By Stan Shikuma and Akemi Matsumoto
Asian Americans experience the perpetuation of racism based on the historical foundation of slavery in America every day. We remember the immigration laws that excluded Asians based on race, Supreme Court rulings that declared us ineligible for citizenship, and Executive Order 9066 that led to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. All are examples of the racism directed toward our communities as people of color. We witnessed as Muslims, Arabs, and Sikhs became targets after 9/11. Tensions between the US and China, Iran, and North Korea have added to a surge in anti-Asian harassment and violence. ICE has also targeted Chinese and Southeast Asian immigrants for deportation. Racism continues to impact our communities, and we must join with others to end it.
The public murder of George Floyd by police exposed the pervasive injustice of a society based on white supremacy and infused with systemic racism. His murder has triggered massive protests worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of protestors, youth leaders, growing numbers of elected officials, and even many corporations demanding systemic change to end racism in America.
One of the interlocking systems we need to change is the massive incarceration of Blacks, Latinos, and other communities of color. Stereotypes of the criminal nature of people of color are amplified by fearmongering in the conservative press and in our White House. Trump, our first demigod president, based his election platform on those fears.
What does “defund the police” mean? Basically it means to reduce the functions of police in America and to transfer some of the functions—and the funding—to others with more expertise in housing, mental health, substance abuse, domestic disputes, employment, and social work. It means rethinking the purpose and role of police in a democratic society. It means switching from a punitive “law and order” mindset to one of compassionate public safety.
American police have become massive paramilitary organizations that arbitrarily enforce the law. Most police have only 3-8 months of training and are armed with surplus military-grade weapons. In other countries police are trained for years before being sworn in as public servants. Their functions are to protect and serve, not to monitor and intimidate. Asian-American youth have been harassed and pulled over on minor traffic pretexts and threatened if they speak up for their rights.
In Japan, the Koban system of stationing 1–6 police officers in neighborhoods is a model of community-based policing that has been borrowed by other countries. The officers are there to help, give directions, provide a lost and found, file crime reports, and respond to emergencies. They intimately know the neighbors they serve. Granted, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, but why? Do Japanese trust their police and go to them for help or do they fear the police?
“Defund the police” is a phrase that says we should look at the system of policing and mass incarceration of people of color to transform our society to one where justice for all becomes a reality, not just a slogan.
For Black Americans, police have always been an oppressive and deadly force. Slave patrols were among the first police in the U.S. Their job was to protect private property and to capture Black people attempting to escape the inhumane treatment of white slave owners. Centuries later, Black people continue to be denied their humanity in America. They are treated like criminals—even when they have committed no crime. As a Black person in America today, each day is fraught with the potential dangers of being killed or unfairly treated in a system that targets them. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. In 2019, Black people were 24% of those killed by police despite being only 13% of the population.
Police officers’ functions have expanded to include drug intervention, social work, and mental health needs. Proposals to move some current police functions out of the police department to other city departments include: traffic control to the Department of Transportation, social work to the Department of Housing, and drug intervention to the Department of Health and Human Services. Decentralizing these functions could also help classroom teachers get back to teaching. These fundamental changes need to be done with expertise from the communities police serve. Their lived experiences with policing must have equal weight in the transformation of policing.
The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
Prisons have become profitable private industries. After the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations passed mandatory sentencing, “three strikes you’re out” and “truth in sentencing” laws that doubled, then tripled the prison population under a harsh “law and order” public policy. People of color, especially Blacks, are arrested for minor crimes and unfairly sentenced for long periods of time. While in prison, their labor is used by many corporations.
While criminalization and state violence deeply injure Black communities, they also impact all of us. Asian- American families, especially those that live in neighborhoods alongside Black families, are also harmed by the police, the criminal punishment system, and the immigrant detention system. In a society that treats one segment of its population with the constant threat of extreme violence, no one is safe.
The global pandemic has brought out historical and ever-present racism against Asian Americans. Anti-Asian attacks continue to be inflamed by President Trump’s use of terms like “Chinese virus.” Most recently, some of our small businesses have experienced vandalism, break-ins, and damage, from anti-Asian attacks. The current fear, frustration, and trauma in our community are real and are compounded by the historical trauma of the racist public policies against Asians and Asian Americans.
These feelings and experiences fuel our resolve to change our racist society. The futures of our communities rely on the liberation of our Black siblings, brought here against their will, the sovereignty of our indigenous siblings, the first stewards of this land, and the cessation of stereotyping of our Latino communities. Many of the latter’s families were on the land before it became a part of the United States.
Many of the civil rights we enjoy today are the result of resistance led by Black, Brown, and Indigenous leaders. For generations, our communities have fought alongside one another, even as some of us were used as political tools to drive a wedge into multiracial coalitions.
So what is our role in the current uprising for racial justice? We hear pain and exhaustion coming from our community and grief from small businesses boarded up, fearing for their survival.
We will survive if we reach toward each other and not away. In this moment, we cannot lose sight of the police brutality that has called people to the streets to fight for our liberation from racism. We cannot be used as a wedge to discredit Black protest. Our role is not to be the silent, obedient “model minority.” Instead, we should embrace the legacy of our immigrant parents, grandparents, or great grandparents who stood up for their own and others’ freedom and democratic rights.
The Seattle Police Department receives three times more funding than housing, human services, and public health combined. “Defund the police” is a call for a new system, a shift away from punishment and toward genuine public health and social support. When the Black community calls to defund the police, they also call for investment in programs and services that promote community success and well-being. As Asian Americans we know how critical this is, having fought tooth and nail for the social service and economic development organizations that exist in our communities. We built these organizations not through quiet requests to those in power, but through protest and bold demands that built community power.
The demand to defund police would send mental health specialists to answer calls to help our people in crisis, instead of officers with guns. Indeed, mental health professionals already do this work every day—with clipboards and counseling instead of weapons and coercion—and they achieve their objectives without hurting anyone!
Instead of investing in predictive policing technology and military-grade weapons, defunding the police would move money into public schools, early learning classes, and youth development programs so that all of our children are better equipped to be successful in their lives. Defunding the police would replace armed patrols with caseworkers to ensure that people with nowhere to live can find shelter, a scientifically proven first step in breaking the cycle of poverty and making a better life.
We all want to live in a community where we are safe, but that privilege is not evenly distributed. A true system of public safety is one where all people’s basic needs are met. A system that prioritizes policing over all other public services makes all of us less safe.
Asian Americans must join the Black community’s demands for justice, freedom, and equality that America has long promised, but has never realized. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “None of us are free until we are all free.”
Stan Shikuma is a Sansei activist who volunteers with Seattle JACL, Tsuru for Solidarity, and Tule Lake Committee, among other organizations. He has worked on the Redress Movement, the Power of Words campaign, and the resolution of apology to Tule Lake Resisters.
Akemi Matsumoto serves on the board of Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment (apace-wa.org). She specializes in anti-racism work facilitating Courageous Conversations on Race.