by Guest Contributor Bao Phi, originally published at Your Voices/The Star Tribune
UP IN ARMS: A Night of Hip Hop and Spoken Word to Honor Fong Lee and End Police Brutality
Saturday, October 3rd, 8 p.m. (doors at 7:30)
Kagin Commons at Macalester College
1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105
Featuring performances by Magnetic North (NY), Nomi of Power Struggle (Bay Area), Michelle Myers of Yellow Rage (Philadelphia), Maria Isa, Blackbird Elements, Guante, Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, e.g. bailey, Tou SaiKo Lee with PosNoSys, True Mutiny, Shá Cage, Kevin Xiong with Pada Lor, Tish Jones, Maipacher, Logan Moua, Bobby Wilson, Poetic Assassins, Hilltribe, and special guests. Tou Ger Xiong and Amy Hang will emcee and DJ Nak will be on the one’s and two’s.
$5-$10 suggested donation. All proceeds go towards legal costs for the Family of Fong Lee.
As an artist and community member, I was asked to be a part of the organizing committee for this benefit concert for Fong Lee’s family. And it made me consider how violence has always been a part of my life. I was three months old when the Communists shelled the airport all night to hinder our escape from Vietnam. My family came to Phillips in South Minneapolis, where we encountered different types of violence. There were war vets who blamed us for the war, who would yell at us and threaten us in parking lots, on the street, who screamed that they fought for our people and that we owed them. There were gangbangers and crack dealers – every neighborhood in the world has bullies, and they were ours, mercurial, lively with friendship and smack talk one second and livid with menace the next. There were straight up racists who hated us for the color of our skin, who believed it was our fault that there were no jobs and no homes, or maybe they just hated anyone who didn’t look like them, eat like them, talk like them. And then there was the police, whom I was taught to wave at as a child when they drove by, their cars slow in the tight streets, stand up straight, smile.
As I got older, I stopped waving to police cars and firemen. No, I never rolled with a crew, but in the 90s during my very early teen years I did rock the Raiders clothes and caps, mostly because that’s what we did back then, and partly, I admit, because I wanted to be feared. I never went looking to beat up anyone, bully anyone. But too often, as a young man I found myself fighting or fleeing from all manners of people who wanted to do me harm for all different reasons. You tire of it. Some young men join gangs, some take up martial arts and boxing. Me, I tried to perfect my swagger, practiced my stoic look, blew my paycheck from my minimum wage job on overpriced sports gear, walked like I belonged. And if something did happen to me or my family or friends, we hesitated to call the police, because too often they threatened us rather than served and protected us. Threatened us with violence, with false accusations, with deportation. For us, if we were victimized by violence from a civilian, calling the police felt like an invitation for round two. And they’d walk away to do it another day. By most standards I was an easy child who didn’t get into much trouble despite the circumstances. And still I feared the police – because they had an almost mythical power, especially if you were a person of color, to make you feel guilty even if you weren’t doing anything wrong. Chris Rock once joked, “police officers scared me so bad, they made me think I stole my own car.”
When I heard that joke, I laughed hard, because I knew exactly what he was talking about. Years before Chris Rock’s joke, I was repeatedly pulled over for no reason whatsoever, and on several occasions asked by police officers if I had stolen the car I was driving though they had no reason to ask me this other than my race. Once, I was in a van full of Asian American college students coming back from a student conference and, confused by some construction and the haphazard traffic signs, made a minor driving mistake. A police officer, who made the exact same mistake as we did, swung his car around, stopped us, and verbally berated my friend who was driving, asking in a derogatory fashion if she spoke English. Of course her family had been in America for generations and English was the only language she knew.
At this point, those of you who are not people of color may say, that’s not fair. It’s more about our own psychological issues, and anyway, it’s not about race, it’s about the law. And maybe it’s not fair. Maybe it’s not fair that I, as a young man of color from an economically poor urban environment, have an instinctual fear of police officers, some of whom are no doubt good people underpaid to do a very dangerous job, and whom honestly want to serve the community and should not be stereotyped because of a few bad apples. Honestly, it’s not fair.
Let me tell you something else that is definitely not fair, and which is rarely ever considered: the oppressive fear of violence that every person of color faces, every day, in this country, and the proven record of failure of the criminal justice system to treat us and our families fairly.
We all have our fears. Some of these fears are consciously and subconsciously taught to us by society, some of them may be reinforced by personal experience. And these fears are absolutely impacted by race, gender, class, sexual orientation. Those of us who are people of color, women, from poor and GLBTT communities have the added fear that if we are victimized by violence, we will be harmed more than helped by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Take the case of Michael Cho, a 25 year-old artist who was shot 10 times and killed by two La Habra police who claimed he was unresponsive to their demands and was threatening them with a tire iron. However, Michael Cho was physically disabled and found it difficult to walk quickly, let alone threaten two police officers.
Or Marlo and Romel Custodio, who were shot with tasers and beaten by 8 San Jose police officers for allegedly possessing less than half an once of marijuana, and who were cooperating with their arrest. They managed to call their 50 year-old mother, Marilou Alvarado Custodio, who was violently restrained when she arrived on the scene, her head repeatedly banged into a squad car’s door.
And “The Quincy 4,” young Asian American activists who were brutalized by Boston police as they returned from an engagement party. They were talking to a state trooper in the parking lot of a supermarket when a police squad car rolled up and without warning they were pepper-sprayed and attacked. One of the victims, a young woman named Karen Chen who is just above 5 feet tall, was tackled and beaten by three male police officers, giving her a black eye and numerous bruises. Not only were the police officers unpunished, they filed false charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, of which a Boston judge found them guilty and sent one of these young people, who had done no wrong, to prison.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far for incidents involving police brutality. Two Native Americans were stuffed into the trunk of a police car in my old neighborhood, Phillips. Tycel Nelson was a 17-year old African American boy shot in the back and killed by a Minneapolis police officer in North Minneapolis who was offered the Medal of Valor for his killing. He claimed that Tycel had a gun, though evidence seems to contradict this claim. This was in 1990.
