N.Y. Candidate’s Quest Rooted in Northern California Civil Rights Case

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer

Nate Shinagawa as a child with father Larry.

Nate Shinagawa, who won the Democratic nomination in New York’s 23rd Congressional District on June 26, has come a long way from his childhood in California, which was marred by racial harassment.

Already a Tompkins County legislator and a hospital administrator at age 28, Shinagawa will become the youngest member of Congress, the first Asian American man elected to Congress from the Northeast, and — being of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent — the first pan-Asian member of Congress if he wins the November general election.

Although his speeches are more likely to be about President Obama’s Affordable Care Act or environmental issues like fracking, his early experiences with civil rights issues led him to pursue a career in public service, according his father, Larry Hajime Shinagawa.

Born in Berkeley, Nate Shinagawa grew up in Santa Rosa while his father was teaching American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University. In April 1997, one of his father’s students, Kuan-Chung Kao, was fatally shot by police in nearby Rohnert Park.

The incident started when Kao, 33, a Taiwanese American engineer, got into a fight at a bar, allegedly in response to racial taunts from a group of white men. Later that evening, an inebriated Kao was yelling and swinging a broomstick in the street in front of his house, and neighbors called the police. Officer Jack Shields was among the first to arrive on the scene.

Shields shot Kao once in the chest and later claimed that he felt threatened because Kao struck martial arts poses and hit the patrol car with the stick. Officers prevented Kao’s wife, Ayling Wu, from going to her husband’s side, and the body lay in the driveway for hours.

Local Asian American community leaders were outraged by the assumption that Kao, being Asian, was a martial arts expert; it was later established that he was not a practitioner of any martial art. They also pointed out that there was no one on the street, so Kao did not pose a threat to anyone.

Kuan Chung Kao and his family.

Nancy Wang, president of the Redwood Empire Chinese Association in Santa Rosa at the time, said, “He was drunk, but he didn’t deserve to die that way. The officers could have given more warning or stayed in the car. They should have backed off and let him cool off a little bit.”

Rohnert Park authorities maintained that proper procedure was followed, California Attorney General Dan Lungren said the shooting was justified, Sonoma County District Attorney Michael Mullins declined to file criminal charges, and U.S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi declined to file federal charges for civil rights violations.

In addition to his wife, Kao left behind three children, Karolyn, 6, and twins Kyle and Kallen, nearly 2 years old.

Larry Shinagawa, who described the case as a “travesty,” was among those who spoke out at rallies on behalf of Kao’s widow and children as well as at a 1998 hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that examined allegations — mainly by people of color — of police brutality and other misconduct by law enforcement. There were seven other officer-involved deaths in Sonoma County in a two-year period.

The local community was not just unsympathetic but openly hostile, Shinagawa said, recalling the impact on his son, who was 13 at the time. “Our family was deeply affected in many ways. We were harassed day in and day out in Santa Rosa. As a result of that, he grew up remembering all this … house splattered with paint, ‘ching chong chinaman’ telephone messages … It profoundly affected him.”

However, Shinagawa and other advocates, including the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus, persisted and got some results. “A judgment was made for Ayling Wu and her family, but it took a long time, four or five years.”

Congressional candidate Nate Shinagawa.

The family had filed a $50 million lawsuit against the City of Rohnert Park and the officers involved, alleging wrongful death, negligence and civil rights violations. To avoid a trial that might have been more costly, the City of Rohnert Park agreed to pay $1 million to Kao’s survivors, who had since moved to Orange County, in August 2001. There was no admission of guilt.

The wartime incarceration is also part of the family’s history. Most of Larry Shinagawa’s relatives on his father’s side were interned at Tule Lake, the infamous segregation center for those deemed disloyal. “I went to one of these Tule Lake Pilgrimages in the past with my students and my young son,” Shinagawa said. “It was an eye-opening experience. My son Nate … was profoundly moved by being there and listening to those who had been interned in the camps.”

Both the Kao case and the camps “left a lasting memory with my son,” Shinagawa said. “As he grew older, he realized it was extremely important to support people who may not have as much opportunities. He took that very much to heart as he grew up. He became much more politically involved, became president of his high school.”

Nate Shinagawa took on public safety issues, such as improving street lighting around Elsie Allen High. His fellow seniors voted him “most likely to succeed,” and he gave the commencement address in 2001, saying the school had inspired his class to “go beyond any glass ceilings that we may face.”

His political involvement continued as he attended Cornell University, where he became a leader in the Asian American student organization. “In his junior year, he decided to run for the county legislative seat,” Larry Shinagawa recalled. “That was unheard of — and he won. Part of the reason why he won was that he was one of the early adopters of Facebook technology. He used Facebook to reach out to students and young people as well as going door-to-door. He made an upset victory over a long-standing politician.”

Congressional candidate Grace Meng.

The elder Shinagawa, who took a position at Ithaca College and now teaches Asian American studies at University of Maryland, said that the Kao case taught his son that in order to be in a position to right wrongs, “we need more political power, we need to know our facts, we need to do more planning.”

What makes this an even more exciting time, Shinagawa added, is that his son is not the only Asian American from New York poised to win a seat in Congress. Assemblymember Grace Meng of Flushing won the Democratic primary in the 6th Congressional District, defeating two opponents, and will face Republican City Councilmember Dan Halloran in the fall.

A Taiwanese American attorney, Meng was one of the few Asians in her school when she was growing up in Queens, but today she is treated like a rock star on the streets of her district, according to NPR. Larry Shinagawa feels that a win by his son or Meng, preferably both, will show that times have indeed changed.

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