gave birth to Asian America.
As continues to be true today, these artists of color created work both in response to political currents and out of personal necessity, telling stories that were otherwise not being told. Los Angeles collective Visual Communications (cheekily abbreviated VC) produced independent films documenting the lives and histories of Asian Americans that served as a counterpoint to the villainous or reductive stereotypes of Hollywood. Some of those films are on display in Roots: the cross-cultural and transpacific sounds of Japanese American jazz band Hiroshima is the subject of VC co-founder Duane Kubo’s “Cruisin’ J-town” (1975), while Linda Mabalot’s groundbreaking “Manong” (1978) portrays the labor struggles of Filipino farm workers in the Central Valley.
Also on view are several editions of the newspaper Gidra (1969–74), which served as the major communications arm of the Asian American movement. Founded by UCLA students and run entirely by volunteers, the publication produced political analyses, satirical cartoons, and other coverage of everything from the Vietnam War to global capital to cultural stereotypes. Visually rich and politically incisive, the newspaper’s articles and illustrations suggest a patchwork of perspectives and identities that comprised 1970s Asian America.
A section of the exhibit titled “Feminism and LGBTQ Movements” features the January 1971 edition of Gidra, whose cover announces it as a “special women’s issue.” The need for a special issue suggests that women’s voices had not been centered or recognized to the degree they should have been. Two photographs depict Gidra volunteers — all female — in the midst of one of several “wrap sessions” that led to the creation of the women’s issue. Despite the radical claims of the movement, Asian American artists and activists had plenty of blind spots, as the exhibit takes pains to demonstrate. Many of the leading members skewed male, cisgender, and heterosexual, with identity politics based on an opposition to “feminized” or “emasculated” personas (the editors of Aiiieeeee!, for example, defined “feminine” writers as not being “truly” Asian American). Facing these limitations, feminist and queer activists organized to create their own support systems and platforms that centered labor, health, and other issues that did not always find a home in the larger movement.
In a part of the exhibition, visitors are invited to write on Post-it notes in response to a series of guiding questions, one of which asks, “What does Asian American mean today?” Implying that present Asian American discourse is at odds with its radical past, one note lists “silence,” “anti-blackness,” and “white assimilation,” while another names “complacency” and “ignorance.” These seem to be responses to the historical amnesia and political atomization that have led to Asian Americans demonstrating on behalf of someone like Peter Liang, the Chinese American cop who murdered an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, in 2014. That was a far cry from 1975, when thousands of Asian Americans packed the streets of New York’s Chinatown to protest for Peter Yew, a young engineer who was brutally beaten by police, and against all forms of oppression and discrimination. “Asian American” was once a radical marker of identity, yet today it can feel like a rather innocuous or less meaningful designation. It can even seem conservative or reactionary.
Growing up in Southern California during the ’90s, I recall the fear and anxiety of the local Korean community during the LA uprising, when many Korean-owned businesses at the epicenter went up in flames. I was too young to grasp the root causes of the riots, but old enough to understand that the video of the four cops beating Rodney King (which was played ad nauseam on television) had something to do with them. What I didn’t know at the time was the name of Latasha Harlins, the African American teenager murdered, just a year before the uprising, by a Korean shop owner who suspected her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. Some Korean Americans recall how the community came together to defend itself and rebuild what was lost, but I have to wonder exactly whom they were defending against and who was being left out in the first place.
Although social movements like the early Asian American one do eventually reach their terminus, the story of Asian America — as vast and nebulous as it has always been — doesn’t end with the 1980s. The objects in the exhibit comprise a vibrant history of uprisings, provocations, and world building, but how do we avoid relegating resistance to the past? Today, although they may not always be visible to the mainstream, many young Asian Americans have taken up the mantle of political struggle, continuing where earlier movements left off and expanding the fight to include intersectional identities and solidarity. Whether it’s queer diasporic Koreans showing up for Black Lives Matter or anti-imperialist Filipino activists marching against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Los Angeles remains home to many Asian American activists of multiple generations. Roots will hopefully not be the only attempt to present stories of political activism and movement building by Asian Americans, whose work seems more urgent and vital than ever.
Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles 1968–80s continues at the Chinese American Museum (425 North Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles) through June 11.