Going into President Barack Obama’s big immigration speech last week in San Francisco, few expected to hear anything beyond his usual pro-reform stump speech.
In the middle of Obama’s remarks, however, it was quickly apparent that there was nothing usual about this event.
Among the many people standing behind the president at the lectern was UC Berkeley alumnus and former CalSERVE ASUC Senator Ju Hong, an immigrant rights activist and current graduate student at San Francisco State University. Hong interrupted Obama, shouting for the president to issue an executive order halting deportations of undocumented immigrants.
Hong’s disruption of Obama’s speech was an act of defiance, a testament to the legacy of free speech and social justice that’s long been associated with a UC Berkeley education. Contrastingly, Willie Brown, a former mayor of San Francisco, took to his column in the San Francisco Chronicle to apologize for Hong’s “bad behavior … on behalf of the city.” Brown’s apology surely does not represent the city’s sizable immigrant population, and it misses the point completely.
As Hong is an alumnus of an institution famed for the civil disobedience of the 1960s’ Free Speech Movement, it makes sense that he, himself an undocumented immigrant from South Korea, felt compelled to speak out at the event. It’s further fitting that Hong’s disruption came less than a week before the 58th anniversary of one of American history’s best remembered moments of activism: when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Despite what Brown might think, Hong was also illuminating the plight of a severely marginalized group within the larger undocumented community.
Undocumented Korean Americans are often the forgotten faces among the more than 11 million immigrants in this country who lack formal citizenship. According to a report from the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, a Korean American-focused civil rights and immigrants advocacy organization, the number of undocumented Korean Americans rose by 31 percent between 2000 and 2011, making the group the eighth-largest undocumented population in the United States. When Hong interrupted Obama, he was giving a voice to those among us who are voiceless. Judging by the attention Hong has gotten from major media outlets across the country, he was largely successful in that mission.
For democratic societies to accomplish necessary social change, they sometimes need to transcend manners, formalities and conventional processes to induce action.
And if you’ll pardon the interruption, Ju Hong has something important to say.