THROUGH THE FIRE: These Un-Presidented Times — Black Lives Matter

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By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

The biggest immunity that has developed since the pandemic just might be our immunity to the number of deaths from COVID-19. The 100,000 benchmark was unceremoniously met with cries to reopen, drowning out the pleas of essential workers for the continuing lack of PPE (personal protective equipment like N-95 masks and protective wear). Still no word of flying the American flag at half-mast to honor the 100,000+ who have died from COVID-19. While the federal government’s concern over the pandemic is gone with the wind, **The New York Times reports:

“About 800 Americans a day are still dying of COVID-19, a pace that, if sustained over the next few months, would yield more than 200,000 dead by the end of September.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/us/politics/coronavirus-pandemic-federal-response)

Contradictory guidances on the pandemic, the urgency to get the economy revved back up again, the numbing effect of the death count, and the pent-up angst of the “free and the brave” under lockdown — we are living in a tinder box.

George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police struck a raw nerve. It was the match that ignited a firestorm. Up until George Floyd’s murder, many of us had also become immune to the “normalized” murders of Black lives at the hands of over-weaponized, above-the-law cops. Trump’s attitude towards seniors dying from COVID-19 is the same as police brutality on Black lives — let them die. And to the masses of protesters that have hit the streets, Trump’s attitude is the same — let them die. The use of tear gas commonly used in the U.S. for “riot control” poses especially dangerous consequences given the pandemic.

Demonstrators are being subjected to a double whammy as tear gas attacks the lungs, compromises them even more to COVID-19’s main target, the lungs. Daniel Moattar, research editor at Mother Jones, had this to say about tear gas: “If this was a war, it would be a war crime. . . . The Geneva Convention identifies all forms of tear gas as chemical weapons, and bars their use in times of war.” (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/06/trump-dc-protest-tear-gas-park-police/)

The Los Angeles City Hall demonstration for the National Day of Protest [against the Vietnam War], January 1973. The banner for the L.A. Asian Coalition called for the signing of North Vietnam’s peace proposal to end the war. (From “Rockin’ the Boat” by Mary Uyematsu Kao)

Trump’s now famous tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” vented his hatred for the George Floyd protests. On the first days of the big protests in Los Angeles, we viewed massive throngs of police stacked against peaceful demonstrators while sparse officers stood idly by as looters had a holiday. It seemed fairly clear that the looters were being allowed to do their thing — as if part of a planned response to disqualify the protests because of the looting.

However much it may go against your sensibilities, the question of looting should not be used to condemn the demonstrations. In the powerful words of Women’s March activist Tamika Mallory:

“Don’t talk to us about looting. Y’all are the looters. America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, so looting is what you do. We learned it from you. . .The violence was what we learned from you. So if you want us to do better, then, damn it, you do better.” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/6/1/tamika_mallory_speech_police_brutality)

What changed the narrative all of a sudden? Before our eyes, we saw the abrupt breakdown of the same old song about looting used to erase the legitimate protests. In Los Angeles, there was a “change of heart” as Mayor Garcetti started pulling back the police thugs from the demonstrations. We started seeing pictures of demonstrators and police and national guardsmen hugging and dancing with each other — we’re ALL human after all! Could it be that the massive numbers of young white people who were horrified at George Floyd’s brutal murder helped turn the corner? Was it the fact that mainstream news media was finally allowing Black voices tell their stories of what has been happening to them for centuries?

Then chameleon capitalism bombarded us with a charade of about-face changes from major corporations and in some localities, the police, seeking to “join” and support the movement without any transparency on what lies beneath these face changes. Unprecedented support has to be welcomed with a very large grain of salt. Lessons from the past have shown that the wheels of cooptation are always turning to reroute the genuine demands of the people and turn them into something that will maintain profits and control of the economy and politics.

As one African American protestor was asked how she felt about the new-found support for Black Lives Matter, she said, “Voicing support is not the same as real change.” Chameleon capitalism sways with the wind, changing its colors like a spring fashion show, in order to keep their profits flowing back to the 1%.

Amidst these unprecedented times, I completed a major milestone of my 70-year life. After 30 years of creating books for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, I did myself a favor and finished my own book of photographs from the 1970s Asian American Movement. At the time, I was a film student in the UCLA Ethno-Communications graduate film program, making a film on the transformation of Asian American women taking part in the Movement. I never finished the film for public showing, but I amassed a photo collection that documented quite a few movement activities in 35mm black-and-white stills.

The young spirits of the Yellow Brotherhood (YB) at the YB House the night before the big Pancake Breakfast fundraiser, October 1973. YB members on hand for last-minute preparations are: (from left, front row) Kenny Itomura, the late Iris Onaga, and Davey Kato; (from left, back row) Dean and Rick Yoshinaga and Kenny Uyemura. (From “Rockin’ the Boat” by Mary Uyematsu Kao)

For the next 40 years, my secret ambition was to publish a photography book. Upon retirement in 2018, I was able to make this dream a reality. With funding from the UCLA Aratani CARE grant program, the cost of printing was covered. The rest was a labor of love.

My book, “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement,” is my give-back chronicling the forces of change in the Asian American community. It records my own emerging identity and political awareness as seen through the lens of a Mamiya-Sekor single lens reflex camera. A veritable Facebook spanning 1969-1974, people portraits show the players at such events as: the second Manzanar Pilgrimage, a Yellow Brotherhood Pancake Breakfast fundraiser, a candlelight vigil commemorating Hiroshima-Nagasaki, the infamous Van Troi Anti-Imperialist Youth Brigade at the 1972 Nisei Week Parade, the struggle for the hiring of Chinese construction workers at Confucius Plaza in New York City, and a cross-country trip visiting the Movement in Denver, Chicago, and New York City.

I was fortunate to get contributors to help remember what was going on, who was who, and some of who did what. Important backstories for historical documentation include Elaine Takahashi’s description of the early Denver Movement, and Scott Nagatani’s high school organizing of the Van Troi Anti-Imperialist Youth Brigade. Interviews with Vivian Matsushige, Sandy Maeshiro, and Marlene Murakami provide revealing personal stories of how the Movement had lasting impact on their lives. Movement network veteran organizers Carrie Morita and Sandy Maeshiro are crucial in the Facebook/email pandemic distribution of “Rockin’ the Boat.”

As the wheels of cooptation are wildly churning, trying to figure out how to disrupt this unprecedented movement against racism and police brutality and for Black Lives Matter, new crops of leaders are being born! The struggle to organize this wave of protest into effectual change shines new light at the end of the tunnel. The boat is rockin’ good — this just may be the beginning of a rockin’ good time on a whole new level. Exciting un-presidented times!

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired Sansei photojournalist. Her book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” is available for purchase by emailing: Mary Kao at [email protected]; Carrie Morita at [email protected]; or Sandy Maeshiro at [email protected]. For credit card orders, go to the UCLA Asian American Studies online bookstore: http://commerce.cashnet.com/aasc. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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