A promotional artwork reads "Coast to Coast Chinatown Won't Back Down" above kawaii-style depictions of food items like bok-choy, dumplings, dim sum with text that reads, "Humbows not hotels," "Don't destroy Chinatown," "Stop all evictions," "Dim sum towers not condo towers," and "Community need over vibrant greeed."

Who Keeps Us Safe? | Episode 5: From Chinatown to Chinatown

Artwork depicting yellow text on a black background that reads "Who Keeps Us Safe"?
“Who Keeps Us Safe?” is a podcast by Asian American community organizers that explores ideas of community safety, abolition, and activism. (Artwork: Alex Chuang)

Who Keeps Us Safe? is a podcast by Asian Americans living in Seattle that explores safety, policing, and abolition in our communities and beyond. Join us monthly as we speak with organizers in the Seattle area, and reflect on their work and learnings. We hope that our listeners will use this podcast to begin and/or supplement their own conversations about safety and policing in their own communities. This is a project of PARISOL: Pacific Rim Solidarity Network, a grassroots anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, Hong Konger, Taiwanese, and Chinese* diaspora group based in Seattle. PARISOL is dedicated to local & international solidarity, community building, cultural & politicized learning, abolition, and anti-racist work.

This episode was produced for the podcast Who Keeps Us Safe? and was previously released in February 2022. The production crew is a small volunteer team of community organizers: Andy Allen, Alex Chuang, Jenn Shaffer, and Ryan Fang. 

In their fifth episode, WKUS expanded their scope beyond the greater Seattle area and had conversations with various organizers on the northeastern coast of the continent. These organizations shared their stories around the similar work and struggles that they face concerning issues of safety, particularly in their own Chinatowns. Join us for this rich dialogue, as we learn more about the context of Chinatowns’ resistance movements and history, and discuss how to build solidarity across Chinatowns, across communities, and across oceans.

Content Warning: This episode contains discussions about violence against Asian Americans, including specific comments on the violence that occurred in March 2021 against massage parlor workers in Atlanta.

You can find the organizations included in this podcast on social media. C2C Chinatowns is on Facebook at Coast to Coast Chinatowns Against Displacement. Butterfly is on Instagram @butterflycsw and at the Butterfly website. Friends of Chinatown Toronto is on Facebook at Friends of Chinatown Toronto – FOCT and Instagram @friendsofchinatownto. Montreal’s Chinatown Working Group is on Instagram @cwg_mtl and the Chinatown Working Group website. Red Canary Song is on Instagram @redcanarysong and the Red Canary Song website.

Episode artwork is by river lin. Their artwork can be found on Instagram @oldcowcreative.

Listen to the episode at the official WKUS podcast website.

Here’s an excerpt from Episode Five:

Alex (Co-Host)
In past episodes, we’ve discussed how histories of institutional racism in the form of redlining, gentrification, criminalization and deportation, and overall neglect and divestment in Communities of Color, influenced the conditions of safety and the discourse around how to create safety in Seattle’s Chinatown. We asked Matt and Karen about how issues they named — housing crisis, food insecurity, less access to vaccination or medical services, incidents of physical violence against Asian people and more — have impacted the conversations and landscape around safety and policing in their respective Chinatowns.

The issue of safety in Chinatown comes up again and again. [It’s] like every Chinatown has this perennial discussion around safety and policing and it’s been exasperated with the pandemic, and then the racism that brought on abandonment of the neighborhood and then perceptions of fear and whatnot.

So of course during COVID, a bunch of places got vandalized. Our Chinatown, [is] like so many Chinatowns [in that] it’s also situated in the city in a place that has a lot of houseless folks, and ends up being a place where people with drug addiction issues or other kinds of social issues are living, [so] Chinatown is also their space. […] I mean, the people who need these services live around there, they are actively around there. So that increases the visibility of these folks. [There’s] definitely increased amounts of trash or drug paraphernalia, all these kinds of things on the ground. 

