Three people who were protesting outside the Asia Society headquarters in Manhattan’s Upper East Side were arrested on Friday, September 23. The demonstrators were there to express their outrage at the event transpiring beyond its doors: Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the president of the Philippines, was invited to deliver an address on the occasion of this week’s United Nations General Assembly.
Just two days ago, on September 21, activists took to the streets of Manila to mark the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of martial law in the Philippines, when Ferdinand E. Marcos — the father of the current president — assumed dictatorial power. Demonstrators, chanting “never forget,” held placards denouncing the brutal killings, human rights violations, and corruption that defined his 14-year rule.
As of early Friday afternoon, before the talk began at 2:45 pm, a crowd gathered outside of the Asia Society, carrying signs that read “death to dynasties” and echoing the words of Manila’s protesters — “Never forget.” In a video posted on Twitter, the activists can be seen gate-crashing the event and forming a human chain in front of the door as personnel attempt to remove them from the premises. “Shame on you for giving a platform to Marcos Jr.,” the activists repeated.
A video shared with Hyperallergic shows one activist being ambushed by a plainclothes official while standing outside of Corrado, a café down the block from the Asia Society’s 70th Street location. “I was just going,” the activist is heard telling the police while getting handcuffed. A spokesperson for the New York City Police Department (NYPD) confirmed that three people were arrested.
An Asia Society representative told Hyperallergic that no arrests were made on its premises.
The Filipino novelist Gina Apostol, who attended the protest, told Hyperallergic that the Asia Society “should be more honest about the effects of their complicit decisions.”
“They know what the history of Marcos Jr. is and they must know of the historical distortions fomented and fabricated by his campaign that gave rise to his elections,” Apostol said. “Democratic ideals matter. Accountability for dictators and those who support them is important, and Asia Society’s complicity is not required. They could have chosen differently. That’s why as a writer who has done work with Asia Society I protest.”
Over 450 artists and writers, including prominent Asian-American and Filipino scholars, signed an open letter co-authored by Apostol urging the Asia Society to revoke the invitation and pledging to boycott the organization.
“We call out Asia Society for its embrace of fascism and historical lies in the person of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.,” reads the letter sent to Kevin Rudd, president and CEO of the Asia Society, on Friday morning.
The missive was written by Apostol; Nerissa S. Balce, associate professor of Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University; Joi Barrios, a poet and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley; public programs curator Nancy Bulalacao; and independent scholar Fritzie de Mata. Signatories include “many non-Filipinos but Asian Americans who are in solidarity,” Apostol noted, including Alexander Chee, Cathy Park Hong, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and RO Kwon.
When reached for comment, Asia Society provided the following statement: “We’re aware of the open letter and of course the protestors at today’s event. We want to be clear: we hear the criticism, some of which comes from people and organizations we admire and have worked with extensively, and we take it seriously.”
The statement continues: “Since our founding in 1956 Asia Society has been a forum for leaders from throughout Asia. We regularly host visiting officials with a range of perspectives representing various forms of governance, especially during the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. We believe it’s important to hear from and to question any head of state or senior officials whose views significantly impact Asia and the world. Today was no exception where questions were raised on a variety of questions to do with the Philippines economy, foreign policy, and human rights.”
Marcos Jr. secured the presidency in a landslide election this May to the shock of pro-democracy advocates and victims of his father’s regime, the horrors of which the current leader has done much to downplay. During the Marcos dictatorship, the open letter says, an estimated 35,000 people under military detention were tortured and sexually abused; 70,000 activists and journalists were jailed; and 3,200 people were extrajudicially murdered. Marcos Sr. was ousted in a 1986 army-backed revolt and forced into exile, denying until his death accusations that he embezzled billions of dollars in state wealth.
But in the years leading to his presidential campaign, Marcos Jr. and his family harnessed the power of political propaganda and social media to whitewash the abuses of the past, and Marcos Jr. has gone as far as to openly defend the 1972 proclamation of martial law.
“We refuse to normalize the history of state violence that the Marcos and Duterte names represent,” the letter reads, referencing the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who preceded Marcos Jr. and whose legacy was also tarnished by deadly persecution campaigns.
“Unless this event with Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is revoked, we are boycotting events at Asia Society, and we will refuse to speak at their events and will relay this boycott to fellow writers, artists and scholars to make clear to Asia Society that their actions are harmful to our community of Asian American Pacific Islanders,” the authors continue.
In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Bulalacao, who led the Asia Society’s Asian American Programs from 2003 to 2005 and later co-founded the Filipino American Museum, said the Asia Society’s decision to host Marcos Jr. was disappointing but not entirely surprising.
“The Asia Society was founded by John D. Rockefeller. It was never intended as an organization for community or for Asian American Pacific Islanders,” Bulalacao said. The letter recognizes the organization’s “hard-won” relationship with New York’s AAPI population, one bolstered by programs and partnerships meant to draw in Asian Americans who long felt excluded by a space attended primarily by White audiences.
“I can’t speak to what exactly Asia Society’s larger mission or purpose is,” Bulalacao said. “But ultimately I think that they’re in the business of brokering power and I think that it benefits them and their relationships to host this current president.”
Editor’s note 9/23/22 5:40pm EDT: This article has been updated to include information about the arrests of three demonstrators at today’s protest.
Editor’s note 9/23/22 7:30pm EDT: This article has been updated with a statement from an Asia Society spokesperson.