Police Brutality: One of Many, Including Against Asian Americans

Sign of police brutality. Public domain.

Police brutality. For many marginalized communities, it is never a surprise when the news announces yet another incident where someone is injured or killed by a police officer. This is especially when the person shot and killed happens to be a person of color. The latest brutality I speak of is the shooting of Channara “Philly” Tom Pheap, one of four deaths by police killings this past year in Knoxville. When news hit of this awful incident, my stomach churned. I was livid, vision tinted blood. A man who was the same age as me, had a beautiful daughter, and was according to sources just trying to get his life back together. At least one police officer made the choice of pulling the trigger.

This is personal for me, and not just because I have family who at any point could be caught in an altercation with an aggressive officer who, because they can get away with it, shoots the person down. Or someone thinks they are [insert some awful, racist ideation of a “dangerous person” to the Orientalistic imagination], and decides to call the police on them. Instead of trying to do more to talk down, or at the very least subdue or use a taser, the gun becomes the solution to the problem. In the end, a life is gone, when in almost all cases does not need to be. Just because “police work is hard” does not mean we should not be talking about accountability. Especially when the trends show this is not commonplace for everyone.

It is personal for me because I have known a person who was killed by police brutality just a year ago, in a place near where I used to live.

The person, in this case, was not black or Latinx, people known to be subjected to this treatment, yet are not given the attention by the media enough.

This individual was Asian.

Recently, I have elected to not go to a local cafe with a “Police Lives Matter” sign. That sign is beyond a “no sh*t, Sherlock” for me. It erases the pain and suffering of marginalized communities and their history with law enforcement. Seeing the sign also reminded me too much of the fact I would not be able to reconnect with a soul I used to regularly talk with at a local-owned restaurant, because of police brutality. A reminder of the fact his kind-hearted mother who labored much for his success in this country, supported his dreams to help people, could not see her son again.

Part of me ached, knowing the owner of the cafe with the sign was Asian-blooded. It reminded me of how internalized racism has exemplified itself.  I wanted to support said woman’s business initially despite the “conservative” vibes I had regarding the place. I believed in supporting local businesses and also wanted to support Asian businesses, as well. After she started to post the sign, I stopped.

Remember when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out Dinesh D’Souza? Yeah. She was calling out his internalized racism. This is what it looks like.

Despite my protest of that sign, I really feel sorry for anyone who thinks such actions will protect them or their family in the long-game. In reality, any person from marginalized communities or ancestries could be next. American citizens are being taken in by our immigration enforcement agencies, not just refugees. Immigration enforcement targeting refugees as they have been the past years and especially now is wrong as it is, a topic which deserves its own post in the future. The rod spares no one, especially marginalized communities whose Otherness is painted clearly on their body and face. At the same time, I understand the game of survival at play and some become complicit in oppression over it. Still, because of that sign, I had no business at the restaurant in question. Understanding is not the same as agreeing or even excusing.

Someone told me that White people can be roughed up by policemen. This claim completely misses the point at best, is problematic at worse.

Police-on-person violence is not as likely to happen to a White person in America unless they fit the archetype of a low-income person from an “underclass neighborhood” (tattoos all over, appearances associated with aggression, and so forth). Even then, the chances of such people being subjected to violence by law enforcement are small compared to people of color (POC). How many times have you seen policemen walk up to a White man who committed a crime, and engage him like an uncle or older brother giving a pep talk? When that person is POC, how often do you see that? If anyone is honest with themselves, chances are, it does not happen often. Refreshing as it is to hear about the African-American kid who was selling hot dogs, found and taught by law enforcement how to get a permit to sell the hot dogs and avoid trouble, this kindness is not commonplace.

Now, if someone is thinking in the back of their head, “the mixed-girl is just sticking up for her cousins, I shouldn’t take her seriously” –  why not look up Eminem’s statements about his own privilege? For all his misogynistic lyrics in some of his songs, many of my friends privy to the Rap/Hip-Hop scene may not listen to such songs (for similar reasons I will not). This misgiving regarding Eminem’s music aside, I have heard of how POC respect his frankness on the topic of his White privilege. Especially recently. He became a rising star from his connections in the black community (via Dr. Dre), from talent, and the fact he uses that talent to call attention to issues affecting the very people who helped him achieve stardom. His latest album, Untouchable, is about just that. No one has to have my background or a far less privileged experience to do what is right. So yes, this is personal for me, but the police brutality I speak against affects us all.

