Jason Wu is a public defender, attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society’s Harlem Community Law Office, and cochair of GAPIMNY, a community organization that works to empower queer and trans Asian Pacific Islanders to create positive change.
PL: So maybe some communities are looking for recognition from the criminal justice system where that might not be the place to be seeking recognition?
JW: Exactly. There’s also a level of exploitation regarding the trauma in Asian American communities that’s happening. The things that keep Asian American communities safe are the same things that keep all our communities safe: resources and investment in systemic changes, like in housing policy and health care. But instead of giving us truly affordable housing, we send more police into the subway and push the homeless out into the cold when the city, at the same time, puts out a Code Blue that you can die in the freezing cold. That doesn’t make anybody safer.
PL: How are you seeing attacks against AAPI communities being weaponized?
JW: We hear it from our elected officials. Part of it is that there can be a lack of imagination of what is possible. The easy thing to say is we’ll just put more dollars into policing, which we heard from our president, to show we’re being responsive to people’s legitimate concerns around safety. We can all agree that there are problems that require criminal response—but if the problem is inequality, then we have to actually address the systemic inequality in our society that is producing violence.
PL: We sometimes see framings that try to pit AAPI communities against the homeless, or the mentally ill. What’s your view on why this is happening?
JW: [It comes from] an us-versus-them perspective on those “bad” people that need to be separated from the rest of society, and us who need to be protected from them. I want us to break out of that binary, because the person that you might be afraid of has a story, too. There are things that have happened to them and a failure of our society to provide a safety net that have led that person to where they are. That person was part of someone’s family, was part of a community—is still part of our community. So as opposed to just viewing it as us-versus-them, and othering and dehumanizing another person, how do we think about creating policies and responses that allow for our community to actually heal and to repair relationships?
And it’s not abstract, because sometimes people think “oh, the abolitionists, it’s just abstraction.” It’s not. We can actually translate that into the current budget debates. Where do we want to see our funding go? Using the subway example, we can send police who get paid overtime to push homeless people out into the streets, then we can send more police to push homeless people off those streets onto other streets, and keep that cycle going. Or we can truly invest in affordable permanent housing.
I also want to tie this back to the debate on critical race theory, which isn’t even about critical race theory, but about our ability to have a language to talk about systemic racism or to understand our history, including that of Asian Americans in this country. Asian Americans have experienced extreme violence including lynchings and exploitation that have brought us to this moment. We need to address the education piece. That’s not abstract, to advocate for ethnic studies in our schools and to push back against the kind of silencing of critical race theory en masse across this country.
It’s so important for us to have that understanding, which frustrates people because they’re like, “I want to feel safe now. I don’t need to hear about history.” But without history, we’re misdiagnosing what the real problems are. Then by extension, we’re applying solutions that don’t work and have continued to fail us.
PL: Do you think that when it comes to serious crimes, New York City is ready to advance more restorative and transformative justice approaches?
JW: Restorative justice and transformative justice approaches require all the parties to consent. And I don’t think that NYC, like many places in this country, has really given those approaches the investment for a real, good-faith try in terms of scaling it up. We’ve seen what that looks like in places like San Francisco or Philadelphia where certain district attorneys are trying. But then there’s a backlash in response. Even with DA Alvin Bragg in Manhattan, there’s a certain kind of common-sense policy changes that he started, and then there was a huge backlash, so he’s started pulling back.
PL: What are we missing in current conversations about anti-Asian violence?
JW: I think a lot about the role of non-Black people of color in building solidarity with Black communities. [Consider] the rise of Black Lives Matter during this pandemic; at the same time, anti-Asian violence was happening. And the increase in carceral demands by certain parts of [the latter], to me, is a very clear contradiction. On the one hand, we were saying that these systems are broken, unfair, racist. On the other, we’re saying that we want to lean on these systems to protect us against them.
In Asian American spaces, where some of this has been teased out a bit, one of the responses I’ve heard is: “A lot of these attackers in places like NYC are Black, and just because they’re Black doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve accountability or justice.”
I think that first, we have different definitions of what justice is; that needs to be fleshed out. Justice is more than just prosecution and jails and prison. Justice is transforming our systems and conditions so that we can stop violence altogether.
The other piece is sometimes the race and identity of attackers is brought in to further divide and pit communities of color against each other. That’s a rhetorical and political move of white supremacy as a system, and that some conservative leaders and media circuit people love to feed into. They love to get Asian Americans to advance white supremacists’ carceral arguments and dehumanize Black people and [delegitimize] BLM as a movement. So it’s important to name that.
Is there a space for communities of color to address the biases and prejudices that exist within our communities towards each other? We’re dealing with people feeling a lot of trauma and fear in this moment of attacks, and it’s hard for us to get to that good faith place of really trying to build understanding across communities of color. I wish we could get to that place. There have been moments where our communities have tried: The LA riots [in 1992] was a moment where there was a building of shared analysis of racial triangulation and of our communities, identities, experiences in relation to white supremacy. That’s a piece that’s missing in this conversation.
Some Asian Americans view this as just “you don’t want to talk about Black people attacking us so you’re going to talk about police violence all the time,” which is not my intention. I’m trying to recenter what the question and issue is: What are the broader problems that we should be focusing on?