Bao Phi is a Minneapolis-based poet who for years has been contributing poems and commentary to diaCRITICS, and has been featured at numerous DVAN events. In light of the current events of May 2020–the George Floyd murder by Minneapolis police officers and the subsequent events of unrest that have followed–DVAN’s directors reached out to writers we know in the Twin Cities area, hoping to gain more awareness and hear from those who actually live in the area. The following is an essay by Bao Phi, shared with us on May 30, 2020.
The protest is on 38th and Chicago, at the site where a white cop murdered a black man, George Floyd. I am very familiar with this intersection: I grew up not far away, in Phillips, and currently live even closer. I’ve stopped in Cup Foods for chicken, iced tea, the occasional UPS package held behind the counter. The city council rep for this ward is a Black Trans woman, Andrea Jenkins, who also happens to be an accomplished poet. I wear a mask and gloves and try to keep my distance, as my daughter had a fever this past weekend and we could not get her a COVID test until that afternoon. The protest is peaceful, and the organizers are trying to remind everyone to socially distance themselves responsibly. I can’t concentrate. This intersection, central to my life and so many of my neighbor’s lives, is the site of an unspeakably cruel murder of a Black man at the hands of Minneapolis police. Once again, people in the Black community suffer due to state sanctioned violence.
One of the police officers, who stood and did nothing, was Asian. I wonder if Black people will look upon anyone from our race with anger; I wonder if Asian people will take the side of the police and anti-blackness, or if we will be overwhelmed with shame. I wonder if our communities will remember the coalitions between Hmong, Black, and other nonwhite peoples during the fight for Justice for Fong Lee, a Hmong teenager murdered by a white police officer who not only went unpunished, but was awarded a Medal of Valor for it. I wonder if our communities will remember how Black people and other non-Asian communities showed up for us, and also, how Asians showed up at protests against the murder of Philando Castile, No DAPL, and other movements. I am not saying these movements erase the complicity of this Asian cop. Nor am I trying to compare pain. I am saying this history exists, whether or not we fulfil its potential.
I’ve sworn myself off of what little social media I still use, because I am exhausted by people performing their politics, particularly by non-Black people not from here. I alternate between wanting to support people, and wishing everyone would be quiet. There are Asians who are doubling down on their anti-Blackness. There are Asians who are decrying anti-Black Asians. Who is being genuine? Who is capitalizing on a profoundly painful, traumatic moment to make themselves look woke? Above all, who is actually being helpful? A Black man is dead, murdered by a white racist police officer, in a system that carries with it 400 years of anti-Blackness. What good is social media except driving one another crazy.
At first, I don’t wake, because the helicopters and sirens are nothing new – not as a Vietnamese refugee survivor of war, which I am, nor a Vietnamese American who grew up in an economically devastated and overly policed community, which I also am. So it’s not until a bit later that I learn that parts of these neighborhoods are afire. The Cub Foods I worked at as a teen has been gutted. The urban strip mall, where I spent so much of my childhood waiting for my mother as she worked at the fabric store, is a burned and empty shell. Much of it is caused by outsiders: organized alt-right provocateurs. Police officers are apparently refusing to defend the community. For my part, I don’t fear the people in my neighborhood nearly as much as I fear armed white supremacists.
I’m worried about how my daughter will react. She is already afraid of police, that they may hurt someone she knows, or sometimes asks if they will take a family member and kick them out of the country. Months ago, a child had brought a BB gun to school, and the kids were forced to go into Code Red. Doors locked, lights out, hiding. My daughter, who has high anxiety, was traumatized. Now, whenever she hears a creak in the floor, water running in the pipes, or wind blowing against our window, she asks if someone is breaking in.
