Roy McBride has always been one of my favorite poets. It’s easy to love him and his work. In the 70’s, he was one of the few African American students writing poetry at Macalester (also my alma mater) back in the day, where he was introduced to touring poets like Amiri Baraka, Sonja Sanchez, and Etheridge Knight. But part of the reason why Roy is really special to me is that he has that Minneapolis flavor – soul poetry by the way of Powderhorn Park. The blues of Lake Street and the 21A. His work was amongst the first I encountered to really give the Twin Cities a lyrical flavor. I am not ashamed to tell you he is one of the few local poets who has ever beaten me at a Minnesota Grand Poetry Slam, and I was honored to lose to him. The right thing happened.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was amongst a large group of local and national community members who had organized a benefit concert for the Hmong teenager, Fong Lee, who was killed in
Lee’s family was present last year at that benefit concert, which we organized to help raise awareness on Fong Lee’s death and also raise money to cover legal costs for the Lee family as they pursued a case against Officer Andersen, claiming he used excessive force.
Back then, me and my partner’s first child was still in the womb, about two weeks before the expected date of birth. We joked that our baby seemed to like hip hop, as baby seemed to turn and kick inside her mama at this event and others like it. I remember how powerful it felt, to be in a space with many different people and communities who had come together for the Lee family and to seek justice in cases of police brutality. I remember the slide show of Fong Lee that the family showed at the event, how it humanized him: the picture that most mainstream press used of Fong Lee made him look like a gangster. But the Lee family slideshow painted a different picture – a kid who went fishing with his family, went to the mall with his friends, who sometimes wore traditional Hmong clothes and sometimes wore Minnesota Vikings gear. I remember admiring how strong the Lee family was, for enduring such a tragic loss and to have to deal, publicly, with the injustice inflicted on their family.
A year later, and community members, activists, and members of the Lee family are meeting once again to talk about what’s next. My engagement with this movement has been admittedly sporadic since the benefit concert – it happened two weeks before baby was born. People who know me, know that I have been in “babyland”, learning how to be a father with me and my partner’s first child. Our baby is almost a year old, and usually she’s good in public, but on this night she’s fussy and restless, so as my partner helps facilitate the meeting I take our baby out into a hallway so she can crawl around and chuckle without being disruptive. I am looking at her, this glorious little bundle of joy, amazed to think how she grew in her mama’s womb to become this tiny creature sitting on the carpet furrowing her brow at a wrinkly package she can’t figure out how to open.
Shoua Lee, Fong Lee’s sister, comes out of the meeting for a short break, and stops by to say hello to us. She admires my daughter, her beauty and her relative calm, and says she looks like her mother. We talk a little while about kids, and family. And I’m looking at my baby daughter as we speak, her large head slowly turning, oblivious to our conversation, her wide open eyes taking in everything.
And it’s at this moment that I am reminded of what a horrifying loss the Lee family has suffered, and what they continue to endure.
I wrote in-depth about this case and my own experiences about a year ago, which you can read here:
I don’t have much to add in that regard, nor do I feel like it’s within my ability to offer an in-depth analysis of the legal system and the case over the past year. Ron Edwards, an African American community leader and former head of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission and the Urban League, who has been following the case since day one, has written a couple of excellent posts over at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, including this one:
And here’s one from Hmong Today that includes eyewitness reports not included in the
In brief, the court denied Officer Andersen used excessive force in the killing of Fong Lee. They announced this without waiting for the Lee family to return from lunch break. The family returned from lunch to find the courtroom doors locked, and a guard telling them the trial was over.
The family tried to appeal this decision – that appeal was recently denied.
So that’s why we found ourselves, again, meeting to figure out what’s next. Shoua smiles at me and the baby, then gets up and rejoins the meeting. Baby crawls after her for a short while, then sits up, putting her small hands together, and looks at me.
Then the case falls away, and the facts and the arguments seem to all be a distraction. I am left wondering how a parent survives the horrific death of their child. And how they would find the strength to endure it, to still fight for what they believe is right, for this idea of justice for their slain son. Tonight, our baby got upset because I took a toy away from her to get her ready for bedtime, and tears ran down her cheeks. Let me tell you, I am not a religious person, nor am I the type of person that would overly indulge or spoil my child. But when I see those tears, I am ready to kneel down in front of whatever deity is convenient and beg forgiveness for my sins, if in exchange whatever higher power could take the sadness away from my little baby.
