EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article did not name Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl killed by a Korean shop owner during the 1992 Los Angeles Uprisings. Her name has been added to accord with the Say Her Name campaign, which seeks to address the erasure of Black girls and women murdered by police and anti-Black violence.
The mass shooting of massage parlor workers on March 16 in Atlanta was not the first time that Asian migrants were the targets of racial violence. Nor was it the first time that some Asian Americans and many politicians called for what always seems to be the solution to attacks: more police. CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence), a grassroots organization composed mostly of working-class migrants from China, Bangladesh, and Korea, has seen the reaction before. Amid apparent upticks in anti-Asian violence, people feel afraid, and bringing a well-funded police force to one’s neighborhood is often presented as the only response. But CAAAV insists that law enforcement doesn’t exist to protect its membership. The group’s executive director, Sasha Wijeyeratne, told us, “They can’t call the police when their boss pays them half their paycheck. But their landlord can call the police to evict them.”
Four months after a spate of highly visible anti-Asian attacks, a carceral consensus has formed around anti-Asian violence. We see it in New York City mayoral candidates’ calls for more policing, and in the swift passage of a federal Covid-19 hate crime bill that emphasized anti-Asian violence. But, as more than 100 organizations have pointed out, hate crimes legislation does not make communities safer from racial violence.
Wijeyeratne and other organizers say the best way to protect people is through community-based safety practices, long-term relationships, political education, and collective self-determination, rather than through organs of the state. These groups are embodying the now ubiquitous call-and-response chant: Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!
The history of CAAAV illustrates how police have harmed poor and working-class Asian people—and how those Asian people have fought back. The group formed in 1986—a year, like this one, when anti-Asian violence appeared to be rising amid an economic downturn and tense relations between the United States and a growing power in Asia. A few years prior, Vincent Chin had been murdered by two white men in Michigan; meanwhile, police harassed and attacked working Asian people in their neighborhoods. In response, organizers formed CAAAV to address the same kinds of harm that many Asian Americans worry about today: interpersonal violence, racist assaults, and police brutality. CAAAV’s newsletter, The Voice, printed lists of anti-Asian attacks: Hong Il Kim, shot by police in Orange County, Calif.; Thien Minh Ly, killed by white men in Tustin, Calif.; an unnamed cab driver, assaulted by a would-be passenger then arrested by police in Manhattan, all in the summer of 1996.
At first, the organization focused on what many community members found most enraging: police brutality. In 1986, it joined protests led by Black communities against the police mishandling of Michael Griffith’s murder in New York City’s Howard Beach neighborhood. In 1987, when New York City police beat and arrested the Wong and Woo families in their Chinatown home, CAAAV helped get charges dropped on the families, packing courtrooms and demonstrating outside the precinct. Ensuing cases followed the same pattern: Police arrested the people they victimized, and CAAAV worked for their release. When police killed Asian people, CAAAV endeavored to make sure the cops were convicted.
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In the early 1990s, however, CAAAV decided it needed a new approach. The group’s work produced victories—settlements, dropped charges—but not the long-term community power needed to change the political and economic conditions of anti-Asian violence. Nor did it bring justice. “Because what are the solutions when somebody’s been killed or beaten?” cofounder Mini Liu told us. “There’s only a limited amount of justice that can be done.”
Wijeyeratne said, “The historical lessons of CAAAV are that if you try to put out the fires one by one, you do a lot of work and get tired. You leave the structures completely untouched.”
In the summer of 1992, CAAAV added community organizing to its work of victim advocacy. It built a coalition of taxi drivers, which has since become the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, to fight against the exploitation of immigrants and advocate for safer working conditions. At the time, 91 percent of taxi driver applicants were immigrants—43 percent of whom were South Asian—and the profession had the second-highest job mortality rate. That same year, when the Chinese residents of Woodside Housing Projects experienced community-wide robberies and harassment, CAAAV stepped in to help residents hold meetings, join the majority-Black tenants’ association, and formulate their demands for accountability from housing management.