My father had written and illustrated an adorable page about his favorite childhood pets for my ten year old daughter. At the bottom he wrote, “this feeling of childhood only comes once, enjoy it!” I was going to go to our neighborhood Target to get a frame for it, but then almost on cue, my daughter, who is doing an online check-in with her classmates, says “our Target has been burned to the ground,” and I remember. She says this in a matter-of-fact tone, and not for the first time I wonder how many pragmatic survival mechanisms have been passed onto her. Her COVID test came back negative, and it’s a sign of the times that this was not at the absolute top of my concerns.
Due to the unrest, the electric company cut the power in all of Phillips, which is where I was raised, and where my parents, both in the high risk category for COVID-19, still live. During its heyday, Phillips contained the largest concentration of urban Indigenous people in North America. Every day was a reminder of the broken treaties and lies inflicted on the people who were on this land first. My dad, 80 years old, and a war veteran, uses a Nebulizer to help with his asthma, but there’s no power, and it’s pollen season. He’s been to the ER twice in the past five weeks. My sister and I talk and strategize. I offer to go to Target to look for a power bank that he can use overnight, then remember, again, the torrents of water running out of that Target into the parking lot from the sprinklers still running, fanning water from the ceiling to put out fires that have been extinguished for three days.
Years ago, I was struggling to find a place to live for myself and my daughter, in an unfriendly housing market where I was competing against dual income couples. I was visiting my mom. She asked me how it was going, and what I was looking for. I didn’t tell her I always think about all the places I had lived. Wherever the rent was cheapest, which meant my neighbors were always mostly nonwhite. The accidental fire I set when I was living in section 8 housing, how my neighbors side-eyed me for making them stand out in the street while the fire department did their thing, but never made it racial. I didn’t tell her about the one place where a friend sent me hand me down bullet proof vests to stack against my thin walls, in the hopes they would slow random stray bullets. I just said, I want to find a place where I can safely raise my daughter. My mom looked at me and said to me, in Vietnamese, “No place is safe.”
As I type this, my neighbors and fellow citizens are protesting, again, in the streets. I am sitting tonight out, because my daughter is with me. She was seven when she marched with many other children for justice for Philando Castile. Now ten, she just picked out a teddy bear to leave at the memorial for George Floyd at the site of his murder, three blocks away from the community center where she went to preschool, afterschool, and the summer program before funding cuts ended the latter.
My mother calls. I don’t tell her about the times I have, and will, join the protesters. She doesn’t like it when I protest in the streets, not because of anything political, but because as a Vietnamese person, she has seen firsthand that you can be punished for speaking out. Men in uniform, men with power, men with authority, can take you away and your loved ones will never see you again.
Even though I don’t tell her, she knows I go out there anyway. And she doesn’t try to stop me. Both my parents have told me, throughout their lives, that it is important to stand for what’s right. Both have told me stories about my ancestors, some of them trouble makers and dissenters, resisting French and Chinese colonial occupation. And then there’s my father, who fought alongside the American soldiers, a fact many on the same side of the political spectrum as I disapprove of.
If all of this sounds contradictory, that’s because it is. Sometimes I think being Vietnamese in America is to be an argument.
Days ago, another Black man was cruelly murdered at the hands of police. Here. His name, George Floyd. Again, George Floyd. The brutal anti-Blackness that is a cornerstone of this country continues, during a pandemic that disproportionately affects nonwhite people. I asked myself long ago which side I wanted to be on. I keep asking. I’ll put my daughter to bed. As I do so, I know members of Black led organizations will be up all night strategizing. I know my friends and fellow Asian Americans, in groups such as Rad Azns and AsiansforBlackLives, will be organizing our people as well. I know Minnesotans of all races and ages will be putting out fires, sweeping up the streets, handing out food and water to one another.
Tomorrow will be another day I wake up and see the myriad communities I am a part of and care about doing their best to stand, support one another, and rebuild. To say, this man’s life, George Floyd, this Black man’s life, mattered. And this is where we live.
Bao Phi is a poet, spoken word artist, children’s book writer, arts administrator, and father. Born in Vietnam, he was raised in South Minneapolis where he lives with his daughter.
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