Let me be clear: I do not mean to dismiss the achievement of this year’s pro-Liang protests. It is never easy to organize a nationwide demonstration, never mind one that is able to attract 15,000 in a single city and thousands more nationwide. I may not agree (like, at all) with Liang’s supporters, but no one can or should scoff at the community organizing work it took to make these protests materialize. And, quite clearly, these protests, letter writing campaigns, and online petitions had an impact: after DA Ken Thompson said he would not seek prison time for Liang, Judge Danny Chun today reduced Liang’s conviction to a lesser charge before sentencing him to 5 years probation and 800 hours community service for his killing of Akai Gurley.
Liang’s supporters will be celebrating today. But, in the interest of an accurate representation of AAPI history, those celebrations must be presented alongside an honest contextualization of AAPI’s long history of vociferous protest movements.
For this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I will take each day to pull one of my favourite posts or pieces from the archives highlighting some aspect of AAPI history and heritage, and add to it a short commentary and reflection. I invite you to check back every day for this #ReappropriateRevisited month-long feature!
One of my earliest formative memories in my journey towards identifying as an AAPI activist was my AAPI history course at Cornell where I read Ron Takaki’s Strangers From a Different Shore. Later, in another class, I read Carlos Bulosan’s America Is In The Heart. I was particularly struck by how both books rooted the AAPI struggle in America within the growing national labour movement of the early twentieth century. Contrary to the stereotypes (of the hard-working and long-suffering labourer who would rather display a strong work ethic than walk off the job), we were not silent bystanders in this struggle; we were in many ways defined by our widespread belief in improved workers’ rights. Whether on the sugar plantations of Hawaii or the sweatshops of New York City Chinatowns, we organized and stood up for our rights as labourers. Photographs of Asian American women taking to the streets by the thousands to strike against the owners of garment factories is forever inscribed into my mind as a quintessential symbol of what it means to not just be an empowered Asian American activist, but an Asian American feminist.
Nearly a century later, I’m also surprised that these momentous marches are almost entirely lost to history, and rarely taught in our classrooms. Why do we not remember the 1867 Chinese American Railroad Workers’ Strike that involved 2000 labourers walking off the worksite? Why do we not remember the 1982 New York City Garment Worker Strike which involved 20,000 garment workers — most of them Chinese American women? Why don’t we remember the names Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz?
Today is Labour Day, a national day to commemorate the role of the American labour movement in shaping contemporary US political and personal life. For AAPIs, our history is closely linked with and can often be told through the fight for labour rights; yet, as Professor Glenn Omatsu points out in this AAPI labour studies class syllabus, our contributions to the labour movement are often overlooked.
Like other immigrant groups in America, the history of Asian Americans is essentially a labor history and part of the history of working people in America fighting for justice, equality, and the expansion of democracy. Yet, in contrast to the labor histories of European immigrants, the labor struggles of Asian immigrants and Pacific Islanders are often excluded from traditional accounts of American labor history.
While you are out celebrating Labour Day today, please take a minute to remember these two historic moments for AAPIs in the labour movement.