Jean Quan and the Death of Asian America

Illustration by Gary Bedard

By Guest Contributor Chris Fan, cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine

Last Monday, Oakland’s mayor Jean Quan ordered the forcible eviction of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s Oakland encampment, which had been situated directly outside of her office at City Hall off and on for the past two months.

Wakened in the early morning by an army of police outfitted in riot gear, demonstrators remained peaceful as more than 100 tents were destroyed, and dozens of arrests were made. The action precipitated the resignation of two of Quan’s top staffers, bringing the total resignations in response to her handling of Occupy Oakland to three. It also deepened this writer’s disappointment and embarrassment over the actions of someone who, not too long ago, could have been described as embodying the best of the Asian American movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, Quan was intensely involved with the Third World Liberation Front’s (TWLF) radical efforts to create ethnic studies programs, ultimately spearheading the establishment of the Asian American Studies program there. After graduating, she continued her activism in New York’s Chinatown, and, much later, joined Oakland School Board, and City Council, where she fought for a variety of progressive causes. Last summer, when large-scale demonstrations broke out in protest of a lenient verdict handed down to BART police officer Johannes Mehserle — who was on trial for shooting Oscar Grant while the latter was face-down and restrained — it was hardly a surprise when Jean Quan joined in a human chain to protect demonstrators from riot police. She was just dusting off an old skill set.

So, when Quan won the mayor’s seat last November, I and so many others were overjoyed not only that she had become Oakland’s first Asian American and first female mayor, but that Jean Quan the progressive activist had become mayor.

Why she decided to step onto the other side of the riot shield is a question that cannot be adequately answered now.

My disappointment and embarrassment for her aside, it would be unfair to characterize Quan as a tyrant, or unequivocally beholden to business and police interests. In fact, it’s been precisely her ambivalence over Occupy Oakland that has provoked resignations and her alienation from city agencies — especially the Oakland police. She has explicitly expressed support for the movement (as, to be sure, have so many mayors who also justified their endorsement of excessive force in the same gesture), and her husband (Floyd Huen, also a TWLF alum) and daughter have been considerably less ambivalent in their support of it. We might even take the divisions within the Quan family as a kind of parable of the American left.

Monday’s eviction was, of course, not the first. Quan’s first attempt at permanently dismantling the camp came early in the morning of October 25, when she authorized hundreds of police officers to evict its residents with a “shock and awe” strategy. In just a few hours, they cleared and destroyed over 150 tents, as well as an elaborate system of services that had maintained the encampment for more than two weeks: including a fully operational kitchen, medic tent, library and children’s area.

Later that afternoon, Occupiers marched from the steps of the city’s Main Library (which librarians, in solidarity, refused to close, in defiance of police orders) back to the encampment site with the intention of re-occupying it. This resulted in large-scale confrontations with police, in which the latter employed an excessive amount of force that resulted in serious injuries, including the critical wounding of Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen. Widely circulated videos depict a police officer tossing an exploding tear gas canister directly at Olsen’s head, after he had already been rendered unconscious by a projectile fired by police moments beforehand.

In a painful example of precisely the kind of tragic irony that the Occupy movement is trying to highlight, that same night, just a few miles from the thick of the demonstrations, Oakland’s school board voted to close five elementary schools in an attempt to save $2 million. The cost of the police actions for that day alone ran well over $1 million.

Along with the cost of last week’s actions, the total cost of police services rose to over $1.5 million. Considering how Occupy Oakland has made every attempt at cooperating with health and safety standards, and how its demonstrations have been largely peaceful, the costs seem not only unjustified, but somehow idiotic. I say “idiotic,” because it reminds me of that paradigmatic scene of idiocy from Steve Martin’s film The Jerk, when a barrage of gunshots fired at the main character miss him, hitting piles of cans instead, and which we can paraphrase like this: “They hate the tents! Stay away from the tents!”

Quan’s involvement in the decisions of October 25 prompted international condemation, as well as ridicule by the likes of Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann. But perhaps the most damning criticism came from a group of Asian American Oakland residents who were just as excited about her election as I was. A few days after the eviction, they circulated an open letter in which they wrote: “It is a sad day. We once believed you to be an ally to low-income, communities of color; to progressive politics; to real democracy. What happened?”

What happened?

I’ve been following Occupy Oakland since it pitched its first tent on October 10. Unfortunately, with an infant son vigorously engaged in his own protest against sleep, it was impossible to join the encampment, and difficult to spend a significant amount of time at Frank Ogawa Plaza (renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by the Occupiers). Nonetheless, my wife and I donated what we could, and I stayed involved via Twitter — something that, prior to this Spring, would have sounded ridiculous.

Even with my meager involvement in virtual and meat-space, I have never in my lifetime seen the American Left so invigorated, so hopeful — or so unified. The movement certainly has its problems, not least of which being its demographics (although as our own Tammy Kim reports, Zuccotti Park is an exception). And with the onset of winter — and the Bay Area’s own rainy version of that mythical season — the question of demands, thus far strategically deferred, is becoming all the more pressing. If there’s anything we’ve learned, however, it’s that the movement’s astonishing resilience is generated more by its form than its content. And it’s not like Occupiers aren’t unaware of their contradictions; they’re working through them slowly and earnestly.

