Social justice in grief: Oakland community honors Atlanta shooting victims in AAPI vigil

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Oakland Rising/Courtesy

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A week after eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent — were killed in a mass shooting at three spas in Atlanta on March 16, roughly 750 people in the Oakland community gathered to mourn the victims in a masked and socially distanced vigil. The vigil was organized by Oakland Rising, a multiracial collaborative among nine organizations focused on building the political and electoral power of working-class communities of color in Oakland. Other organizations and individuals outside of the Oakland Rising collaborative also contributed to the planning and execution of the event.

At the vigil, participants formed a makeshift altar in a row of glowing candles, bright bouquets of fresh flowers and handwritten prayer cards. Korean folk drums sounded as speakers expressed their grief with Korean, Chinese and American Sign Language translators present for the audience.

One of the speakers and planners of the event was Elizabeth Suk, the interim executive director of Oakland Rising. Suk explained that the event was created to honor the victims and provide a space for the community to grieve and heal, both for the victims of this shooting and of the other murders and hate crimes that have happened in Oakland and across the country.

“We need to create that space because, you know, our city is not going to do that,” Suk said. Suk alleged that the city hasn’t just failed Asian residents; it’s failed everyone by allowing murder, death and disinvestment to run rampant.

“The vigil was a moment for us to all kind of collectively come together and grieve and mourn because you can’t really begin to heal until you’ve done that,” Suk added.

Oakland is already on track for a record-breaking year of homicides. There have been 41 homicides in Oakland so far this year, compared to 13 at the same time last year. There have also been a series of attacks on elderly Asian-Americans in Oakland’s Chinatown, including the attack against a 91-year old man that was caught on camera.

These events are in line with a national trend of anti-Asian incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 incidents of discrimination against Asians in the United States during the past year. This number doesn’t include the many that are not reported.

According to a survey from The New York Times, these incidents increased as former President Donald Trump began referring to COVID-19 as the “China-virus,” establishing rhetoric that activists have said has contributed to anti-Asian sentiments.

“We really wanted to bring the elements of grieving, you know, based in Korean and Chinese traditions given that the Asian women who were killed were Korean and Chinese,” Suk said. “This is what you do when you have people who are murdered. You come together, you grieve, you hold each other and you find a way to express that; and then, we can then begin to build from there.”

Given the rise in crimes targeting Asians and given her own identity as an Asian-American woman, Suk expressed her own fears for her community.

“I’m scared for Asian elders,” Suk said. She called her mother who lives in Georgia and encouraged her to travel differently, asking her to bring a different and greater awareness to her surroundings. She also spoke about concerns for herself and her children, and about the anxiety that comes with knowing how randomly these events can happen. But Suk also brought up the importance of community and healing in dealing with these challenges. She agreed that allocating time to grieve and heal is an essential component to social justice movements.

“This is something that I think we tend to forget that we have to do because we are always in a place where the urgency of the moment dictates what we should be doing,” Suk said. “This is a moment that we need to really understand that true transformative justice comes from that acknowledgment. It’s an instrument of what it is that you’re going through. And then you can begin to really think about what it is that you’re trying to change.”

Our culture has a tendency to want to be as efficient as possible — to move quickly and with urgency. But Suk explains that taking time to name and understand how something is hurting you is not a loss of time in these movements; instead, it’s the contrary. Allocating time to grieve and heal improves the efficiency and efficacy of movements, strengthening the bonds of the community and helping members pinpoint the places to focus on effecting change.

Our culture has a tendency to want to be as efficient as possible — to move quickly and with urgency. But Suk explains that taking time to name and understand how something is hurting you is not a loss of time in these movements; instead, it’s the contrary.

Michelle “Mush” Lee, who performed poetry at the vigil, echoed a similar sentiment.

“It’s absolutely essential because, you know, grief isn’t a static thing. It’s through grief that we are able to return to the work renewed, and frankly, we return to it with much more clarity and commitment to the vision,” Lee said. “I would go so far as to say any individual or institution that doesn’t create intentional space for your grief and sorrow is probably not an institution that’s going to authentically create a space for your liberation.”

