Bao Phi

Bao Phi has been a performance poet since 1991. A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. Read more about Bao Phi.

My First Protest: Asian Americans and Activism, Part 1

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: November 17, 2009 - 1:32 PM

I wanted to try something new for this blog: I reached out to several local and national Asian American activists and asked them to write about their first protest.  Protest could be broadly defined as an action to stand up for what you believe in, and did not necessarily mean picketing or marching.  These are the first four responses I received – I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did, and I hope these blog posts bring visibility to our underappreciated Asian American community organizers and activists.  Look for more of these “My First Protest” features on my blog as I receive more responses.  And of course, big thanks to the folks who contributed.

 

-Bao Phi

 

My first protest occurred while I was an undergraduate in college.  The school paper had printed a political cartoon, drawn by a college student on staff.  It depicted Kim Il-Sung, who was the leader of North Korea at the time, and was supposed to be commenting on something current in the news regarding North Korea (probably something about nuclear weapons), but instead of saying anything pertinent about the political issue, it depicted Kim Il-Sung as grotesque and exclaiming that he wanted to eat dog.  I immediately wrote a letter to the editor, accusing the cartoonist of ignorance about the issue and about Korean people/culture in general, of perpetuating racism, and of trying to get a cheap laugh.  The paper not only printed my letter but also issued an apology for the cartoon. I will always remember the sense of accomplishment I had after achieving this outcome, especially since many people on campus were reading the paper and congratulating me for speaking up. Therefore, I credit this as my first claim to having an APIA political consciousness and asserting it in a public forum.

 

-Michelle Myers, spoken word poet, college professor, and community activist

 

The first time my activism was intentional was in 2004 when I took part in a Hmong artist initiative called H Project. The H Project initially started as a CD to raise awareness about the Hmong Genocide in Laos. At that time I was a volunteer at Center for Hmong Arts&Talent (CHAT), a non profit arts organization in St. Paul. A group called H3 (Hmong Hlub Hmong or Hmong Loving Hmong), who sadly is no longer around, approached CHAT to be a collaborator on this project. H3 was approached by Fact Finding Commission a Human Rights investigation (FFC); with recent footage captured by underground journalists, of the Hmong people hiding in the jungles of Laos.

 

We did a national call for performing artists (musicians, emcees, poets) to submit pieces around this issue. Their requirement was to attend a workshop in their area or contact us to get a copy of the footage. We received over 30 submissions, which were all inspiring- at the end of the project we had a CD and a bonus CD.

 

We named it The H-Project: Silence No More. This project was our efforts in raising awareness about the genocide, but at the same time did more than that. The title represented a lot of the experiences we as Hmong Americans were facing in America- (it was probably also a reminder for us, to speak out about our own injustices too.); it also brought together a community of artists and challenged them to use their aesthetic as a tool for social change.

 

I remember us selling CDs out of our back packs at the outdoor Hmong July 4th Soccer Tournament (a huge event with over 25,000 attendees at Como Park, St. Paul), and many Hmong people wouldn’t give us the time or day, (which was very eye opening), but at the same time, there were many that would. We pushed these CDs and used them as a vehicle to talk to people about the issue; I think we each sold over 50 CDs single handedly.

 

That same year, CHAT dedicated its annual art festival to this issue and themed it’s festival The H Project: Silence No More. There, we had a public exhibit, of works in all genres (visual arts, performing arts, literary arts, dance); raising awareness and protesting the genocide, with about 2000 attendees.

 

Since then, some of the artists and participants who took part in the project have gone on to protest other injustices, such as the Chai Vang case (2005); the Hmong grave desecration in Thailand (2006); the Fong Lee case (2009); and other campaigns around the same genocide, have been birthed.

 

In 2007 The H Project CD went into its second production and is still being sold.

 

- Katie Ka Vang is a Hmong American Performance Artist, Writer and Diaspora Rocker.

 

My first protest came in the form of standing on my high school auditorium’s stage in front of several hundred people, delivering a poem by I Was Born With Two Tongues called, "Excuse Me, AmeriKKKa".  I went to a wannabe-prestigious-snooty-attitude public high school called Boston Latin School (BLS)—also known as the first public school in America, also known as the alma mater of Benjamin Franklin, also known as the school that drives kids crazy—literally.  There was a tradition at BLS called Public Declamation—established as a custom to build public speaking skills via the works of old white men such as Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Thomas Jefferson and other such figures to instill us with the "time-honored tales of values and wisdom".   During quarterly Public Declamations, every class was forced to sit in the auditorium and listen to recycled speeches surrounding the same topics such as slavery, emancipation, THIS GREAT NATION, manifest destiny and fancy colloquialisms about expansion (and the conquer everything mentality).  Month after month, the performances started to feel like an incredibly outdated sermon on loop.  I felt a sense of deceit and trickery in the conspiracy to ingrain Western colonial philosophies and the oppressive rhetoric of white legacy by means of a public speaking façade; the system had implemented a way to filter orthodox ideas through fresh faces and young voices of my own generation.  As great as my fear of the stage was, I could not bare to sit in the auditorium seat any longer and be forced to listen to the voices of old white men coming out of the months of my oblivious young peers.  Shoot, if people were being forced to miss class and listen to a bunch of dumb teenagers yap, then I wanted to make people listen to the Asian American experience.  So I tried out for Public Declamation.