Now imagine what Fong Lee’s family is going through. Whatever you may think of this case, put yourself in the Lee’s family’s place and consider their perspective. They lost their son in a case full of contradictions, suspicious facts, and errors. The officer who killed their son, under investigation for numerous acts of excessive force especially against young men of color, is exonerated of charges. The judge, assuring them that they have time for lunch, does not bother to wait for them to return before announcing the verdict and locking the doors. Your son, your brother, has been shot eight times and there’s no bringing him back. And there seems like there will be no justice. Just imagine that. If you can.
Despite the devastation of losing their family member to violence and the prolonged agony of seeking justice through the justice system, the Lee family has been positive, strong, and courageous. At meetings, they make sure everyone has water and food, they ask how you’re doing, they ask about your family, they smile and try to remain upbeat and calm even when they are told the odds are against them. They are patient when conversations need to be translated into Hmong and English. They smile, they thank you for your involvement, they are positive and strong even though they are struggling against a system set up to protect the man who killed their son.
Local communities from all walks of life have been supportive of the Lee family and one amazing thing to come out of this is the solidarity people have shown across communities. Now is the time for national Asian American leadership and activists to step up. It’s time for the academics, intelligentsia, bloggers and reporters to write about and raise awareness around Fong Lee’s tragic death. It’s time for the Asian American politicians and political groups to make public statements of support and show the Lee family that they have an entire nation of people behind them. And it’s time for the Asian American poets, artists, rappers, and musicians to create work, to breath life into this movement and make sure Lee is remembered, and that this terrible tragedy is pondered beyond this time and place.
Information on the rally and press conference below.
Information on the rally and press conference below.
WHAT: Press Conference and Rally to announce the Lee family’s decision to appeal their wrongful death suit against the Minneapolis Police Department to the Supreme Court. The Lee family has retained the law firm Hilliard, Muñoz, Gonzales (http://hmglawfirm.com/) in the shooting death of their teenage son Fong Lee by
WHEN: Saturday, October 2, 1:00 p.m.
WHERE: Cityview Elementary School, where Fong Lee was killed.
WHO: This press conference is being organized by the Justice for Fong Lee Committee and the family of Fong Lee. Family members and Janelle Yang, the legal contact for the family, will be making statements about the appeal. Community organizations and leaders will also be making statements of support.
WHY: The family and community were shocked and angered by the 2009 verdict in their wrongful death suit as well as the district court’s recent denial for an appeal. They view these decisions as part of a growing pattern of police misconduct and lack of accountability in the Twin Cities. Under new representation from the firm Hilliard, Muñoz, Gonzales, the Lee family is appealing their wrongful death suit to the Supreme Court.
On July 22, 2006, Hmong teenager Fong Lee was with a group of friends riding bikes near the
In 2009 the family of Fong Lee brought a wrongful death lawsuit again the City of
The family has since appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for a new trial, which has been denied. Now, under the representation of Hilliard, Muñoz, and Gonzales, the family of Fong Lee is taking their case to the Supreme Court, in hopes that national attention will result in a new trial of this egregious police action.
Jason Andersen was first in the media’s eye with his shooting death of Fong Lee but he has remained a contentious member of the
Hello readers, thanks for checking in. Currently I am struggling with three different writing deadlines, so this will be a quick post. Mostly it's links to current U.S. and world issues that I am reading about, and thinking about.
First, thanks to everyone who forwarded me this essay on Vietnamese people who work in the fishing industry in the gulf:
With all the hubbub about the oil spill, I am glad to read news about Viet folks in the area. Back when Katrina hit, I was able to do a small amount of volunteer work in New Orleans, teaching a poetry workshop to Viet youth affected by Katrina. Of course my tiny bit of volunteering doesn't entitle me to speak like some expert on race and class - and it was a tragedy that changed the lives of people from many different races, classes, and communities. What I will say is that, as a Vietnamese person, I was curious about if and how the Vietnamese communities affected by Katrina were reported on by the media.
