Lorraine Longhi Protesters carry signs saying "Stop Asian Hate" at a rally outside of Chandler City Hall on Sunday, March 21, 2021.
Lorraine Longhi

“This is our country. We don’t want to be seen as foreigners in our own country.”

Speaking to a crowd of hundreds huddled together on the sidewalk in front of Chandler City Hall on Sunday, former Chandler councilmember Sam Huang had a clear message for the crowd: “Stop Asian hate.”

It’s a message that has rung out in recent weeks, echoed across social media and at protests across the country in the wake of a shooting that killed eight people, six of them Asian women, in Atlanta, Georgia, last week.

The attack in Georgia was the tragic culmination of a year where hate crimes against Asians rose by nearly 150 percent in America’s largest cities, according to an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism

On Sunday, Huang spoke at a rally organized by current Chandler council member OD Harris, which was planned in conjunction with other demonstrations that unfolded across the country to show support for the Asian community.

Harris said Sunday that the crowd in front of him was the largest protest gathering of Asian-Americans in the city’s history.

According to Census data, Chandler, a suburb of 260,000 people east of Phoenix, now boasts the largest percentage of Asians in Arizona. They make up 12% of the city’s residents, a rate three times higher than the state’s overall Asian population.

While Huang says it’s not the first time Asian people in the Valley have come together to raise their voices, Sunday’s protest took on a different significance in the wake of recent events.

“People are scared they could be the next one. I feel the same way. I could be the next one,” Huang told The Copper Courier. “If we don’t speak out, who’s going to speak out for us?”

Recent History of Asian Activism in Arizona

Huang was born in Taiwan and has lived in Chandler for 14 years, serving as a councilmember from 2017-2021.

Before joining the council, Huang helped organize a protest in 2016 in front of the Arizona State Capitol to protest the arrest and conviction of Peter Liang, a New York police officer that Chinese Americans said was being scapegoated by the NYPD. 

The protest outside the Capitol was just one in a series of demonstrations that Chinese-Americans staged in 35 cities across the country to protest Liang’s conviction, the Arizona Republic reported at the time.

Huang said that, while the Liang protest was well-attended, many Asian-Americans were still hesitant or afraid to attend at the time. 

Sunday’s protest in Chandler was a marked departure from 2016, he said.

After the Atlanta killings—and in a year when so many Asian-Americans have been the target of violent hate crimes—the issue has become personal, Huang says.

“Racial discrimination is not new, but what’s new is the frequency of hate crimes against Asian Americans,” he said. “This time, I think people are afraid that they’ll become the next victim.”

A protester holds up a sign saying “Racism is a virus” at a rally outside Chandler City Hall on Sunday, March 21, 2021.
Lorraine Longhi

‘Unprecedented’ but ‘Necessary’ Protests

For Arlene Chin, a former Tempe City councilmember and the first Asian-American woman to serve on the council, the demonstrations fly in the face of long-held and inaccurate stereotypes about Asian people as docile, silent, or subservient.

Chin, who is running for a spot on Tempe’s council next year, has lived in the city for 47 years. For 40 of those years, she’s been involved in community service, first serving on the mayor’s Youth Advisory Commission when she was in high school.

Chin says generalizations about Asian people being removed from political activism are dangerous and damaging.

“I know some very active and involved Asian-Americans, and I’m seeing more and more,” she said. “The Asian-American community is not monolithic.”

Still, she says the current cultural moment is different.

The divisive climate that has emerged throughout the country has been disheartening for communities of color during the last four years, Chin said.

Advocates have attributed the recent rise in violence against Asians to divisive rhetoric, including from former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly placed the blame for the COVID-19 pandemic on China. 

Trump’s rhetoric around the pandemic, which has included repeatedly labeling it the “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu,” ultimately caused racist anti-Asian hashtags to spike on social media, according to a report from The Washington Post.

“I think what has occurred in the last four years is, the level of divisiveness was unprecedented,” Chin said. “The reaction, while unprecedented, is necessary. We need to come back to a balance in our country. We cannot accept this hate.”

Chin credited Huang and Harris’ work together on Sunday’s protest as a shining example of community leaders from marginalized communities coming together to work for the common good.

“I think this last year it’s been magnified for us, for the BIPOC community,” she said. “Enough’s enough.”

Harris told The Copper Courier that he hoped Sunday’s demonstration provided a platform for Asian-Americans to know they could have a safe space to exercise their voice without fear of violence or retribution.

“That’s what I want to encourage for Asian-Americans out there. Lift your voice,” Harris said. “This is your movement. This is your time. This is your season.”

Protests To Continue This Weekend

Two more rallies to protest violence against Asians are planned for Saturday: one in the morning at the Arizona State Capitol in downtown Phoenix, and one later on Saturday in Mesa’s Asian business district, which has seen an explosion of Asian-owned businesses in the last decade.

Saturday morning’s protest at the Capitol is being organized by Susan Liu with the Stop Asian Hate Alliance. Speakers will include Liu, Harris, newly-elected Phoenix council member Yassamin Ansari.

Saturday evening’s protest is being hosted in part by the Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce. 

Vicente Reid, CEO of the Asian Chamber, told The Copper Courier that community leaders began brainstorming ways to show support for the Asian community after hearing about the death of Juanito Falcon, a 74-year-old Filipino man and Phoenix resident who died last month after being punched in the face and suffering severe head injuries. 

Falcon’s family told The Arizona Republic that they believed he was targeted for being Asian.

As the Asian Chamber and other community leaders began planning a peaceful march and vigil for Saturday, the decision to have the demonstration in Mesa was an easy one, Reid says.

After the closure of the Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix in 2018, many saw the Asian business district in Mesa as a natural successor. In the decade since Mekong Plaza opened on Dobson Road and Main Street, the area has seen a 600% growth in Asian businesses.

“It’s kind of the last place for our community to gather and call our own in Phoenix,” he said. “They took away the Chinese Cultural Center.”

Reid also attributed the growing organizing power of the Asian community in Arizona to sheer numbers. Asian immigrants were the fastest-growing group of migrants in Arizona and the nation, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data.

The Stop Asian Hate Alliance will hold its protest on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Wesley Bolin Memorial Park, 1690 W. Jefferson St. Liu estimates that approximately 400 people will be in attendance.

The Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce will hold its march on Saturday at 6 p.m. outside Mekong Plaza, 66 S. Dobson Road. As of Friday, nearly 200 people had RSVP’d for the event on Facebook, with hundreds more marked as interested in attending.

“This is our home. This is ours. This is our community,” Reid said. “We’re strong here, and we want solidarity between all communities within this district.”

Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.