In March 2021, I attended a community vigil in the majority-Asian city of Monterey Park, Calif., for the Asian massage workers who had been murdered in Atlanta. Last month, I returned to the same site for another vigil honoring Asians who had been killed in a mass shooting—but this time, the massacre had taken place just blocks from where I stood.
I have lived near Monterey Park ever since I came to America from Hong Kong as a teenager. It has long been an important hub for many local Asian Americans, including myself. So it’s hard to overstate the shattering horror of the massacre that unfolded on January 21, when a gunman targeted a Lunar New Year’s Eve festival in the city, killing 11 people and injuring nine others. Reports show that the assailant was a Vietnamese American man who opened fire after a domestic dispute.
Just over a day later, another man—this time a Chinese American—murdered seven elderly Chinese farmworkers in Half Moon Bay, 30 miles south of San Francisco.
It’s understandable to feel a sense of numbness about this latest spate of mass violence against Asian Americans. It can seem like a problem that never goes away, no matter how hard Asian American organizers have tried. And the most immediate solutions that are usually suggested by some Asian Americans—such as more funding for the police—only wind up causing their own kind of harm to us and to other communities.
Genuine safety for Asian American communities would require that we think beyond capitalism and imagine a system that prioritizes community needs over profit so that we can tackle everything from the mental health of our elders to long traditions of anti-Asian racism. However, we would need a much longer timeframe and broader political vision to bring about those changes. So the question then becomes: What can we do right now?
Asian Americans must work together to find organizing solutions that combine a longer-term anti-capitalist vision of change with more immediate demands that can begin to concretely address the need for self-protection and community safety. This means understanding “safety” as something that requires a holistic view of the causes of violence, and that can only be truly achieved through collaboration between different social movements—from advancing abolitionist demands in mental health spaces to strengthening feminist-led struggles against gender-based violence.
We must encourage Asian Americans to push for existing mass movements to be more responsive to the diverse needs that strengthen our power to protect ourselves, like advocating for more say in our workplaces and housing conditions through workers’ and tenants’ unions. Existing coalitions and other broad-tent gatherings of Asian American organizations, from Chinatowns to labor, can energize their memberships to build political programs that address community safety.
One of the reasons it is so difficult to come up with effective short-term solutions to address incidents like the Monterey Park shooting is that anti-Asian violence is rooted in a constellation of structural and interconnected issues, both from within the United States and in the broader Asian diaspora.
To begin with, we must contend with the nature of capitalism itself. Capitalism recruits the power of different social relations to reproduce itself. And thus, no single movement or organization will provide an adequate road map for the kind of genuine social transformation that would ensure community safety.
Our analysis of anti-Asian violence must also include the various institutional factors that make Asian American communities precarious, such as the housing crisis and the exploitation of labor.
There is the culture of white supremacy, which determines the particular context of gun violence in the United States and animates the cultural matrix from which we can make sense of the shooter’s violent act. No matter the ethnicity of each particular assailant, this underlying factor crucially shapes the state of fear and vulnerability felt by many Asian immigrant communities in recent years.
We must also deal with the overwhelming sociopolitical power of the American police state. Demands for more police rest on a faulty and limited notion of what actually enables community safety. Rather than providing protection and security, police further endanger communities, and reinforce an atmosphere of threat, especially for Black and brown people. The recent killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis is evidence enough of this.
In addition, community safety requires attending to other social issues often elided in the rubric of anti-Asian violence. Though American white supremacy helps empower the kind of violence we have seen in recent days, that violence also has roots in cultural histories beyond this coiuntry. Asians and the Asian diaspora are no strangers to the men within their communities who start by committing intimate partner violence and then explode into spectacular acts of violence beyond the household. ( Almost two-thirds of mass shooting cases are linked to male perpetrators of domestic violence, a reality fueled by the persisting nexus of white supremacy and masculinity in our society that affects and influences more than simply white men alone.)
Indeed, the shootings in California show the need to understand the dangers of violent masculinity in Chinese-speaking communities beyond simply the framework of white supremacy. Last year, for instance, the shooter at the Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods was directly animated by violent Han chauvinist sentiments that relate to the complex politics of pro-unification waishengren identity back home in Taiwan.
The reality is that there are many different causes that inform such acts of violence. Calling for more policing does nothing to dismantle these intersecting roots. Instead, we need a sustainable and all-encompassing attitude toward social transformation for Asian American communities to defend and protect one another. Vigils will not change anything if they do not lead to conversations that turn into organizations to mobilize change. Gun control reforms will not change anything if not linked to a larger campaign against the US military and police infrastructure.
Such organizations and campaigns already exist in some forms in our communities, but they must be further sharpened by developing broad-based demands around safety and care that are inspired by different struggles. Big tent networks like Grassroots Asians Rising (GAR) can bring together the members of their affiliated organizations on a common platform for community safety that draws on each of their movements’ existing political work. Labor-based organizations, like Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), can develop a platform centered on community safety in the workplace and the labor movement. APALA’s 2021 “Labor Toolkit on Anti-Asian Violence” is an excellent start, and we can build on it by creating more pathways for Asian American workers to collectively develop and advocate for demands in their workplaces and unions, in solidarity with other communities of color.
Mass organizations like these can better foreground and work with the recommendations of grassroots Asian American feminist and abolitionist collectives. Asian American Feminist Collective and Asians for Abolition, for example, have promoted non-carceral solutions that center and protect women and other marginalized people in Asian American communities.
We also need to unite our movements because privileging any one demand at the expense of others often only undermines community safety. Asian American groups calling for self-organized armed patrols since the Atlanta shootings—without attending to the structural issues of gun violence and male violence against women in our communities—risk enabling violent men in our communities and reproducing the problem of safety. Demands for more mental health services—without critically reorganizing the sector to dismantle its deep intersections with policing—threaten to preserve institutional violence in more subtle forms. Promoting the “Stop Asian Hate” framing without accounting for both the persistence of US imperialism in Asia and the safety of those overseas persecuted by Chinese nationalists privileges safety for some Asians over others.
Though strengthening existing organizations is crucial, it’s not enough. We must also focus on engaging the millions of Asian Americans who don’t spend time in activist spaces. Energizing masses of people to think about how to best safeguard collective safety will be more effective than any set of policy recommendations conjured in a vacuum. This energy can be channeled toward cohesive and plural mass organizations, coordinated around clear political platforms. Different organizations, led by working-class and other marginalized Asian Americans—from feminist collectives to Asian American-dominated unions—can bring together their own minimum demands toward community safety in united fronts and platforms.
Ultimately, even the most vibrant kinds of coalitions and assemblies of this nature will not fundamentally solve the issue of community safety. We need a radical reimagining of the current political system as we know it to take things to the next level. Such a task would have to involve a multiracial mass movement aiming to challenge a system organized around capital. And no such movement can be built without bridging the immediate needs of the diverse Asian American community and this larger revolutionary vision for change.
The tragedies at Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay afford a crucial opportunity to organize Asian Americans toward a clear set of political demands centered around real community safety. Organizing around concrete actions to address this need would encourage further collaboration between different Asian American struggles to help strengthen a broader movement against the current system. In turn, only ushering a society beyond capitalism can truly provide the necessary conditions for the most thorough kinds of community safety. That vision must begin by encouraging movements today to cultivate non-carceral platforms and demands around safety. This can be done not under the leadership of any single organization but by diverse social movements in all their plurality, attending to the ever-developing safety needs of the community.