Now, with this oil spill, of course it affects many different communities as well as, obviously, the environment - of which we all need to pay a great deal of attention to. All the same, thanks to those of you who sent me the above link reminding me of our people in the Gulf and their unheard story.
Of course there is the tragedy of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, written about eloquently on Racialicious by LaToya Peterson:
And last but certainly not least, one of my favorite poems of all time: a collaboration between two local poets and activists, Juliana Hu Pegues and Tatiana Ormaza. In the current climate of immigrant bashing and the high profile of all the racism coming from Arizona, it's refreshing to see this fearless and unapologetic poem that celebrates coalition across communities:
Let me tell you, I have an almost supernatural (some would say neurotic) capacity for remembering the most embarrassing moments in my life. Walking into a women’s bathroom by mistake when I was about 7 years old and lost at the mall, crying for mommy. Bursting into tears of hunger at Taste of Minnesota when I was 10. In 4th grade I sat next to one of the few other Asians I saw at a class assembly because I thought she was so friendly, cool, and cute – then being told I couldn’t sit there because it was for student council members only. I can’t remember my own parents’ birthdays, or which days to put out the recycling. But that time I walked face-first into a brick pillar in broad daylight on a busy shopping day? Yep.
My extreme discomfort towards public embarrassment is why I avoid reality television like the plague. I don’t get any pleasure or joy from watching humiliating public spectacle, even when it doesn’t involve me. Shame is something I have in spades, but is not something I enjoy.
Shows like American Idol are horrifying to me. Because if someone embarrasses themselves or does poorly, I feel terrible for them. However, I’ve been watching the pop phenomenon in recent years because my partner, who doesn’t enjoy reality television either, happens to enjoy watching American Idol: not to laugh at people, but because there’s always a chance that someone unique, and with genuine talent (hello Adam Lambert) will make it on the show. I’ve been trying to watch it with her. It’s only fair. If I ask her to watch trash like Ninja Assassin and Iron Man, I can suffer through some bad singers and mangled songs with her.
Someone I always think about when I watch American Idol is William Hung. A
Most likely, you couldn’t either. In the internet age, public spectacle has even more venues for participation than ever. You know what happened: William became something of a famous figure despite his mangled performance. Much of this was credited to Hung’s unabashedly positive attitude: after being laughed at and humiliated by judges Randy, Simon, and Paula, William famously stated, “I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.”
Despite his admirable pluck, many of us Asian Americans, especially Asian American men, shuddered whenever we got sent that link of William warbling his way through Ricky Martin, or someone mentioned it at work or at school. It was a collective cringe weighed down by a ton of racial and gendered baggage. I’m going to say this:
Added to that, there are few opportunities for Asian women and men to speak out about any gendered racial stereotypes, whether they target women or men. We have little access to pop and mass media outlets to discuss such things. For those of you who, at this point, think I am a hypocrite because I have this blog on the Twin Cities’ largest paper to talk about these things, my reply would be: why do you think I said “yes” when they asked me to blog for the Strib, even though I knew full well that the vast majority of commentators would lash out at me for doing so? Because there are so few opportunities for Asian Americans to publicly challenge racism – often we take those opportunities even when we know people will hate us for it.
Those of us who face challenges of representation in this country (people of color, women, and LGBTT’s) know very well the burden of stereotype-laden imagery: marginalized people have very little say or control about our image, and representations of us are so few that one image is applied to all of us whether it resembles us or not. And no, it’s not the same for everyone. I don’t go around thinking all straight white men are like Fred Durst. No white dudes are expected to apologize for his existence. But when, for example, William Hung rose to fame, many of us Asian men couldn’t help wondering who would shout his name out of their window at us. How many people would see us and start shaking their bodies and belting out their accented impersonation of William singing She Bangs. How many people would see us and unconsciously and wordlessly shape us into his image.