Occupy Oakland shuts down the Port of Oakland during the Nov. 2 general strike

As encouraging as the past two months have been, the tragedy of Mayor Quan stands as a sobering reminder of what a movement like Occupy risks becoming as time wears on. She is precisely the kind of future the movement resists when it militates against co-optation.

In a way, Quan also signals the incoherence of “Asian American” as a radical coalition. No other public figure dramatizes more powerfully just how distant those heady days of action and idealism have become.

This may seem like an odd claim to make, with Asian Americans so much on the rise just across the Bay in San Francisco. Two weeks ago, Edwin Lee became the first elected Asian American mayor of that city, making him the latest instance of an ascendant and formidable wave of Asian American political influence there. But that influence flows from a largely Chinatown-centered voting bloc that is either more closely associated with the Chinese-language press and China’s international political dynamics, or would more readily identify as Chinese and American than Asian American.

Also consider the example of Occupy Oakland’s renaming of Frank Ogawa Plaza to Oscar Grant Plaza, a deliberate displacement of Asian American politics for a narrative of white-on-black state violence.

Ogawa, a gardener by trade, was Oakland’s first Japanese American and longest-standing city council member, as well as an internee at Topaz Camp. He was known for his moderation and record of breaking racial barriers. It’s possible that his conservative politics would have clashed with the Occupy movement’s values — but that doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason. What’s more telling is the startling lack of commentary on this issue (with very few exceptions).

The fact that this move could be passed over in silence is perhaps the most poignant epitaph to a coalition that once I so lovingly knew.

But, alas, Quan herself is the best evidence of what I want to call, polemically, “the Death of Asian America.” The idea of the “Asian American” was born in the ’60s with Quan and her Third Worldist comrades. If it still had any life in it, it died this fall, along with her political career. To use a clunky sociological term, Quan has become a symbol of Asian America’s broader “embourgeoisiement” over the past forty years.

Rather than despair, I believe that, at this moment, we should gauge our optimism against the endurance of the Occupy movement itself. We need to risk it.

Help them through the winter.

What hope is left for us is to be found in solutions that haven’t been formulated yet. We need new coalitions. We don’t yet know what they are, which is why we need the space — indeed, the interruption — to think these things through clearly and honestly. It’s precisely that space and time that the Occupiers are putting their bodies and selves on the line to create and defend.

Those chains of students linking arms and getting pepper sprayed by the officer John Pikes of the world aren’t defending tents, or the spaces they occupy. It’s ridiculous to think so. They’re defending our time to think.

Floating signifiers. A scene from Occupy Cal. Photo by Aaron Bady.

Update, 11/22/11

 It’s been brought to my attention that there has, indeed, been lively discussion on the Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant renaming issue.

The best commentary on it is from the artist Kenji Liu, who designed two posters — one with Ogawa’s image, and the other with Grant’s — emblazoned with the caption “Memory is Solidarity.” These were widely distributed during the Occupy demonstrations and general strike at the beginning of November. Liu writes:

We can have a more complex and nuanced movement for economic and racial justice by honoring both Ogawa and Grant, not as equivalents but in solidarity. This is not just about inclusion, but about having a complex analysis from which to act together. As Audre Lorde has written, “difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark.” We can recognize the different ways capitalism has attacked each of our communities. We can bring this imagination to our aspirations for our places, our movements and our society.

For me, this is the crucial point: that solidarity and a “complex analysis” of capitalism are more fundamental than the identity politics at the heart of the renaming issue. That doesn’t of course make Asian American-specific or black-specific politics disappear; it forces them to incorporate a broader analysis than identity politics can accomodate.

In the case of Oscar Grant, the discourse has evolved from outrage over a long history of white-on-black violence, to a critique of police force, to a critique of the police state, and then to a critique of the police state’s inextricabile link to capitalism. This evolution, for me, is what I hope will be one of the most enduring legacies of the OWS movement. And what I believe we need to do is risk accepting that broader critique, even if that means letting go of some aspects of those old identity-based coalitions.

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  • Matt Pizzuti

    I think that civil disobedience is meant to be a performance, and government figures, sympathetic or not, have a role in that performance. 

    When an activist mindfully breaks a law in order to provoke arrest, the law’s role is to arrest that activist regardless of whether the law’s actors are supportive of that cause. The activist pays the expected penalty or fines. We can all thank the activist for her or his effort and sacrifice, donate money to compensate for those penalties, and we should certainly not ostracize, refuse to hire or condemn a mindful activist for having that certain kind of arrest on her or his record. Leaders can pardon offenses down the road. Civil disobedience for an appropriate cause (and Occupy Wall Street is one) is a respectable and commendable effort.

    But I don’t think it’s hypocritical for Mayor Quan to participate in civil disobedience as a conscious citizen, and later, in a government position, play the “opposition.” I think it would be far more dangerous for officials to pick and choose which examples of civil disobedience they allow and which they don’t. They, except in unusual circumstances, uphold the laws until the laws are changed. 

