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Regional Interests

OK, But… What Is Solidarity?

Solidarity: it’s a loaded term. Convoluted and nuanced, very important in concept, definitely overused as an expression, and not always highlighted when practiced.

But the practice of solidarity is a normal part of co-existing with each other. Right?

Solidarity has been on my mind a lot lately, especially in regard to violence, the Asian community, the African American community and policing.

Earlier this week, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a federal bill created to help further document and ultimately curb instances of anti-Asian hate crimes.

The legislation passed with rare bipartisan support, a clear response to what Stop AAPI Hate‘s website shows as an increase in anti-Asian violence reported across the board—verbal, physical and online. The majority of the reports come from California, including the stabbing of two older Asian women in San Francisco earlier this month.

But the details about hate crimes and they way they’re punished require nuance. A recent episode of The Bay podcast illustrates some issues with the current legal definition of “hate crimes”—that they’re an accessory to another charge, for example, and often hard to identify as a motive.

And about those motives: who are the perpetrators in each case, and what’s the reason for their actions? This has brought up discussions about violence manifesting as a form of white supremacy, as well as the notion that African Americans are targeting Asians.

A group of demonstrators hold signs that say, “Stop Asian Hate” during a vigil and rally in San Francisco’s Chinatown on March 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

I read a piece about the historical division between the two groups, revisited reports on the killing of Latasha Harlins and the death of Vincent Chin. I revisited this quote from the late Mike “Dream” Francisco about Southeast Asian folks getting into the same street life that Black and Brown folks find themselves in, because of similar struggles. I even thought back to my experience, and how the first person in my circle to die of violence was a middle-school friend named Norro, who was Cambodian.

Over the past two months I’ve participated in two panel discussions about violence in the community and kept tabs on the uptick in violence in inner-cities across America. In Oakland, where today the city counted its 53rd homicide of the year, the issue of violence runs far deeper than any panel discussion can possibly dig.

Add to that the tug o’ war between those who believe in defunding police and those who say there should be an increase in police department funding, specifically as a reaction to anti-Asian violence. And of course, that intertwines with the topic of other public safety resources for community members.

Now you see why it’s a lot to think about.

But late last month, doing a little art in community made it all so simple.

Malik Seneferu works on a mural in Oakland’s Chinatown. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

At Madison Park in Oakland’s Chinatown, I talked to artist Cece Carpio as she and my daughter painted what she described as a “diver being swallowed by a sea monster.”

Cece explained that she’s juggling a lot right now: her day job connecting people to resources during the pandemic through the City of San Francisco’s COVID relief task force, working through the planning stages of a new 100-foot mural that she’s set to paint later this year on the side of the Luggage Store gallery in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and creating community events, like this one.

Cece, a lead organizer of the Love And Protect: Community Mural Series, was one of over a dozen professional artists painting alongside community members. This meant my daughter was throwing up paint with the likes of published illustrator Robert Liu-Trujillo and the first woman member of the Black Panther Party, Joan Tarika Lewis.

Backed by Civic Design Studio, Asians 4 Black Lives, CuryJ, the Oakland Chinatown Coalition, Trust Your Struggle and more community organizations, the event was focused on showing solidarity through visual arts.

The intention wasn’t just to heal those impacted by violence against members of the Asian community, but to also continue to dispel the notion that it’s a ‘Black versus Asian’ thing happening in the Bay Area, and across the nation, Cece said.

Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Minister of Culture, was also at the park that day, and a few days later we discussed the idea of solidarity.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Douglas told me during a phone call.

Douglas grew up in community with Asian groups in the ’60s and ’70s. He used to shoot pool with the Red Guard in Chinatown, and when it was time to stand together for social justice issues, they did so. He says he’s clear on the historical context of Black solidarity with the Asian community. And he’s clear that former President Trump’s anti-Asian statements about the spread of COVID-19 have fanned the flames contributing to the rise in hate crimes over the past year.

Now, Emory Douglas is banking on the next generation to take the concept of solidarity a bit further.

“You have young people, very progressive people,” says Douglas, “who are becoming more aware and less culturally conditioned to ‘the tradition,’ and are living more in the context of solidarity. They’re transcending the idea of just thinking about themselves, and becoming aware of what’s going on in the real world.”

Sharing equal footing as racial solidarity during that weekend in Oakland’s Chinatown was the theme of intergenerational solidarity.

“It’s a real honor to show up when my elders, especially my mom, invites me to show up,” said Elokin Orton-Cheung, an herbalist who painted with their mother on the canvas next to my daughter and me.

Ming Mur-Ray, an artist and Elokin’s mother, told me she was surprised by the turnout. “I’m moved to see the seniors from Harrison Senior Housing came out and participated,” said Ming, noting that four out of eight members of the group she works with showed up.

For the residents of senior housing, a fear of simply walking down the sidewalk is warranted, given the street attacks on Asian elders. But participation in an anti-Asian violence event was clearly important enough to take the risk. “One person came back on Sunday, by herself,” said Ming. “Because she wrote a word wrong, so she painted it over and corrected it.”

A collection of completed murals in Oakland’s Chinatown. The murals, meant to be portable, are currently moving from location to location. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Elokin explained that events like this build on years and of community organizing, but there’s something different when art is the focus. “We’ve been coming together for vigils and protests, and coming together for loss of life in our community, but coming together to celebrate—coming together for sacredness in Black and Asian communities—is really beautiful.”

That day in the park I watched San Francisco muralist Elaine Chu paint one canvas, and TDK’s Spie prep his aerosol cans for action on another. Not far from us, Karen Seneferu and Malik Seneferu were already putting a regal shade of purple paint on a canvas.

Thitiwat Phromratanapongse introduced himself as T and took a break from painting to pass me a towel. He’d overheard me joking that I was going to dip my daughter in Lake Merritt to wash her off—the paint she’d used to create her fictional sea monster and diver had also consumed her outfit.

A few people wore shirts that read “unity” in several different languages. Images of tigers and panthers were painted. In the middle of the labyrinth permanently marked on the park’s blacktop stood an altar.

Well, if this isn’t “solidarity,” what is?

Flowers and a small altar at the center of a Black and Asian solidarity event in Oakland’s Chinatown. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Just last week, the 6-foot by 6-foot canvases, about 17 of them, were mounted in various businesses in Old Oakland, many of them in old Swan’s Market. A significant place for the artwork, as Cece Carpio points out, that area was once a part of the old Chinatown.

“For me, solidarity is very simple,” Carpio explained recently. “It’s how we co-exist.” Bingo. Simply coexisting, and knowing that as a human, there are certain expectations for existence.

Cece elaborated: “What are common grounds? What are collective decisions? What is collective hope? And what is our collective experience?”

A series of questions that might lead to confusion, but ends with two specific thoughts: What is it we want to see collectively? And how do we work collaboratively, pursuing this vision of the world we want to live in?

Using our respective communities as an example, Cece said, “We have different languages, different cultures, we eat different food. But essentially, we come together. In the same way there are common race and class struggles, there are similarities. In our collective visions, our collective goal is to live in equity, to live in justice.”

Copyright 2021 KQED