This article is part of Mochi’s Fall 2022 issue on politics. In the late ’60s, the slogan “The personal is political” came out of a second-wave feminist movement, presenting an alternative thought that politics is about one’s dignity and agency. As Asian Americans, we know this to be true, since even our identities are political. In this issue, we talk about what politics mean to us — from the politics of our identities to political dynamics in our relationships and communities. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
In 2020, the protests following the murder of George Floyd and the many other instances of police brutality against Black people made abolition a mainstream conversation topic. Yet two years later, the carceral system churns on as usual across the U.S., with police budgets ballooning and new prisons approved for development. President Joe Biden’s recently announced budget request to Congress would allocate $13 billion to hiring 100,000 police officers — a plan that comes at a time when police killings reach unprecedented heights.
For those who are unfamiliar: Abolition is a movement for the dissolution of police and prisons and the restructuring of public safety through investment in housing, healthcare, and education. Abolitionists believe that a society that devalues human life and creates unequal access to basic necessities like food, water, and housing creates the conditions for violence. By punishing people instead of addressing material deprivation, the carceral system perpetuates racism and poverty. Unlike police and prison reformists who believe the carceral system needs to be altered to function more humanely, abolitionists may support changes to the carceral system but ultimately believe that it needs to be dismantled completely.
Abolition work can look like fighting against the building of new prisons, providing bail support, or working within support networks that address mental health or substance abuse that don’t involve the police. The ultimate endpoint is getting rid of police and prisons, but abolition is not just a descriptor for a long-term goal; it’s also a “practical organizing tool,” states the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance. The principles of abolition — that violence cannot be eliminated in a society that does not value people’s lives — shapes abolition work.
As inequalities grow, some paradoxically try to use incarceration as a way to address the very crises it creates. Recently, Gloria Steinem pushed for women’s jail facilities because of the gender-based violence on Rikers Island. This pattern is familiar to many Asian American organizers, who have resisted the push for hate crime legislation and increased policing to deal with anti-Asian violence. They recognize that the existence of the carceral system ultimately worsens the racial inequality that Asians experience and therefore, perpetuates incidents of violence. In the wake of the anti-Black and anti-Asian violence of the pandemic — and recently, the growing criminalization of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy — Asian American organizers remain staunch in their work to build abolitionist support systems within their communities and in solidarity with others.
Asian Americans Respond to the Events of 2020
While the effectiveness of incarceration has been questioned for longer than any of us have been alive, the current prison abolition movement has been shaped by events like Angela Davis’s experience within the prison system and the Attica Prison Uprising, both of which captured the national spotlight in the ‘70s. In the decades following, the rapid development of prisons, mass incarceration, and police brutality have inspired countless organizations and community initiatives to fight for both police and prison abolition.
In 2020, the abolition movement reached national visibility after the murder of George Floyd, as waves of protesters realized justice in the face of anti-Black violence could not just be limited to prosecution and, subsequently, looked to abolitionists. The demand to defund the police department of Minneappolis was a specific call that resonated throughout the nation.
Many Asian Americans also got involved during this period. While there is a history of Asian involvement in abolition efforts that originated in the ‘80s, a new generation of Asian Americans embraced abolition for the first time.
For members of the Asian American Organizing Project (AAOP), a nonprofit for Asian youth in Minnesota, abolition is an organic way to enact their organizing ethos. While AAOP had worked to find alternate solutions to policing since its conception in 2016, the organization publicly announced its support for abolition in 2020.
“Even if police are effective at preventing certain forms of violence in the short term, they lack the tools to actually prevent or redress harm in the long term,” says Marie Stebbings, fellows program coordinator at AAOP.
AAOP recognizes that violence and inequality can be reduced by reinvesting in communities.
Stebbings explains, “Abolition is necessary because liberation from state-sanctioned violence and systemic oppression comes from community-led solutions that invest in our collective safety and well-being.”
AAOP helps young people approach advocacy from an abolitionist and anti-capitalist perspective, which allows them to understand how different institutions and systems interact to create cycles of violence. The organization works within the Minneapolis Budget Coalition alongside Black Visions Collective, a Black liberation non-profit in Minnesota, and ACLU-MN to reallocate police funding in the Minneapolis city budget toward education, housing, and public transit.
Other Asian Americans also found that intercommunity and solidarity work is a crucial way to approach abolition.