If you know the poem, "Excuse Me, AmeriKKKa", then you can imagine how uncomfortable that auditorium got.  If you've never heard of the poem before, then this post is missing the real punch-in-the-gut hit behind the thesis.  The poem is a direct address to white "Amerika" illustrating vivid and historical indictments of racism, sexism, colonialism and oppression--content so fearlessly explicit it even failed to meet the Strib's blog-friendly publication regulations (no lie!).  It is the kind of poem to induce nervous eye-widening "Did she just say that???" reactions.  Best of all, "Excuse Me, Amerikka" is a poem for the pumping fist and double middle fingers waving defiantly in the air. 

I must admit, looking back at these lines and the look of horror it put on every teenage twerp's face, makes for a hilarious memory.  Teachers and advisors absolutely hated the idea of me performing this piece.  They tried convincing me to do Shakespeare instead.  They felt I was tarnishing the image and reputation of a classical tradition.  They did everything they could to keep me off that stage.  But I resisted.  And eventually they ran out of arguments to justify their stance.  So there I was.  The quiet fifteen year old Vietnamese girl all the teachers thought were so sweet and innocent (because she always handed in her homework on time) taking the stage to drop some F bombs and scream about how messed up Amerikkka is to a bunch of juvenile dirtbags and pink flamingo owners.  I soon became known as the "Angry Asian Girl" which interestingly made the Asian kids like me more, the white kids kiss up to me and the teachers plain confused.

-sahra nguyen is a visual artist, performance poet and first lady of your favorite domain: www.RIOTINTHESKY.com

 

My first remembrance of participating in a protest was as a 12 year old boy accompanying my father who was a prominent civil rights and defense trial attorney, one of the first Asian-American lawyers in Oakland, California back in the 60's. Even then I was made acutely aware that de facto and de jure segregation and discrimination had terrible impacts on the daily lives of people of color, particularly poor Black and Chicano and Chinese folk in East and West Oakland and in the flatlands of Berkeley, as well as the deep South. We were marching in a demonstration much like those which were nightly televised featuring ML King; and following his death erupted into urban rebellions; but in this case, we peaceably were walking from west Oakland to Berkeley with a broad united front of community working people and middle class professionals including Alameda County Supervisor John George, Esq. and Chicano farm-worker activist Burt Corona, close friends of the family. The police confronted us with a phalanx of baton wielding, flak jacketed, helmeted cops and set tear gas bombs upon us, which were recorded in newspaper photos which I showed to my junior high student government class, which pleased my teacher seeing otherwise distanced news come alive. Housing and job discrimination and police brutality were everyday facts of life in Oakland and people had enough of it; and I was fortunate to witness coalition politics forming in my house with a retinue of political family friends.

Our family forays into Chinatown were mainly to eat out; but we soon learned about sweatshops and super-exploitatively low wages in the restaurants as our classmates' immigrant parents often were constrained to these laborious, harassing 50-60 hour/week jobs; the Toisanese mother of my first serious girlfriend, later to be my wife was paid a buck fifty to two dollars at subcontracted piece rates in a garment sweatshop, in spite of her obvious high intelligence and capabilities; so when we were at UC Berkeley, beginning to learn our history as Asians in America, learning to be pragmatic and theoretical activists, we began strategizing with many of these Asian women workers who requested our support in their efforts to get the bosses to abide by minimally decent labor law standards; and to unionize the Jung Sai-Esprit brand logo’d sweatshop and the high end Mandarin Restaurant in Ghiradelli Square. Of course as we grew up from youngsters into young men, we also had to grapple with the moral and political life and death challenges of the Vietnam War and the draft which threatened my classmates and friends with forcible conscription in what we understood to be a racist, genocidal war to build the American empire in Asia, and deepen and heat up the Cold War. We trained to be draft counselors for our peers, trained by brilliant law students and lawyers of the Asian Law Caucus, such as Dale Minami, Michael Lee, Ken Kawaichi, Wilfred Lim, and others, now all well known community and civil rights lawyers. The fundamental
contradictions of purportedly living in a capitalist democracy and the true reality of our lived experiences as we developed a broader global and intersectional community awareness, soon led us to become more seriously committed Asian American movement activists inspiring us to strive to struggle for unity; develop multi-racial alliances towards
making dramatic substantive changes towards equality, self-determination, and the possibilities of an imagined and genuine democracy.

 

-Steve Morizumi is a long-time activist and organizer who currently works with students.

 

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