Lee is a cultural affairs commissioner for the city of Oakland and the founding CEO of Whole Story Group, a consulting firm that works with companies, organizations and individual leaders to develop narrative strategies and deliver organizational culture training.

In a video posted by Oakland Rising, Mush Lee is filmed performing at the vigil to the background of Korean folk drums. In her performance, she repeated the phrase “I’m an Asian woman,” a litany that she explains was both declarative and restorative for her and the audience.

“I struggle with my own identity, as most people who have kind of hyphenated identities do,” Lee said. “It’s like, this is who I am, and I know who I am. There’s a certain pride in it, but there’s also a certain kind of restorative piece that happens with declaring that again and again when I’ve lived my whole life either running from it or being made to be ashamed of that identity, that part of myself.”

Lee mentioned in the video that the vigil was a way of expressing ‘han,’ a Korean term which she describes as “an intersection of passion and rage and hurt and grief and sorrow and fire and energy all combined into a single word.” She spoke about how ‘han’ already has a strong presence in Korean communities and culture.

“(Han) is an emotional response and recitation of a people that have been put through war; that have fought off colonialism; and (been) you know, unnaturally divided,” Lee said.

Lee is referring to Korea’s division at the 38th parallel after World War II, creating the separation of North Korea and South Korea. The effects of this split are still felt by Korean communities, and she relates this feeling to those expressed during the vigil. She said that the feeling remains so integral and present in the Korean identity that movies and stories are still written about this split.

“It’s almost like the heart being ripped out from the body or the leg being torn from the torso. And so we internalize even the cutting of our physical homeland, and we take it in and it becomes personal,” said Lee. “And so ‘han’ is that. It’s a little bit of all of that. It’s love; it’s rage; it’s sorrow; it’s nostalgia; it’s grief; it’s a longing for wholeness.”

The vigil was a space for many people, particularly those in the Asian American Pacific Islander community, who have felt not only the grief of COVID-19 but also of the impacts of these targeted incidents. When Lee and Suk grappled with what the purpose of the vigil should be, they decided to listen to what they’d heard expressed by the members of the Oakland community: Their community wanted to feel.

“You have to find your people,” Lee said. “You’ve got to find your people right now who understand the particular experience of being in our bodies and coming from our particular cultural backgrounds and the communities that we’re from to feel supported.”

“The purpose is to feel. It’s just to feel. If it’s grief, it’s grief. If it’s rage, it’s rage. If it’s sorrow, it’s sorrow. If it’s, you know, joy that we get to be together, then it’s joy to be together,” Lee said. “But we knew from our own experiences and from the sisters and brothers and the family that we have been in touch with within that last week that many people were angry, isolated and afraid. And so we needed to create a space that could carry all of that.”

Both Lee and Suk spoke about the importance of community when dealing with such trauma, both in terms of one’s broader communities and close inner circles.

“It’s in these moments though, actually, when … I cannot retreat into my home out of fear. I can only reach out and actually connect with people,” Suk said.

Lee, a UC Berkeley graduate, had similar advice, both for campus students and for any people dealing with the trauma and pain of these targeted incidents of hate.

“You have to find your people,” Lee said. “You’ve got to find your people right now who understand the particular experience of being in our bodies and coming from our particular cultural backgrounds and the communities that we’re from to feel supported.”

She recalls the César E. Chávez Student Center as one of the safest and supportive spaces for her at UC Berkeley, in addition to Cal Slam, a spoken-word poetry team that provided her with a community of artists.

The shooting in Atlanta and the relentless hate crimes against AAPI people reverberate grief through communities across the country and the world. But the work of activists and artists such as Suk, Lee and all of the people involved in the making of this event, is vital in honoring victims and pushing the movement forward with consciousness and care for everyone in the Oakland community.

“The vigil was about saying, you know, Asian women, Asian people, Asian communities — we’re pissed. We’re hurting,” Lee said. “But we’re also incredibly powerful, and we aren’t scared to voice our rage constructively.”

Contact Isabella at [email protected].

A previous version of this article may have implied that Oakland Rising was the organization in charge of leading the vigil that took place in Oakland to honor the victims of the Atlanta shootings. In fact, Oakland Rising organized the event in collaboration with Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which is a member of the Oakland Rising collaborative.