One of us is in his forties, and has been involved in the Asian American movement for half his life, as an activist and as a writer. The other is in her early twenties, and is now an organizer with Student Immigrant Movement for immigrant rights, most notably in her fight for the passage of the DREAM act. We have never met in person. What unites us is our commitment to justice, and to struggle within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
A few months ago, we were invited to be keynote speakers at the East Coast Asian American Students’ Union (ECAASU) annual conference, to be held in Amherst, MA. Vijay has been the keynote speaker at three previous ECAASU meetings (1998, 1999, 2003), and this was Lai Wa’s first opportunity. We were obviously very pleased to be invited to share our perspective with the 1,500 delegates from colleges across the United States. Lai Wa was prepared to share her work on the DREAM act, and Vijay wanted to talk about the recent upsurge in the Arab World and its impact on youth in the United States.
Things turned out differently when we found out who now funds ECAASU: the U. S. military, the coast guard and the CIA. Both of us felt uneasy about this, but neither wanted to walk away from ECAASU. The organization was formed in 1978 to organize Asian Americans to defend the gains of the Civil Rights movement (in particular affirmative action, since ECAASU was formed right after the Bakke decision of the U. S. Supreme Court). It was heir to the long tradition of left wing and anti-war work in the Asian American community from the 1960s. Asian Americans had been crucial participants in the Third World Strike at San Francisco State College to inaugurate Ethnic Studies, and had been a militant part of the anti-war work during the Vietnam era. We wanted to represent that tradition against the military’s war making.
Lai Wa reached out to the ECAASU National Board, asking about the funding. She was told that it’s hard to fund a conference of this magnitude, particularly since the cultural shows often charge more than they recoup via ticket sales. A board member told Lai Wa, “We think the best way to change these organizations [meaning the military] is to help them achieve more diversity and understanding of our issues – not to ostracize them. And give them an opportunity to learn about our issues, think about our issues, and recruit from a more diverse pool of applicants.”
Lai Wa spoke at the first plenary panel, on Friday the 18th of February. She pointed to the wars conducted by the U. S. in Asia and to the U. S. bases in colonized Asia (from Guam to Hawaii). Lai Wa worried about the disproportionate number of people of color in the armed forces, who carry the burden of fighting our wars. “Let me make clear that my main point is not to disrespect or criticize the veterans here today,” she said. “Our veterans should be respected and honored. What I am criticizing is rather the source of ECAASU’s money, rooted from a military-industrial complex which has executed U. S. imperialism within our Asian Pacific Islander American communities and abroad.”
Later, a sound engineer from UMASS told Vijay that he had been told to cut off Lai Wa’s microphone. The engineer refused. He would not do it for anyone. Besides, he smiled, some of the backstage workers agreed with Lai Wa.
The next day, during the career fair, Lai Wa was approached by one of the military cadets initially asking about her reasons for having “accosted” the military, but she soon realized he was not interested in an honest conversation. He began to ask her for her personal information and how many times she had spoken in public. The situation felt unsafe for Lai Wa. Thankfully, a few individuals were around the table to help support her and defuse the situation.
That evening, on February 19, Vijay gave his address. Two military men spoke before him. In the wings they had had a pleasant chat. One of them had read Vijay’s recent writings from Counterpunch on the Arab Revolt. They agreed on some things. Then the navy man went out and talked about the excitement of flying navy jets. It was a recruitment pitch. The Navy had bought the right to proselytize to the Asian American students. Vijay followed him with the history of ECAASU, and then went into a discussion about the nation’s priorities. Too much money was going toward the armed forces. “The Republican Congress is trying to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, and maintain funding for the Defense Department to sponsor Nascar racers,” he said. A military man in the audience muttered loudly, “That’s not true.” “It is awkward to be at an event funded by the military and the CIA,” Vijay said. “Our movement began as a critique of war-making. It has now fallen into the lap of the war-makers.”
Both of us got loud standing ovations, and many cheers in support of their view. It angered the military men. When Vijay left the stage a young Coast Guardsmen came up to him with his finger waggling. He wanted to say something about how the armed forces create leadership and respect. It was hard to take him seriously as his body disrespected someone twice his age. Vijay brushed him off.
Some sympathetic students asked how ECAASU should fund its conference absent the military money. It’s both a real question and a symptom of the problem. We have become inurned to the massive subvention to the military, which includes its right to encroach upon our cultural and political spaces. The SuperBowl is now brought to the U. S. public through the Defense budget, and so too is ECAASU. Colleges once funded conferences like ECAASU, but they have no funds. Perhaps the conferences need to be pared down, with less corporate entertainment – more movement entertainment. A party promoter has bought the South Asian Students Association conference. It is no longer what it once was. On the other hand, the Asian American Movement Conference at Michigan does not rely upon party promoters or the CIA. Its organizers work hard to find money from the colleges, and then use it as best as they can.
The National Board of ECAASU wanted Lai Wa to write a statement disassociating herself from ECAASU. In a flurry, the National Board then sent out an email disassociating themselves from our keynote addresses. “To members in our audience who are in the military,” the National Board said, “we apologize for any offense our keynotes’ remarks may have caused.” With this apology, the National Board hoped that “you will not let the content of the keynotes affect your views of our organization and that you will continue to participate in [i. e. fund] ECAASU in the future.” What had happened, apparently, was that the military funders refused to pay their promised contribution because they accused the National Board of breach of contract. We made the space less tenable for recruitment. Their infomercial had been disrupted. The military believes that it can throw taxpayer dollars around to constrain the First Amendment. It is a remarkable display of arrogance. The military paid for “peace,” and they got a struggle.
Lai Wa Wu graduated from Smith College in 2008 with a degree in Anthropology. After college, she worked as an international union organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in California and Missouri. She is now a program coordinator at MIT Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) and a volunteer organizer with the Student Immigrant Movement. She could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College. He is the author of two books in Asian American Studies, both of which were chosen by the Village Voice as books of the year: Karma of Brown Folk (2000) and Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (2001). He could be reached at email@example.com.