I first became aware of Minnesota’s outlier status when I lived there between 2002 and 2006. The Twin Cities are vibrant havens for Native American life. Black heterogeneity invites East Africans and African Americans to commune and code-switch across their differences. The infamous anti-communism among Southeast Asians is absent; refugees of the Vietnam War vote for and run for office as Democrats. Minnesota was the lone dissenting voice to back Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, when Ronald Reagan was swept into the White House following ballot box victories across America’s other 49 states.. Throughout much of America’s history, Minnesota has stood valiantly, if understatedly, in opposition to much of the rest of the country.
I lived in St. Paul, a half block away from either the right or the wrong side of a gentrification line, depending on how one sees it. Three buildings away, a poorly maintained apartment complex crumbled from neglect by its slumlord owner. An equal distance in the opposite direction stood a house that debuted the market with an asking price of over half a million. Just north, one might find an overpass for Interstate 94, which runs through the bowels of the old Rondo neighborhood. Every year, the predominantly African American former residents of Rondo host a festival to remember their beloved space, and to lament its destruction in the 1960s to make way for an increasingly automobile-centered society. Many of them were (and still are) reliant on public transport, yet they lost their homes to make way for our cars. In this and other aspects, Minnesota is typical—its inequities are congruent with those of the country at large.
On July 6, Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled Philando Castile over during a traffic stop just five miles away from Rondo, in the nearby suburb of Falcon Heights. He had a broken taillight. When Castile reached to present his ID, Yanez panicked and fired five shots into his body in front of his panicked girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Castile died shortly thereafter in hospital.
The fact that Castile was African American is significant. Numerous studies, historic narratives and contemporary accounts testify to the existence of police aggression targeted at black people — an unbroken thread stretching from slavery to emancipation to the present day. That Yanez—whom Castile’s companion described as “Chinese” in the video she live-streamed of his killing—is phenotypically Asian is also significant. Days after Castile’s death, Yanez’s name and race – he is Latinx – were revealed to the public. Nonetheless, the questions surrounding race and solidarity between Black and non-Black people of color as raised by Philando Castile’s fatal shooting and its aftermath need some parsing.
Last year, nineteen month-old Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh was sleeping peacefully in his playpen in Habersham County, Georgia. The Phonesavanh family had recently moved to Georgia from Janesville, Wisconsin after their home had been destroyed in a fire, and the family — including the four young Phonesavanh children — were temporarily living in a converted guestroom of the house owned by Bounkham Phonesavanh’s sister.
At 2 am on May 28, 2014, Bou Bou and his three older siblings were asleep when a team of militarized Habersham SWAT officers — conducting a “no-knock” raid of the family home — broke down the door and blindly threw a stun grenade into the room. The grenade landed in Bou Bou’s playpen and exploded just inches from the toddler’s face. Bou Bou immediately started screaming from the injuries of the devastating explosion: the grenade detached Bou Bou’s nose, permanently disfiguring him, and create a gash in his chest that collapsed his left lung and prevented the infant from breathing on his own.
SWAT officers prevented Bou Bou’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, from approaching her child. Instead, they downplayed the injuries; in a later interview, Alecia Phonesavanh recollects:
“I asked if he got hurt. And they said, ‘No, your son is fine. He has not sustained any serious injury,” Alecia Phonesavanh remembers. “They ended up telling us that he had lost a tooth.”
But her husband became alarmed after seeing a pool of blood and the condition of the crib. “Burnt marks on the bottom of the crib where he sleep[s],” recalls Bounkham Phonesavanh. “And the pillow blown apart.”
Bou Bou was rushed to a hospital in Atlanta where he was placed in a medically induced coma for months. Although he survived the grenade explosion, Bou Bou underwent multiple surgeries with more scheduled. In total, medical bills have already surpassed $1 million dollars.
But I took a step back, and read about some of the Chinese people who were in support of Liang. Some of them felt he was scapegoated. Some claimed the Liang case was about political maneuvering. Some said they were tired of being pushed around. What was going on here? How was the information on this case being broadcast in non-English media? It’s hard to get more than 100,000 Asians in America to sign onto anything — who got them to sign on to support this officer?
To some, it all may seem cut and dried. Asians are just being selfish and anti-Black again, only coming out of their wannabe white lifestyles to support one of their own. But then what about the cases where Asians have been the victims of police violence that don’t draw anywhere near the same zeitgeist? How do those instances of racist violence against Asians, statistically not as frequent but still racist, fit into our understanding of state sanctioned violence against Asian bodies?