And unfortunately, instead of speaking out and challenging this racism, we often turn on the ones closest to us: ourselves. Instead of having an informed discussion and exploration of William Hung and exactly why
This goes far beyond William Hung. Before him, there were already plenty of Asians who were apologists for racism. It’s all in your head, they say. There were numerous times when I would try to create a discussion around this topic, and Asian men and women would counter with such statements like, “well, Asian men should just stop whining and work out, get some nice clothes, learn how to dance.” Or, “Asian women really are gold diggers who only date guys with money.” As if gendered, racial stereotypes were all our fault, instead of a reinforced history of colonized hatred. As if lifting weights and learning some dance steps would eradicate institutional racism towards our people (for the record, I’ve done both – racism still exists).
Why should Asians be so quick to concede to internalized racism and diss Asians like William Hung? Sure, he benefitted from riding that wave of racist demeaning stereotypes that continue to haunt Asians. But is he the person to blame? Should we focus our resentment towards a dude who just wanted to sing and dance?
This is especially perplexing given how willing the general American public is to forgive celebrities for their mistakes. Take Mark Wahlberg, for example. The former leader of The Funky Bunch and Oscar-nominated actor, in his youth, attacked two Vietnamese men in racist hate crimes – shouting racial epithets at them, hitting one over the head with a wooden stick, and attacking one of them so viciously that he put the man’s eye out. After he was arrested, he made many comments about “gooks” and “slant-eyes.” I know plenty of men and women, of all races, who love Mark Wahlberg despite these horrors.
Sure, I shouldn’t be too righteous – I really do believe most of us, at some point in our lives, will need to ask for forgiveness for something, including some atrocious things. But who we forgive, and for what, says a lot about who we are. I’m not saying, don’t forgive or forget. I have no right, nor power, to decide who you forgive and for what. What I’m saying is, let’s hope we all can be forgiven, whether or not we have flawless pecs and a six-pack. Can we all show just a little bit of empathy for William Hung? At least put who he is, and what he tried to do, into context?
As much as I am arguing we shouldn’t demonize William Hung for racism, I also think we need to see how certain recurring racial images are constantly brought back to the front of
Adding to the perplexity of it all, I was disappointed when some journalists and commentators discussed race in American Idol without mentioning William Hung or, in the case of contestants like Jasmine Trias, lumping Asians in with whites as if they had the same advantages and privileges that white contestants did. And I was disappointed when little was said about the open, scathing hatred heaped upon Sanjaya Malakar during his stint on American Idol. Sure, he wasn’t the best singer, and his choice of hairstyles was, to put it kindly, perplexing. But does the world really need to see the brother get attacked by a hive of bees? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it – long story). I know I wasn’t alone in wondering how such hate heaped upon a man of color could go without criticism.
Then came the rumor that William Hung was dead, started as an internet joke. Ladies and gentlemen, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and political opinion, I think we can all agree that this was thoroughly distasteful. Nothing William Hung did should ever make him feel as ashamed as whoever started the rumor that he killed himself.
I will tell you, as much as I was filled with dread when I thought of the racist baggage that would be heaped upon Asians during William Hung’s dubious ascension, I also admired - and envied - William’s courage and guts. Let’s not be overly romantic – as a lover of music and dance, I would never buy any of his albums, even to support a fellow brother. I can barely sit through one of his songs. Just can’t go there. But I will say I was fortunate enough at the time, maybe because of my own capacity to neurotically remember and punish myself for every embarrassing thing I’ve done in my life, to really envy the dude’s bravery. He wasn’t frozen into inaction by fears of what other people thought of him. He didn’t let the opinion of the ‘expert’ judges sway him from his dream. Dude got up there, shook it, and sang. To hell with popular opinion.
Good for him. His rise to infamy made me check my own internalized hatred, and question the power of humiliation that the mass media in this country can wield, and how many of us consume it with vitriolic glee.
I know it’s not all a sob story, and I’m not suggesting he’s simply a victim. He probably was able to get farther in his dream because of all this hubbub. There are plenty of more talented people, of all races, who don’t have a record deal. And his short cameo appearance on Arrested Development as Judge Reinhold’s courtroom backing band The Hung Jury? Awesome.
The story of his strange ascension is a dizzying collision of media hype, gendered racism, hatred – and honest-to-goodness optimism. He doesn’t exist in a vacuum – we marginalized people understand that we don’t even have a choice in the matter.
When it comes down to it, I just really hated how mean people were to the dude. It was like