Asians4Abolition is a group of early Gen Z and late millennials in New York City that formed in September 2020. The group participates in abolition work within Asian communities and builds solidarity with Black liberation efforts. The members hold rallies and vigils, collaborate with other grassroots groups, and organize mutual aid efforts like community fridge restocks.
A central tenet of their work is the idea of fighting as a collective — defined in the 2022 book “Abolition. Feminism. Now” as “a throughline across generations, peoples, and mobilizations” — to address the effects of the carceral system across different communities. Because the carceral system affects us all, one group cannot call for increased policing at the expense of another.
“The one unifying thing would be that white supremacy disenfranchises us all […] It’s about race, it’s about class, it’s about gender,” says Kalani Van Meter, a member of Asians4Abolition.
Addressing Anti-Asian Violence Through Abolition
As the racial and economic violence of the pandemic progressed and a pattern of anti-Asian violence emerged, Asian abolitionists continued to push for dismantling the carceral system — even as certain factions of Asian communities called for the opposite.
The Atlanta spa shootings that killed eight people, including six Asian women, compelled thousands of people to rally around the Stop Asian Hate movement. Despite the fact that the victims were mostly Asian women, statements from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office that labeled the incident as the result of a sex addiction rather than a hate crime were seen as an invisibilizing tactic to obfuscate the full injustice of the situation.
In response to the shootings, the most prominent solution to anti-Asian violence took the form of hate crime legislation. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was introduced in Congress a week after the Atlanta spa shootings, and signed into law in May 2021. The legislation appoints a person from the Department of Justice to enhance hate crime reporting processes at the state, local, and tribal law enforcement level. It also provides grants for states to improve hate crime reporting systems and law enforcement responses to hate crimes.
Since an uptick of anti-Asian violence appeared during the pandemic, there has been a stark divide between Asian Americans who believe violence should be mitigated through policing and those who see policing as a strengthening of the carceral system and its ability to produce more violence in the name of safety. In September 2020, Asian American Feminist Collective penned a statement opposing the creation of the NYPD Asian Hate Crime Task Force. A month before the Atlanta shootings, Asians4Abolition wrote an article to push back against the narrative for hate crime legislation. After the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was introduced, over 100 Asian and LGBTQ+ organizations signed a letter opposing the legislation.
“The bill in its current form would create no systemic change to address racism, only increase crime statistics collection,” the letter reads.
The division revealed a fundamental conflict within Asian communities, between those who recognize the detrimental effects of police and those who feel protected by its presence. Organizers fight for broader awareness about how our sense of safety may come at the expense of Black and Brown people. Some point out people’s faith in policing is a result of the model minority myth and the idea that American society will reward Asians’ compliance.
“It comes from a very deep rooted trauma of ‘put your head down and get through it,’ and that doesn’t work,” reflects Van Meter.
Most significantly, the mainstream response has decentered the people who are most at risk of experiencing violence. While the intersections of race and gender in the targeting of Asian women has been discussed, the consequences of strengthening policing for groups whose marginalization is inextricably linked to interactions with the criminal justice system has been ignored.
“One of the biggest failures of the Stop Asian Hate movement is the almost complete erasure of massage workers and sex workers,” says Esther Kao, lead organizer of NYC-based massage worker coalition Red Canary Song. “The demographic that was shot up right in Atlanta in the first place [that] has spurred this movement […] they’ve been almost completely erased from the conversation.”
Although advocates have proffered hate crime legislation as a solution for those at risk of experiencing racial violence, increasing policing capacity directly worsens conditions for many. One particular demographic disproportionately impacted by racialized policing are Asian women migrants who work as unlicensed massage workers, which is criminalized under state laws. Because their labor is not recognized as such and often conflated with trafficking, massage workers are not afforded the basic protections of workers’ rights and are subject to police raids and frequent arrests.
Red Canary Song began in 2018 in response to the death of Yang Song, a massage worker in Flushing, Queens who fell to her death in an NYPD raid. The grassroots organization does on-the-ground mutual aid work for massage workers and policy efforts to decriminalize unlicensed massage work in New York. Their work is informed by abolition because of the systemic oppression massage workers experience by the police and the prison system, and the material disenfranchisement that results from criminalization.
Massage parlors are commonly misconstrued as places of human trafficking where women are forced to perform sexual services, and this misconception leads to violent police interventions and disruptive contact with the legal system, says Kao. In reality, massage work is, like other forms of labor, something people turn to out of economic precarity. Oftentimes, massage workers choose massage parlor work over restaurant work or nail salons because it’s the most lucrative option. It is hard to categorize it within the spectrum of sex work because of its stigmatization, which means massage workers may or may not provide sexual services in addition to massages and often do not disclose whether they do. Furthermore, many massage workers do not identify as sex workers because they associate the practice with full services or street work.