On July 22, 2006, a 19 year-old Hmong American, Fong Lee, was shot 8 times and killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen, who received the Medal of Valor for his actions. Andersen’s partner, Craig Benz, claimed that they were following Lee and his friends because he suspected they were dealing drugs, though no drugs were found on Fong Lee’s body. The squad car struck the bicycle that Fong Lee was on and he ran away, and Andersen claims Lee had a gun. However, a nationally recognized video forensics expert analyst stated that there was no gun in Fong Lee’s hand in the video from the schoolyard where Lee was shot. Officer Andersen shot Fong Lee in the back and then as he fell to the ground, for a total of 8 times. Police forensic scientists found no blood or DNA on the gun found on the scene that was allegedly Lee’s, which is perplexing if we are to believe that this gun was held by a young man who was shot 8 times. There was also some suspicious inconsistencies regarding the paperwork and the history of this gun, which was reported as belonging to the Minneapolis police at the time of the incident – amongst community members and the family, it is believed that gun was in fact planted by Fong Lee’s body in order to justify the killing of the young man.
The surviving members of Fong Lee’s family recently brought the case to court. The all-white jury of 8 men and 4 women found Officer Andersen not guilty of using excessive force in the shooting and killing of Fong Lee.
“We think that it was originally biased from the beginning starting with the judge [Paul Magnuson] and how he handled the case,” states Shoua Lee, Fong Lee’s sister. “The police could not give solid answers regarding contradictory information about the gun, and so many mistakes were made in the handling of paperwork.”
Community members point out accusations about Fong Lee’s history and character, specifically allegations that he was in a gang, were allowed in court and written about in the press. But Officer Andersen’s alleged dislike of Asians and history of derogatory remarks against Asians was neither allowed in court nor written about in the press. “There were some things mentioned in the media about my brother’s past, but then why not write about the officer’s past also?” asks Lee.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about the ins-and-outs of the law. But what I do know about is who we are taught to fear. I do know that the criminal justice system does not work in the best interest of people of color, and despite the promise that we are treated equally by laws that are colorblind, we are looked upon as guilty until proven innocent. You don’t have to be a lawyer to realize that, due to institutionalized racism and the perceived threat that people of color pose to society, it would not be difficult to convince an all-white jury of men and women that an officer of the law was justified in using deadly force against a young man of color in baggy clothes.
Those of us who are from communities of color understand this far too well. “Every time something went wrong in the neighborhood, they came looking for kids of color and would drill us with questions,” remarks Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, a local activist, artist, husband and father of two, and who will be performing at the benefit concert on Saturday. “My wife was pulled over by police officers for no reason and accused of prostitution.”
“I always think it’s interesting when people – primarily Caucasians – talk about feeling safe and secure around the police,” states May Lee-Yang, a local writer and community worker. “I’ve always been taught to be wary, to put on a good front, to avoid any confrontations.”
Asian Americans often have to fight against the idea that we have no right to complain, that we should be thankful that we’re even allowed in this country and that we would have it even worse back where we came from. “The tragedy is that when we get here, it’s like we exchanged one form of oppression for another, from poverty to prejudice to violence,” remarks Dr. Michelle Myers, a Philadelphia-based educator, activist, and member of the Asian American spoken word duo Yellow Rage, who will be traveling from Philadelphia and donating her performance to the cause on Saturday. “Our people still suffer, and the injustice is that we’re told to ‘shut up and deal’ because we supposedly have it so good and because the perception is that we are perpetual foreigners who can never be fully American.”
Once, when I was very young, I was driving home late on a very cold Minnesota winter, near Minnehaha Avenue where it curves and cuts across 26th. There was no one around, so I did a rolling stop through a four-way stop sign. Yes, I broke the law. I was stopped by a police officer, who asked me to step out of the car and, as he frisked me, asked me if I had stolen the car, and if I had been drinking (I hadn’t done either of those things). He flashed his lights in my eyes and asked me to do the nose-touching test, which I did. It was so cold that I was shivering in my coat and I could see my breath as a jagged white fog spurting from my mouth as I answered his questions and did what he asked me. I wasn’t wearing gloves, and instinctively, without thinking, I shoved my hands into my coat to warm up. Immediately the cop snapped his hand down to his gun and told me to get my hands out of my pockets, which I did immediately, and he told me to keep my hands up. He said that I could have a gun in my pocket, though he had just checked me a second ago, and when I tried to apologize and explain calmly that it was just cold out and that I had no gloves, he interrupted me and told me to be quiet.
I got a ticket, and was let go, and I was lucky. I wonder, if that police officer was just a little more nervous that night, or he had a slightly worse day or if he had been just a bit more scared and on edge from working too many hours, or I had been just a bit more unlucky, or if I had tried to alleviate the tension by making a joke which he took the wrong way, or if some tiny interaction between us had been different, and he had pulled that gun, and he had fired shot after shot into my body, and killed me on that street so close to my house in the dead cold empty Minneapolis winter night, how that misunderstanding would be presented to the world. What would have been said. What I would have been accused of. If a jury would have seen me, a young Asian American honors student on full scholarship to a private college who came from a poor neighborhood, as sufficiently threatening. How my family would cope with the injustice, and the utter horrendousness and unfairness of it all.
Fong Lee was a young Hmong American man. He was someone’s son, someone’s brother. He could have been me, or any one of us, who are unfortunately all too familiar with the devastation of violence, racism, police brutality, and systematic injustice that rips apart our families and our communities.