While CAAAV’s strategy shifted internally, its members worked to shift racial discourse externally. The 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, which were partly precipitated by a Korean shop owner’s killing a 15-year-old Black girl, Latasha Harlins, prompted CAAAV to confront Asian complicity as well as Asian suffering. “Although Asians are now recognized as part of racial dynamics in the U.S., there is still the misconception that Asians are merely passive victims—scapegoats caught between black and white forces,” CAAAV members wrote in The Voice’s fall 1992 issue. “In Asian communities, this commonly held view has led to a siege mentality that increases our isolation and nationalism and ignores the reality that our individual communities’ struggles for survival are enmeshed in this country’s racial, economic, and political dynamics.… We must confront racist practices in our own communities and break down the barriers of racism and nationalism to unite with other poor and working class groups and people of color.”
The organization has continued to work with Black and Latinx activist groups. In 2016, when NYPD officer Peter Liang killed Akai Gurley, a Black man, CAAAV supported Gurley’s family by organizing toward Liang’s conviction. A sector of the Chinese community rallied to protect Liang against “scapegoating,” arguing that white officers had walked free from similar offenses. CAAAV’s staff was threatened and harassed, but the organization’s position reflected its long-held politics: that Asian people can both be oppressed and hold power, that anti-Black strategies will only strengthen white supremacy, and that police, regardless of identity, harm people of color—Black communities first and foremost.
After decades of anti-policing and solidarity work, CAAAV’s current support for defunding the police is unsurprising. In its statement on #DefundTheNYPD, the group wrote: “We will never win the transformative demands we need—like rent cancellation and full funding for NYCHA—so long as $6 billion goes to the NYPD every year. In order to achieve justice, we must fight together against anti-Black racism and racial violence.”
As CAAAV worked to prevent anti-Asian violence through organizing, a different approach—hate crime legislation—was simultaneously taking shape. The modern concept of hate crimes—and the corresponding legal apparatus—emerged in the late 1970s, influenced by the civil rights movement’s campaign to protect Black people from lynching through legislation. The Anti-Defamation League, which had published a tally of anti-Semitic “bias-motivated” crimes in 1979, released a model hate crimes statute in 1981 and diagnosed a hate crime epidemic based on the data it collected. Its timing couldn’t have been better: The idea of a wave of hate crimes slotted in neatly with a bipartisan consensus that the United States needed to “get tough on crime.”
Vanderbilt law professor Terry Maroney argued that hate crime statutes also allowed politicians to seem like they were investing in equality by just giving more money to the police, writing in 1998, “It is possible to support anti-hate-crime measures without supporting the more controversial and resource-heavy demands of disenfranchised groups for equality in housing, education, wealth, and sexual freedoms.”
Thanks to this confluence, hate crime laws proliferated through the 1980s and ’90s. This legislation recriminalized conduct that was already criminal. This was done both symbolically (“sending a message” about the racial justness of the criminal punishment system) and materially (enhancing penalties for those crimes in many states). For many people in underserved communities, these statutes were a promise of protection and a cause for celebration. An early critic of this legislation, Kay Whitlock, wrote in 2001: “Hate crimes laws seemed tailor-made to help send a message that ‘our lives matter, too.’”
But the application of hate crime laws reveals how little they have to do with racial justice and how much they have to do with expanding the criminal punishment system. As sociologist Tamara Nopper noted in a lecture on hate crimes, hate crime legislation is used to protect white people. Statistics compiled by the FBI in 2019 showed that white people were targets of 52.5 percent of crimes involving racial bias. South Carolina’s anti-lynching laws have mostly been used to prosecute Black people, and in 2016, Louisiana made attacking police officers a hate crime. (A 19-year-old in Utah is now facing charges for crumpling up a “Back the Blue” sign.) Most of the people convicted for hate crimes are the people that hate crime legislation allegedly protects: Black people, poor people, disabled people, queer and trans people. “What does it mean,” Nopper asked in her lecture, “that the understanding of hate [in hate crime] isn’t really an understanding of racial power?”
Hate crime laws are not, then, racial justice. They were and are, Princeton African American Studies professor Naomi Murakawa explained on the podcast Time to Say Goodbye, “a way of taking a legitimately aggrieved, victimized population and offering them into the American family by way of saying, ‘We will jail and kill people who harm you. Welcome.’”
