Constructive Activism and the APA Community

by jasmine wang & denise wong

March 4th, 2010 was a glorious day for public education as it brought together students, educators and administrators from all levels of the system in support of better future. But, it was also a failure on two accounts.

One, as a whole, it did not provide enough emphasis on establishing tangible goals and results for the near future, opting instead for booming but oftentimes hollow ideology. Two, the UC Berkeley participants at local rallies did not accurately reflect the demographics of our campus. While there was a definite APA presence, it was scattered, quiet, and all in all not a strong representation of the 40 percent majority we hold at this University.

Thankfully, these two issues can be resolved simultaneously, for the methods with which the APA community chooses to make its voice heard have the potential to enact a strong influence on the overall tone and ultimate success of this fight for quality and equality in public education.

Primarily, the APA community and students of color in general must better understand how low APA participation is a result of current methods of protestation in the overarching rhetoric of the movement. Only then can we mold this movement into something far more inclusive, uniting, and accommodating of the needs and strengths of our organizers and the communities for which we mobilize.

While the budget cuts have long threatened to curtail educational accessibility for students of color, including marginalized APA populations, the APA presence at the March 4th rallies in Oakland and on the Berkeley campus has diminished significantly since the days of action that occurred last semester. Although this may have occurred due to the decentralized nature of the March 4th mobilization (that is, rallies occurred everywhere – not just on particular campuses), the exclusion of dialogue regarding students of color has been an ongoing problem afflicting the movement against the budget cuts.

The deleterious effects of this lack of dialogue are evident in the outcome of the rallies. APA student organizers say that while their communities have remained passionately opposed to the budget cuts and the privatization of their education, tensions over the issue of inclusiveness, or lack thereof, have created factions within the movement. This has jaded organizers who have found difficulty agreeing on a common message both within and outside the APA community.

“The budget cuts negatively affect students of color, especially low-income students of color, on this campus. Not just that, but a lot of programs that serve students of color are being cut,” said Irene Van, Internal Affairs Coordinator for the Asian Pacific American Coalition. “But when we bring up these issues in certain spaces, people don’t listen or listen and don’t act on it. It’s like we’re afraid to discuss race on this campus. I know lots of students of color that continue to work on it but there’s also a lot that are tired of it.”

Paul Doan, Academic Coordinator for REACH!, one of the APA campus organizations that has been most consistently present during these days of protest, added, “I do think there are different factions during this movement. Some groups share a different agenda than others and may feel that certain organizing groups are not addressing the matters they want tackled. The difficulties that students of color face, for example, may not be understood by some mobilizing groups, and thus the presumed necessity for their own mobilization.”

The tenuous position of APA students, other students of color, and their interests within the movement against the budget cuts further manifests in the reduced discussion about the effects of the budget cuts on APAs during the rally.

While recent events such as the barrage of hate crimes occurring across UC campuses have made issues of race and class more salient in the budget cuts discussion, APA students were only featured in the Berkeley and Oakland rallies through one performance at Berkeley presented by the Pilipino American Alliance, as well as a speech in Oakland delivered by the Japanese organization Zengakuren, which fights against the privatization of higher education in Japan. Whether intended or unintended, this exclusion of APA-relevant discussion left many attendants unsatisfied, and thus weakening the overall movement.

“Besides the Japanese speakers that were speaking in Oakland, I don’t recall any other API main speakers. From the other speakers, when addressing the communities involved in the movements and who the cuts addressed, I sparingly heard ‘Asians’ let alone API,” said Doan. “It felt at times that certain individuals felt that the cuts addressed select communities rather than the community of color as a whole.”

“I felt that many speakers addressed issues pertaining to people of color,” said Berkeley junior Khane Lovanh. “However, I would have liked to hear about how it affects the API community because many still think otherwise.”

In order to counter the lack of unified APA mobilization against the cuts, the rhetoric and outcomes of many recent protests must be brought under analysis.

While they were loud, rampant and robust, the Berkeley and Oakland rallies on March 4th ultimately did not provide a strategy for future action that would culminate in realistic outcomes.

Furthermore, certain factions’ escalating tone of militarism and violence has only intensified the detachment from the movement felt by the wider APA community. When overly radical and militant actions, such as the February 26th takeover of Durant Hall and the various police confrontations during and before March 4th, become the face of the movement it is unavoidable that many students will choose to study, work, or go to class instead of taking part.

These kind of anarchic protests alienate many APAs from participation in the mobilization efforts against the budget cuts.

Simply put, not all students, and especially many students of color, can afford to be put into positions that may lead to arrests or jeopardize their academic careers – especially when there is no tangible goal.

Doan comments, “I don’t think it’d be fair to say that all students of color are comfortable with protesting [in this manner]. From my understanding, undocumented students of color or students of color with undocumented family members may find it difficult to participate due to various legal issues.”

Not only do these violent and nonsensical methods of protestation harm the solidarity of the movement, they also call into question Berkeley’s legitimacy as an organizing space in the eyes of the public. The actions of the more militant students are fundamentally unstrategic not only due to the personal risk involved, but also the manner in which they may be exploited by the media to depict the entire movement as sensational or excessive. Thus, for the sake of ourselves and future generations of students, we must redefine what it means to protest and what it is we are protesting for.

Indeed, the issues are daunting and endlessly complex. Nevertheless, despite the obstacles that face students of color and the ongoing campaigns for inclusiveness and freedom of expression, we must remember that these debates would not be taking place at all if not for public education, and that our most immediate collective goal is to ensure adequate future funding for the institution and affiliation that ultimately connects us all. This must be done by any means necessary and also in the most efficient manner possible.

Though much quieter and, unfortunately, less publicized by the media, the rally at Capitol Hill in Sacramento provided an excellent model of goal-oriented and constructive activism against the loathsome budget cuts, or our common enemy. The rally was highly inclusive because it provided options for students and educators of any background, affiliation, and resources to support public education by educating themselves and those around them about voting for forthcoming pieces of legislation that have the potential to bring long-term changes.

Although the many speakers at the event, which included Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, Senator Leland Yee and Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, were representatives of diverse communities of color and immigrant populations, the emphasis of their messages was not a call to encourage distinctions between the needs of their collective communities, but rather, it was a call for all Californians to collectively express their need for quality education.

In particular, there is immediate need for support of two measures: AB 656, a tax on oil and natural gas companies whose proceeds will be used to fund higher public education; and the California Democracy Act, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that seeks to bring an end to the years of decay that minority rule in Congress has brought to our state.

While these measures certainly do not solve the social issues that communities of color face, they are small but integral steps in the right direction for the public education system that we all rely on.

Regardless of whether their marginalization within the movement against the budget cuts is intended, APA students must assert a formidable opposition to the budget cuts by delineating their own goals, aligning them with the needs of the whole and spreading awareness in order to mobilize.

We must put our main efforts into pushing for policy changes without forgetting that the budget cuts’ continued effects on APAs are still nebulous to many groups. These issues must be well-represented in discussion before all our communities may be holistically engaged against the cuts.

As a student speaker in Sacramento encouraged, we must “empower ourselves by picking up books.” Similarly, the central message the APA community here at Cal should send to its members is to educate themselves on these specific pieces of legislation and to support their ultimate approval in Congress through their own votes and by gathering the votes of others. This method of protest will not put students in positions of discomfort or fear, and it will not ask students to extend themselves beyond their resources. Rather, we will be standing in solidarity with the rest of California through the power of the vote and the power of personal education.