When we think about grassroots organizing, an essential guiding principle for this type of movement work is to focus on the roots.
For example, as incidents of Sinophobic rhetoric and violence occurred globally amidst the rapid and devastating spread of the coronavirus, a rallying cry to critique the use of “China” or “Wuhan” virus was that hate was the virus.
However, I very much appreciated the pushback that reminded us that viruses are a part of the natural world. Rather the ways that the violence of the pandemic was magnified through inadequate access to healthcare, chronic poverty, profit driven models, and racialized scapegoating are not natural nor inherent life on this planet, but the effects of systemic oppression.
In speaking to the specificity of anti-Asian violence, scholar and educator Dylan Rodriguez challenges us to think deeper, and grasps the roots of this violence when he asks, “what if anti-Asian violence is not reducible to ‘hate,’ and is in fact a persistent, unexceptional presence in the long historical, Civilizational terror-making machine that is the United States?” Instead of focusing on hate, something intangible and individual, Rodriguez urges us to identify the root causes of this violence to help us develop a grassroots organizing strategy that focuses on transforming systems.
And when we touch the roots, I believe we are able to create something that is both natural and viral: a people’s movement.
Yuri Kochiyama once said, “the movement is contagious, and the people in it are the ones who pass on the spirit.” In my work as an organizer and educator, I regularly witness people, many like myself who never met her, express how much she has inspired their commitment to community. Yuri’s work connecting with people across struggles has continued to activate and mobilize people long after she became an ancestor. In learning about Yuri’s transformation - from being self described as apolitical prior to WWII, to developing a racial consciousness during her incarceration at Jerome, to living in public housing in New York - these experiences connected her to struggles that would eventually galvanize her dedication to resisting U.S. imperialism in anti-war and anti-militarism actions, fighting for Puerto Rican independence, organizing around political prisoner defense, and supporting various movements working towards Black liberation. We can see how she inherited a movement spirit - a spirit nurtured by the Black Power Movement - and actively spread it in every space she entered. And that this spirit was not alone in affecting Yuri, but one that spread widely to empower oppressed communities around the world.
In his paper exploring the lead up to the 1970 Koza Uprising, Dr. Wesley Iwao Ueunten highlights some ways in which the Black Panthers, through ideology and/or strategy, influenced and supported Okinawan resistance to the ongoing U.S. occupation of Okinawa. I see hints to this movement spirit when he writes, “in an age long before the word ‘transnationalism’ became widely used and before faxes, the Internet, affordable international flights, and cheap long-distance phone calls made it easier to travel and communicate between the corners of the U.S. global empire, political movements in the United States were strongly conscious of what was happening in Okinawa.” This grassroots spirit was able to take root because of a shared understanding of the need to root out imperialism.
The Asian American Movement, which also grew from the seeds planted by the Black Power Movement, found alignment in the need to resist U.S. imperialism. This is apparent in how many Asian American Movement spaces would adopt a Third World perspective when analyzing U.S. imperialism. Ueunten also makes this connection clear by stating, “in one of its undated publications, [Asian Americans for Action] urged ‘the American people to join the people of Okinawa and Japan in demanding the complete removal of all U.S. bases, personnel and military equipment from Okinawa and Japan.’ It added that ‘we must insist on liberation and self-determination for the people of Okinawa as for all of the Third World.’”
Much of the initial development around an anti-imperialist consciousness came from large swaths of Asian Americans in the 1960s becoming radicalized in order to stop the Vietnam war. During this time, Asian Americans had begun to grapple with their racialization within a white supremacistic society. Building up around them was the daily reminder of the immense violence occurring in Vietnam, for which the overt racist and orientalist implications were deeply apparent. The Vietnam War sparked a realization of the multigenerational impacts of imperialism as Asian Americans were also at this time, finally accessing historical evidence of the long legacy of state violence towards their people. In The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism, the authors explain that “the [Asian American Movement] introduced the perspective that race colored U.S. policy in the war, an issue that the primarily White anti-war mainstream avoided. Asian Americans held signs such as ‘Stop Asian Genocide’ or ‘Stop the bombing of Asian People.’”
One of the tools that the Asian American Movement activists use to make clear the racialized nature of imperialism was grounded in a previous generation’s movement strategy. This tool, and The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism teaches us, was that “On the West Coast, Asian American marchers appropriated the Snake Dance, originated by Japanese students, to distinguish their contingents in anti-war marches. Looping and undulating in a long line from one side of the street to the other as they inched forward, the Snake Dance also asserted their distinct perspective on the war.” This snake dance was used in Japan by student protesters, in what would become known as the Anpo Struggle, from 1959 to 1960, and again in 1970 to to during actions oppose the Anzen Hoshō Jōyaku (安全保障条約 or shortened to Anpo [安保]) which translates to the US-Japan Security Treaty, a treaty that allows for U.S. military bases in Japan.
The significance of this, as historian Nick Kapur underscores, is “at a time when other protest movements around the world that would later come to be associated with the ‘global revolutions’ of the ‘sixties’ had not yet started or were just getting under way, images of the Japanese student activists putting their unarmed bodies on the line and performing spectacular snake dances to physically prevent a major Cold War treaty from being put into place were beamed into households all around the world through the rapidly proliferating new medium of television and seen by millions more in the newsreels that were still widely shown before feature films at the cinema.”
While this article has focused on the historical instances of global interconnection of movement work, this does not mean that the spirit is weakened or dissipating. It is all around us, and it is our responsibility to grow our connection to each other and focus our energy on identifying the root systems of violence. I saw such a clear instance in 2020 as I was following actions to free Pato-Chan, Filipina trans woman who was detained by Japan’s Immigration Services Bureau for 15 months, mostly in solitary confinement due to her gender identity. In California, I was also participating in actions calling on our government to release people from state prisons and ICE detention centers due to the massive COVID outbreaks occurring within their walls. Both of these movements were also working to expose the structural violence embedded in our current immigration and carcel systems. The power of our collective spirit felt strong when seeing at a protest in Tokyo and at a protest in front of Governor Newsom’s house in California that both actions had banners reading “Free Them All."
Much like the snake dance, I wanted to write this piece to show the way the contagious spirit of liberation movements has and will continue to weave itself amongst communities. While at times it is heartbreaking to know how deep the roots of racial capitalism are embedded, it is also heartening to know how much deeper are the roots of care, reciprocity, love. As the spirit now demands that we must free them/us all, grassroots organizing teaches us that we must learn from our movement history to have a sharp focus on the roots (aka racial capitalism) and that we must build a large committed base that can collectively pull out these systems from their deepest roots.
Then the soil can heal and new roots may grow.
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