Calls for hate crime legislation from some Asian Americans may also be, in part, a product of the invisibility and exclusion that many of us feel. For some Asian Americans, that feeling of invisibility extends to the political category of “people of color”—a sense that other people of color do not recognize the racial oppressions faced by Asian Americans. Hate crime legislation is an opportunity for that acknowledgment. Longtime critic of hate crime legislation Kenyon Farrow explained how groups arrive at this conclusion: “Because of anti-lynching civil rights legislation, and because hate crimes are seen as civil rights violations, hate crime legislation has become the way that people try to become visible as a ‘legitimate oppressed group.’”
In a March Washington Post article, however, author Viet Thanh Nguyen and University of Maryland political science professor Janelle Wong discussed how “the language of ‘invisibility’ glosses over what are, at times, racial privileges.” They noted, “In 2020, more Black people were killed by police in any single month than the number of Asian Americans killed by police in the course of a year.” Many organizers and scholars argue that the go-to correctives to invisibility—hate crime legislation, police task forces—just expand anti-Black systems of violence.
Some Asian Americans have sought alternatives to seeking rights from the state, looking to stand in coalition with other movements. Writer E. Tammy Kim argued last summer in The New Yorker that the question of belonging to the category of “people of color” is less important than building relationships within an organizing campaign. Murakawa told us, “I don’t think we can fight our way into a group by claiming victimhood. I think we fight our way into solidarity by being solidaristic.”
Given this, Murakawa questioned whether Stop Asian Hate is a useful banner under which Asian Americans can unite: “When I see signs saying Stop Asian Hate, I don’t know what the program is. And I feel very concerned that legislators and other policy-makers are interpreting that as a call for more punitive hate crime enforcement.”
Activists argue that a slogan seemingly aligned with hate-crime laws contributes to the oppression of those Asians who are most marginalized and criminalized. Esther K, a member of Asian sex worker collective Red Canary Song, explained at a recent teach-in: “The erasure of sex workers from the Stop Asian Hate movement has been heartbreaking.” As the narrative of a hate crime wave resurfaces, scholars and organizers argue that we must see this moment for what it is: an effort to restore belief in policing after an unprecedented summer of Black abolitionist uprising.
When CAAAV tenant organizer Em He asked their mentor and veteran organizer Cara Page how to talk to CAAAV members about police abolition, Page brought up the mutual aid work CAAAV did in Chinatown during Hurricane Sandy. As people were left without heat, light, water, and food, CAAAV supplied Chinatown residents with phone chargers, water, and electricity. “When the state fails us, we have our community and our relationships,” He explained at a recent teach-in on Asian abolitionist organizing. “We see abolition in how, when we go through crisis after crisis in this country, we build solutions in our own communities.”
Even as He recognizes the fear people continue to experience around anti-Asian violence, He believes CAAAV’s tenants have a “material collective interest” in the abolition of the police and the prison-industrial complex. These tenants are keenly aware of their precarity as renters, and He, in turn, points out the way that police are invested in protecting property and property owners rather than working-class people. “They’re going to protect landlords rather than your home and your right to have a home,” they said. “For a lot of our folks, safety is based in the desire for authority. Our goal as organizers is for people to have the right to have authority over their own lives. They don’t need to look to the state for that authority. We can decide what happens to our own homes and how to keep each other safe.”
CAAAV’s tenant organizing is crucial to situating people’s trust where it belongs: in one another. “Making a tenants’ association is about making sure people know their neighbors and building pods of safety,” Wijeyeratne said, referring to a practice popularized by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective that involves developing relationships and identifying people to call when endangered, rather than dialing, for example, the police. “That’s the work we’ve always done and will continue to do.” Tenant organizing is also an important site of challenging anti-Blackness, they said. “Our tenants are in meetings and actions with tenants across the city, who are mostly people of color and many of whom are Black.… There’s a deep shared struggle around shared material realities.”
As police keep harming people, people continue to do what they have always done: protect one another. Wijeyeratne told us the most important thing is to keep building community power. “There are no shortcuts to safety,” Wijeyeratne said. “The only safe community is an organized one.”