So with all that comes calls for increased security, or wanting more policing, wanting more security cameras, or if those things are seen to be inadequate. […] We actually had a member of the community take it upon themselves to put together a volunteer “security patrol” for the neighborhood. Sometimes these things, just by the language [that you choose] to call it: Like, they’re calling it the “security patrol,” and they kind of souped up a vehicle with some lights to look more like a police vehicle. And same with the people that volunteered for this. Some of them run a security company during the day, it’s actually what they do. So they’re dressed in bulletproof-looking vests and all this, so I would say they’re not necessarily like “warm and fuzzy” looking people walking around the street. Right away, for people who are thinking about, “What does the increased security presence mean?” This is kind of like a red flag, right? It’s having this quasi-security and they’re not even really police. I mean, they’re not carrying guns or anything, but it could exacerbate some situations where it leads to violence and they’re not trained for those kinds of things. But also it’s like: Is this the future we want for this neighborhood? Chinatown is a neighborhood of sanctuary. It’s a neighborhood that was birthed by racism. It’s a place where my own ancestors were arrested or were targeted by police. There’s immigration raids that went on back in the day. So are we just gonna perpetuate that for the future of this neighborhood?

Friends of Chinatown (an abolitionist organization) also advocated against the installment of CCTV cameras. We participated in City meetings and and City consultations, and we were able to stop CCTVs from being installed in the neighborhood. Because all we know is that once we have these CCTV cameras installed it doesn’t actually increase community safety — It increases surveillance for Black, Indigenous, People of Color in the neighborhood. And besides Chinese and Southeast Asian folks in Chinatown, there’s a large Black/Brown/Indigenous population in Chinatown, there’s a large unhoused population as well. It’s a working-class neighborhood, so it wouldn’t mean anything good for the neighborhood for the CCTV cameras to be installed. I think one part of the complications was that even though we were successful in stopping it from being installed in Chinatown, they still installed it in Parkdale, which is working class Tibetan and also a multiracial, multicultural neighborhood in the west end of Toronto. So that’s one of the complications, right? Like, we need justice for all the neighborhoods, we need abolition for all the neighborhoods. It’s not just Chinatown because a lot of neighborhoods go through similar struggles. I think the Toronto Police Department is trying again this year to install CCTV cameras, so that might be another future thing that we have to take up the fight for.

Jenn (Co-Host)
Listening to the work that these organizers were describing, it struck us that these were real life examples of something we had frequently heard about abolition — that abolition is like creative destruction. Not only do we dream of the end of systems that oppress us, but we work towards this vision through proactively creating the conditions and solutions that give us life.

It is an important conversation in Chinatown. How “Stop Asian Hate” or that whole discussion around racism against Asian people is being used as a tool to give police security and more budgets for policing. So we have to be really careful. No one wants racism, no one is for Asian hate, but at the same time, it’s like, what do we use and who gets the resources in the end, right? 

We had two people mowed down in the streets during COVID in a neighborhood that does have a large Chinese population, and two Asian people were hit-and-run in that neighborhood by the same driver. These people weren’t standing beside each other, it was on two different streets. Nobody called it a hate crime. Nobody did anything until we put a big stink up. And then finally, the police — almost a year after that — decided to have a meeting with the community. They hadn’t even talked to the victim’s family. I know one of the people who was on the 911 call with a woman who was dying in the street. No one on 911 could speak Chinese. There were so many problems, and the police at that meeting turned it on the community and said, “You know, when we have a higher budget … so we’re going to hire a guy and he’s going to come and he’ll play ping-pong in the park with the seniors and talk to people.” I was just like — You guys have not engaged with the community whatsoever for a year! Now you’re asking for more money to go play ping-pong? And you’re expecting members of our community to be your translator because no one on your police force looks like us or speaks the language, [just] wow. We have to make sure that when we talk about “Stop Asian Hate,” we don’t just give more money to these mechanisms that don’t represent us and don’t effectively give us more security.

Readers can find the full episode transcript online.

For their first six episodes, Who Keeps Us Safe? partnered with KVRU 105.7 FM to air their podcast on the radio. For this reason, you’ll hear some brief station IDs in some of the episodes.

Find out more about WKUS at their Linktree site, or follow them on Instagram @who_keeps_us_safe.

📸 Featured Image: (Artwork: river lin)

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