Whether a massage worker is being trafficked or is providing consensual sexual services, their ability to lead safe livelihoods and receive the help they need is harmed by their ensnarement within the criminal justice system. Because of the criminalization of unlicensed massages, massage workers face the constant threat of dehumanizing contact with police and the court process, something that pushes them further into the margins and closer to conditions of trafficking. In New York, unlicensed work is often charged as a class E felony whereas prostitution is charged as a class B midemeanor. Those facing felony charges for unlicensed massage work may plead guilty to prostitution in order to receive lesser penalties, says Kao.
Red Canary Song points out that criminal records impede massage workers’ ability to find basic resources and to fight for better working conditions. Whether or not massage workers want to choose an alternative form of labor, their enmeshment in the criminal justice system prohibits it. The response to the Atlanta spa shootings — fortifying policing methods for people of the same demographic — exacerbates the inequalities they face.
“The reason why abolition is such a core value for Red Canary is because at the center of it, it’s this recognition that the criminal legal system is not working. Policing is not working,” explains Kao. “All it does is recreate the cycle of poverty for the most marginalized.”
In addition, the policing of unlicensed massage is an issue of racialized and gendered targeting that the Stop Asian Hate movement has not broadly grasped. According to a 2017 report from Urban Institute, between 2015 and 2016, 87% of people arrested for unlicensed massage work in NYC were noncitizen Asian women. Under New York state law, unlicensed practice is handled by the attorney general or the education department, but unlicensed massage specifically can also be prosecuted locally. A February 2022 report by Red Canary Song in collaboration with other organizations notes that decriminalization “will bring unlicensed massage work to parity with other licensed professions.”
Red Canary Song does not force workers to self-identify as either a sex worker or massage worker in order to receive aid. The criminalization of sex work means resources vary for each individual person and the legal barriers they face, but through Red Canary, workers receive aid regardless of whether they identify as survivors, sex workers, or masssage workers. The organizers understand that working toward a better future happens outside of the carceral system, through collective action, and that racial and economic justice are intertwined.
“At the end of the day, it’s work, and for some [massage workers], it’s empowering; for others it’s exhausting and oppressive,” adds Kao. “Their labor rights should be protected, and they should have the ability to make a fair wage and access the resources that they need.”
Understanding the Atlanta spa shootings and what Asian women face requires seeing the connections between labor rights and racism. Policing massage workers’ ability to do their jobs safely and fairly contributes to “workers’ reliance on criminalized work to survive,” as the Red Canary report states. It makes people vulnerable to the gendered and racialized oppression that stigmatizes their work and their lives, and it is what ultimately puts them further at risk of facing unimaginable spates of violence.
Abolition is a Fight Against the Surveillance State
Recognizing the differences in police targeting also allows organizers to figure out how to approach differences across Asian communities. In their outreach, members of AAOP know they have to begin conversations about abolition with specificity in order to avoid lumping all Asian American experiences together.
Stebbings says, “Our Southeast Asian communities may face threat of deportation or racial profiling alongside our South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh communities, whereas lighter skinned or East Asian members may not experience the same level of scrutiny and surveillance.”
That example of the racial profiling South and Southeast Asians experience has been central to shaping the nature of carceral oppression today and has reverbrating impacts. For this reason, it has been a crucial site of abolition work.
Sharmin Hossain, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi American abolitionist organizer and campaign director of the reproductive justice coalition Liberate Abortion, is from Queens, NYC. Her journey to abolition began from her experience growing up in a post-9/11 political landscape in which South Asian and Middle Eastern New Yorkers were heavily surveilled.
Following 9/11, the U.S. adopted vast counterterrorism measures, such as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, to surveil Muslim Americans. In New York, the NYPD identified a map of Muslim neighborhoods and communities and began deploying police informants to mosques, college campuses, and retail stores frequented by Muslim Americans. The widespread incidents of racial profiling and law enforcement abuse led to community organizations like Desis Rising Up and Moving to organize against mass detentions and deportations.
