By Justine Lee
In the heart of Chinatown, feelings of resilience and solidarity reached all corners of Portsmouth Square; nearly 800 people gathered for the first ever Rally for Inclusion – a stand against recent anti-immigration, refugee and Muslim policies and a call to end all forms of discrimination.
The rally was in part a gathering to remember the Chinese Exclusion Act on the 135th anniversary of its passing, jolting people to reflect on its indelible impact on the Chinese American community, and the dire consequences of all institutionalized discrimination, xenophobia, and racism.
The rally drew people of all ages and backgrounds – seniors from the Chinatown Tenants Association, students from SF State University, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University, trade unionists from UNITE/HERE Local 2 and United Educators, Japanese American concentration camp survivors, Arab Americans, Muslims, and more. They came ready to take a stand, holding signs that read: “No Walls,” “Refuge for Refugees,” “Immigrants Built America,” “Exclusion Never Again,” and “We all belong.”
While the issues were heavy, the rally kicked off with a charismatic welcome from the Reverend Norman Fong, an uplifting performance from Charlie Chin and his band Seniors for Peace and Justice, and a special Chinese Lion Dance. Emcees Eddy Zheng and Mabel Teng took it from there, warming up the crowd with a simple chant: “Inclusion Yes! Exclusion No!” They also shared the good news that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had unaminously adopted the resolution declaring May 6 a Day of Inclusion. Several current and former members of the SF Board of Supervisors were in the audience to show their support. The Emcees also announced that similar resolutions had been adopted by the city councils in several California cities including Alameda, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Monterey Park, Oakland and Sacramento. City Councils in Milwaukee, WI, Pittsburgh, PA and Seattle, WA have also adopted May 6 as a Day of Inclusion.
In between the chants, the speakers were a representative group; each being able to speak to a specific form and time period marked by discrimination. They generated enthusiasm and a sense of urgency among the crowd by sharing personal stories that both moved people and educated them.
Activist Helen Zia took the crowd through America’s long history of discrimination, telling the story of Vincent Chin, a Chinese man who was beaten to death in a Detroit suburb in 1982, a full 100 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act had passed. The killers thought Vincent was Japanese and thus blamed him for the loss of their jobs in the auto industry Chinese Exclusion Act. The killers paid his family, but did not serve any time in prison; Zia along with other community organizers stood up for Chin and called for a civil rights trial, but they did not get it.
Zia urged all people of conscience to stand and insist: “Trump, tear down your wall! Stop the detentions, deportations, and exclusionary laws! We say Yes to an inclusive rainbow America, Yes to liberty and justice for all!”
Echoing Zia’s message, Sameena Usman, the Government Relations Coordinator for the Council on American and Islamic Relations in San Francisco, spoke on behalf of the Muslim community, the group most targeted by the immigration ban. She pointed out the devastating increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the past year and the need to work together to end it.
In her closing, Usman said: “We need to return to values of respect, decency, and inclusion. We must stand together and work together to achieve these goals. I look forward to fighting the good fight in unity with all of you. We are truly Stronger Together.”
Dr. Satsuki Ina, who was born at the Tule Lake concentration camp, spoke as someone who had the experience of extensive discrimination first hand.
She reflected on that time, saying: “135 years ago…75 years ago, there were no voices that stood up for us as we were torn from our families, denied citizenship, forced to attend segregated schools, denied employment and housing. No one stood up for us when we were forcefully removed from our homes and held in prison camps with an indeterminate sentence.” This acted as an acknowledgment that while we’re in a different time, there is no telling how the ripple effects of discrimination might play out.
Jean Teodoro, a spoken word artist and activist from Youth Speaks, performed a piece about the fascination, clumsiness, pride, and embarrassment of being bi-lingual in America. For context, Teodoro shared his ancestors’ experience being discriminated against as Filipinos in the U.S.
Hong Mei Pang, a young member of the Chinese for Affirmative Action, spoke first in Mandarin, then in English, with a message of solidarity. Pang said with conviction: ” We are here today to build cities different from how we built the railroads—we are here today to build sanctuaries that embrace the 11 million undocumented people for their humanity rather than destroy immigrant families for profit. We are here to stay, and we will break down the wall that separates immigrants from our humanity. ”
Chito Cuellar, Vice President of the Hotel Restaurant Employees Union Local 2, an El Salvadorian immigrant demanded the administration “stop terrorizing our communities,” and led a familiar chant: “Si Se Puede” (or “Yes We Can”).
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a representative of Jewish Voice for Peace, took the conversation beyond the obvious and pointed out the thread that connects each one of us. Gottlieb said: “We are here to say, all of us or none of us.”
To close the rally out, Zheng and Teng directed a series of positive chants to tie together all the themes from the day and invited the crowd to gather around the stage for a group selfie. It was an auspicious beginning for a re-invigorated, better informed community with new coalitions to move forward together to end exclusion and champion inclusion.
Justine Lee is a writer, radio producer and dinner host.