     The government’s role does NOT include many of the police tactics I am seeing – incidents need to be investigated, violators need to be punished, and police need to be trained and disciplined – there are many examples in which the police are exceeding their authority and being bad actors. This cannot justify police causing injuries, damaging protesters’ property, holding protesters without cause or do process, or acting unprofessionally. I do not necessarily blame Mayor Quan for these incidents, though I do not necessarily NOT blame her either. 

    But I don’t point a finger at Mayor Quan for the general decision to allow the process to play as according to the law. I think Occupy Wall Street participants are occasionally unaware of how previous successful civil disobedience movements have played out in the past.

    Evicting the Occupy Wall Street protesters from unlawful use of public space is actually beneficial to Occupy Wall Street – well they do know that much. And nobody should blame Occupy Wall Street from taking that stand and getting arrested. The idea that “we will fill your jails” is a powerful tool and part of how it works. It would fail, though, if the jails were not actually filled because government, feigning sympathy, simply ignored the movement. 

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  • Christopher Fan

    Dear all, thanks for your comments and critiques. A book that might interest all of you is Mark  Chiang’s The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies (1999). His central question is what happens when radicalism is institutionalized in the university. I find his perspective especially relevant to Quan and the cadre of young Asian American politicians across the Bay in San Francisco, many of whom majored in AA or ethnic studies.

    Also, I just want to address one common criticism of my argument, that the fate of Asian America can’t be determined by one person. The intent of my polemic is to bring attention precisely to Chiang’s question, viz. “Asian America” as a radical coalition. I don’t think anyone should take seriously my claim that Asian America is “dead.” Like any polemic, it should only be taken half-seriously.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • Sumdongkong33

    As an underpaid and debt-strapped instructor of Asian American Studies, I’ve been saying this for years. Alas, colleagues protect their precious tenure and label instructors who say such things as “radicals.” If only Asian American Studies professors ask their students if they are willing to fight for Asian American Studies, they will see how the discipline has mimicked what it supposedly was designed to fight against — the Ivory Tower syndrome. 

  • carny

    “consider the example of Occupy Oakland’s renaming of Frank Ogawa Plaza to Oscar Grant Plaza”

    This is representative of so many things alienated me from the Occupy Oaklanders, who often seem like true occupiers: i.e., they don’t live here; they don’t respect the landscape; they don’t understand the natives; they don’t value the culture.

  • msavignon

    To use a clunky sociological term, Quan has become a symbol of Asian America’s broader “embourgeoisiement” over the past forty years.

    Since reading this post yesterday, this particular line has been at edges of my consciousness because it summarizes a lot of my recent interest in thinking about where Asian-American “fit” within a lot of different conversations: immigration, assimilation, contemporary race relations (within Asian-American communities, Asian communities, between communities/people of color, between whites), and historical race relations in the United States. Considering our role necessitates thinking about the aforementioned issues beyond black-white relations in the U.S., and calls to do so can be met with resistance because of the potential for erasure. Since witnessing a particularly ugly Tumblr fight in which POC were questioning about whether or not Asians could be considered POC, then a “who has it worse”/”race vs. class”-type debate, then finally turning into straight up insults. I know Tumblr is a bit of a pathetic example, and furthermore, that type of conversation is fairly standard for online debates about any subject (question + honest answers turn into derailing + insults), but it hit home the kinds of problems facing Asian-Americans as to why or why not we haven’t been able to be a radical political block either as a racial or ethnic group, or called on as supportive to other groups. 

    As someone who has never stepped foot in Oakland and spent very little time on the West Coast, I remember when Jean Quan was elected and being incredibly proud of her achievements. Likewise, her failings in handling Occupy Oakland has disproportionately upset me because East Asian-Americans already have so few national faces in politics (I’m still waiting for viable Asian-Americans to be considered vice president candidates or Supreme Court nominees, for example). 

    Anyways, thank you for publishing this post.

  • Nibalizx

    I don’t know how I feel about basing the analysis of entire communities of people off of the decisions and life on one person. You have to give me more examples before I can believe you. 

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  • Lyonside

    I wonder how much of the ambivalence observed in the Asian-American communities (plural because the experience of South Asians is going to be different from Southeast Asians and Pacific Asians, etc.) is part of the model-minority myth… i.e., to get ahead, to BE accepted, you have to conform to some degree with the status quo, the people, party, and ethnicities in power… which is pretty much opposite what the Occupy Movement tries to be.  I have no easy answer, but looking at our cultural makeups in this country, at least, I have to think it’s a factor.

  • Lyonside

    I wonder how much of the ambivalence observed in the Asian-American communities (plural because the experience of South Asians is going to be different from Southeast Asians and Pacific Asians, etc.) is part of the model-minority myth… i.e., to get ahead, to BE accepted, you have to conform to some degree with the status quo, the people, party, and ethnicities in power… which is pretty much opposite what the Occupy Movement tries to be.  I have no easy answer, but looking at our cultural makeups in this country, at least, I have to think it’s a factor.