The surveillance programs also focused heavily on college students — informants infiltrated Muslim student groups at several City University of New York campuses as well as schools outside of New York like Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, a law clinic called Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) formed to provide legal services for those targeted by the surveillance programs. In 2012, an Associated Press investigation revealed the extent of the NYPD’s intelligence programs. The NYPD department responsible for the infiltrations was disbanded in 2014, and the City of New York settled lawsuits in 2016 and 2018.
For Hossain, who attended Hunter College of CUNY from 2010 to 2014, the campus and city organizing against NYPD informed her perception of the carceral system.
“For us as young Muslims, understanding the way the state surveillance apparatus worked was a huge part of our journey of growing into adulthood,” Hossain reveals. “We were growing up in a police state.”
Hossain adds that she learned about abolition as an approach to state surveillance through the work of Black grassroots organizations to organize against incarceration and police brutality: “I was a young organizer who was really transformed by these networks. And whether it was police accountability work or anti-surveillance work, we knew that abolition was the only way forward because we saw the way that the state had unfettered power and that it needed to be regulated but also abolished.”
The Coordinated Attack on Bodily Autonomy
The tactics of the post-9/11 surveillance programs have been expanded to shape another crisis: abortion.
Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, abortion advocates are preparing for a surveillance net in which law enforcement, tech companies, and private citizens are equipped to contribute to prosecuting abortion. The criminalization of abortion providers (and likely soon, abortion patients, as Jia Tolentino predicts) is a continuation of the carceral state’s enforcement of violence, which is most often applied to marginalized people. The state has an unimaginable capacity to track and control our lives. The erosion of bodily autonomy, from abortion to anti-trans legislation, is “a direct consequence of funding [the prison-industrial complex] instead of communities,” reads a toolkit published by Critical Resistance.
Abortion bans will magnify existing inequalities: Black women, who seek abortion the most, have less access to reproductive care, and working-class people who cannot afford interstate travel will suffer in a country that criminalizes poverty. Abolition allows us to view racial, economic, and reproductive justice in relation to each other and to see how money flowing into the carceral system for one purpose inevitably fuels its ability to harm marginalized people through another.
As with abortion and other social issues, Asian American abolitionists recognize that care and support comes from within our communities. Hossain points to abortion funds and networks where people are provided resources they cannot get through the state as well as advocacy and education for self-managed abortion. For Hossain, abortion and bodily autonomy are inherently threatened by the existence of the carceral system: “If we free people’s power to get access to abortion, that will require us to live in a state that is safe, and safety for us means we’re safe from military violence. We’re safe from war, we’re safe from policing, and then we’re safe from white supremacy.”
How Asian Americans Can Join the Abolition Movement
The pandemic has been deeply traumatic for Asian communities. Xenophobia and racism levied against Asian communities, especially at women and elders, has been a turning point. In demanding that the injustice of our deaths become more visible, we’re looking for our lives to be more visible too. In her essay collection “Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition,” Cathy Park Hong writes, “I don’t want to be left stranded in my rage.”
But in searching for a way out of this cycle of violence, Asian American abolitionists show why we cannot put our lives into the hands of police who purport to protect us and simultaneously target the most marginalized people in our communities. Organizers aim to create structures that people can join to meet each other’s needs. That may look like joining a tenants’ union or pen pal programs with incarcerated people. It might even just be talking to your neighbors and seeking avenues to reduce police contact.
“Connecting with your community is a great way to establish alternative remedies to problems you would normally call the police for,” advises Stebbings. “Calling your neighbor to ask them to turn down their music instead of calling the police to file a noise complaint is an abolitionist act.”
Working with people in your community to create a pool of resources is another effective method. Mutual aid funds took off during 2020 due to the pandemic, and they’ve become lasting efforts.
“It’s been amazing to witness the community fridges as a local organizing space and place and time that actually expands […] how people are relating to each other,” Hossain says. “We’re all we got.”
The abolition of police and prisons is not going to be an easy process, and this fact can be daunting. But there is comfort in knowing that it is a collective mobilization that has been led for decades by Black and Brown and queer organizers. Van Meter adds, “This work has been done before, and it’s been done by abolitionists like us.”
There is also a fundamental hope in abolition work that things can be better than they are now and that it is worth striving for a world that is better to our family and peers and neighbors.
Kao describes organizing as an uphill battle made worse by an on-coming avalanche. Yet backing out of the battle is not an option, and the small victories and sometimes even just being with the women Red Canary Song serves helps her stay in the fight: “There’s these moments of humanity that even if it’s bleak, it keeps me in the struggle.”
Cover credit: Jakob Rosen/Unsplash
Last modified: September 19, 2022