Anyone who tells me that I should not be worried about this or care for this because I am “mostly White” can shove it. (Yes, I have heard this, the people unaware of how problematic it is to use this sort of logic to silence me.)

I hate that I have to still explain this to some of my White friends, several who have distanced themselves from me for simply bringing any of this into a conversation. It is something I do not enjoy having to discuss with them over and over when they link me to an article about a police officer and POC altercation, only to often times side with the police. Yet, I acknowledge I am white-adjacent compared to my cousins, so it is my responsibility to be collecting anyone who speaks out of turn on this subject. For them, for my POC friends in black and brown circles, and for the greater good and for love.

To have a conversation about implicit biases, racism, and systematic oppression is part of the Work. So I do it because more of us need to be doing it, I should have started on the conversations much sooner, and more people probably should start now. If more of us did it a little more, the world would be a better place.

Police brutality happens. And it happens to Asians despite what perpetrators and stereotypes of the racist “model minority” myth might make one believe. It is especially a problem for the Asians who are heavily underrepresented in discussions of Asian American identities (such as South and Southeast Asians). I am ethnically ambiguous and lighter-skinned/passing woman, so I am not as likely to be directly on the receiving end of a gunshot by police by the oppressive practices and narratives surrounding. The several times I had felt singled out by the authorities this past year still does not compare to what many South and Southeast Asians are subjected to in their lives.

Even when a news story covers the angle of the people who are speaking truth to power, calling out the systematic oppression via law enforcement, Othering of the darker-skinned Asian is evident. Anyone who looks at the picture in the news article I linked at the start of this post can see this. They can see this by the emphasis of the police’s point-of-view in the article itself, with only a brief mention of the topic of police brutality in the video coverage of the same news. Often enough, both “liberal” and “conservative” news sources favor the police’s narrative over the people subjected to police brutality.

No one needs to even read the article to spot the bias inherent in the story. All anyone needs to do is see the image they post of Channara Tom Pheap. This does not show the humanity of the man that the picture with his beautiful daughter shows in the article here, an article that does more to center the man killed and the activists who speak out against what happened. Activists who demand a fair investigation and process for making sure law enforcement are held accountable by the community.

Too often, people show mugshots of people on the “other side of the law” as a way to bring sympathy for the police and dehumanize the people accused of a crime. I especially notice this with POC subjects of the news. Sometimes, one even finds black and white photos of an ethnically ambiguous person in a story, the story-spinners fully intending to invoke the image of an “Other.” Still, the scales of racist propaganda err toward anti-Black imagery, such as that of “Willie Horton,” another case meant to dehumanize the POC subject in these stories regarding law versus ethnic minorities. This anti-Black imagery in-kind spills into the Otherness of darker-skinned POC who are seen as “less White.” This leads to more people feeling justified in their oppression.

As it turns out, “Willie” was a fake name for the person of interest as part of propaganda playing off racist narratives, with the sole purpose of invoking the socially-conditioned fear of that “Other” (Narrative Ethics, p. 324). No one really knew who this person was, only the story racialized narratives told of him. George H.W. Bush, though he was initially one of the more vocal Republicans against the current administration, something that made him even vote Democrat in 2016, his history with playing off a racialized narrative for votes has yet to be addressed. This propaganda certainly influenced the election between George H.W. Bush and his opponent, Michael Dukakis. That imagery was evoked with the intention of spinning public opinion of Dukakis as being “too soft” on crime, to encourage romanticization of America’s already Draconic law enforcement policies. 

These mugshots are no accident and succeed in perpetuating racist stereotypes regarding POC. They show someone determined criminal before due process is even exercised. This is a very real experience many black and brown people in this country face on a regular basis, especially the darker their skin. South and Southeast Asians are also not immune to this the darker their visage, violence against East Asians also a reality. Images such as the linking of the first story involving Channara Tom Pheap, William Horton, and many others are both a symptom and a perpetrator of a larger issue regarding the treatment of black and brown bodies, of POC as a whole. These sort of things not only make it easier to dehumanize a person but also makes people look the other way when POC receive unfair treatment by law enforcement. This reality is especially so the more adjacent one is perceived to Blackness and indigenous, the ultimate others in American imagery.

One day, I want to wake up in a world where I do not need to worry about whether a cousin will be shot by the police. I want us to do better. In the near future, expect me to write a letter to an editor in Knoxville about this topic.


Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: