wake up, the worl'd on fire: GENERATIONS OF API ORGANIZERS

by melani sutedja

Four decades of Asian American organizers come together to talk activism

Imagine coming to Cal your freshman year, not only to be sunburned by roommate and workload anxieties, but to encounter the wake of a tumultuous storm occuring—the third world Liberation Strike brewing, conflicts over People’s Park, US involvement in Southeast Asia...

This characterizes Professor Michael Omi’s first year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Standing on a podium, he recalls the days when he too was a dorm student at Unit 3.

“I was shocked one day when I made my way through campus, seeing people being flanked by the National Guard with rifles and bayonets on their rifles,” says the Ethnic Studies professor. “I remember being caught up in Dwinelle Plaza, where tear gas was sprayed in order to disperse anti-war protesters. In order words, one couldn’t remain an innocent bystander.”

Yet, the fervor of the activism of the past and present doesn’t just reside within Omi this Saturday evening, but a whole audience.

The UC Berkeley Asian Pacific American Alumni Luncheon, held on October 11, 2008, included a parthenon of alumni activists from the past four decades. Bringing personal memories and experiences to life, the various generations of Cal organizers reminded us of a rather neglected catalyst of the revolutionary Berkeley we’ve all come to associate with excessive ‘hippies’ and ‘flower power’- the role of Asian Americans in the ‘60s, to the present.

Organized by the Asian Pacific American Student Development (APASD), the luncheon held a forum that opened with former Chinese Students Club President and twLF organizer Dr. Floyd Huen, alumnus from the class of 1969. Testimonies included those ranging from leaders of the Sixties who struggled to get Ethnic Studies into university curriculum, such as former Black Panther member Richard Aoki.

Admitting that he almost did not even become a teacher “because of machismo,” Aoki went on to describe how Asian American studies made an impact on him amongst times of turbulence. “Strange things were happening,” says Aoki, “the primary leadership of my group was in prison, dozens were killed including our treasure, two field marshals, Bunchy Carter...” The activist, whose shades-and-beret-clad image is burned into counterculture legacy, went on to describe how Asian American studies stayed with him. “And life has not been the same.”

Former twLF organizer Harvey Dong also touched upon the sentiment of the 1968 strikes. Upon emphasizing the importance of creating cross generational communications, Dong also stressed the need for support between all people of color. “Basically, if we formed determined solidarity, not just among Asian American students, but black, brown, gold, and red, we can actually have power.”

The current Ethnic Studies professor, whom colleagues deemed the “badass” organizer of the afternoon, went on to describe the survival tactics of the strike’s ten week livelihood.

“One thing we also got out of it, was how to fight the system, fight the police, how to run away,” says Dong. Rethinking what members probably had to resort to in their attempts to achieve a full-fledge third world college, Dong jokes, “(it was) probably illegal... but to hell with that. It was back in the day.”

Those in attendance were overwhelmed by the plethora of recognizable figures. “It’s empowering,” says Marwin Yeung, a first year intended Sciology major. “It was just a quick reminder that the movement towards social justice and greater education is still in the works, especially in the API community. Bridging our experiences and our goals with the CAL API Alumni will generate even greater progress.”

Organizers also discussed a time when Asian American studies was yet to be a field, and often times, overlooked. Omi himself recollects, “My professor told us, ‘open a history book and what do you find? History of the West, Greco Roman tradition, the founding of American Nation States.. and then Asia, Africa, and Latin America only appeared when “discovered” by Europeans.’”

What Asian American studies sought to do, says Omi, was re-center the histories of Asian American experience, as well as realize the growing role of transnationalism during the prevailing state between Asia and America. “After all, the Asian American slogan,” says Omi, “was ‘Why fight the racist war,’ not ‘bring the troops home,’” says Omi.

The reception heightened as alumni and students paid tribute to former professor (and top OG) Ronald Takaki, for his contributions to the Asian American movement, and the continuing the struggle for liberation.

One of his former students, Greg Mark, recounts how Takaki organized the first Asian American course in the country— Asian American 100X.

“There were 150 of us in that Wednesday night class. The electricity that we feel now, we felt in the class. Paul organized an amazing class.” Mark, an alumnus in the class of 1969, goes on to describe Takaki’s role as a lead speaker in the American Yellow Identity Symposium on January 9, 1969, the 1st Asian Pacific American Conference in the US. The conference, which had three speakers and housed 800 in Pauley Ball Room, was planned less than two months before.

“He was just not my professor, but my friend, my mentor... and he even gave me a parking pass,” joked Mark.

Of course, the panel came to include more recent alumni who donned the characteristic grassroots poster-paper-and-marker style that has permeated today’s progressive student groups.

Generations down the line came to symbolize the emergence of female empowerment within progressive spaces, especially when Jidan Koon took the podium.

A second generation organizer from the class of 1998, Koon exhibited a more contemporary edge towards topics within the Asian Pacific Islander community.

Introducing alumni to acronyms of current student organizations, such as the REACH! Recruitment and Retention Center, Koon emphasized the power of direct service as a base building strategy. Having partnered with APASD on the annual Asian Pacific Islander Issues Conference to bring youth from Oakland High, the coalition sought to create a more contemporary edge to the table.

“We wanted to concentrate on more than Asian in media and glass ceilings, but things prevalent in our community- gang violence, community issues workshops,” says Koon.

The advent of Proposition 209 in 1996 and its ban on affirmative action within the UC system would especially be of much concern. Koon describes a time when REACH! took over Sproul for a week to hold teach-ins about the impacts of affirmative action. “With a rotation of ten people sleeping on Sproul Plaza each night during the middle of midterms, I remember making our ramen on stove burners and studying by the floodlight on Sproul,” she says.

Just as the Black Student Union, Asian American Political Alliance, and Mexican American Student Union would create the third world Liberation Front in 1969, there would be a greater emphasis on coalition building between Asian Americans and other ethnic groups. “Out of 209, there was more solidarity with the other groups, especially to form the bridges coalition to build solidarity, and do programming together, such as a multicultural junior college day,” says Koon.

Former CalSERVE Senator and recent alum Maurice Seaty also echoes the importance of building coalition, especially amidst last year’s struggle to create a multicultural center. Latent with frustration and swagger, he becomes blunt about the University’s neglect in establishing permanent ground.

“From 240 Cesar Chavez, to Heller, what’s happened to our people have been moved around around,” says Seaty. “Getting a permanent multicultural center was no longer about getting space on the campus, but making it known that we’d no longer be displaced by the University and the institutions that govern us. We got power.”

Nevertheless, the Oakland native also acknowledges the hypocrisy he finds in the Asian American community. Just as Omi mentioned of a modern day “brain drain” that “told Asian Americans in the Sixties to assimilate and move on to mainstream economic lifestyles,” Seaty acknowledges the problem of what he calls “sideline” activism.

“There are 42.9% Asian americans on campus. Cool. But where is that population of Asian Americans who are gonna be about their communities, not just about being in Haas business school, not just getting into law school. You can pretend to be socially conscious, listen to progressive music, but when it comes to being accountable to the community, be busy in cafe shops sipping in the lattes listening to Malcolm X.”

Koon agrees. “It’s important for our culture not to just get a degree and go straight to their career of choice, but to get exposure to new ideas,” she says. “People get radicalized.”

Koon’s own parents, who were involved in the progressive movement of the Sixties, were present as their daughter gave her testimony.

“In some sense, we are not familiar with the new situation,” says Koon’s mother. “It’s somewhat new to us. Yet, this generation’s activism is much deeper.” And as for seeing their daughter on stage, a remnant of their former selves?

“She is a joy to any parent, we are very proud,” her mom says.