The Forgotten History of America’s Radical Asian Activists

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

One of the most enduring images of an Vietnam War protester is
the
controversial photograph
of Jane Fonda, with short brown
hair, sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam. Dubbed
“Hanoi Jane,” Fonda’s face is often among the first that comes
to mind when we think about the anti-war movement. Today,
activists who continue to tell their stories are
often white.
The Asian American anti-war rabble rouser
however, seems to hardly exist—there are virtually none on the
list of
interviewees
in Ken Burns new highly-acclaimed Vietnam War
documentary.

Yet two months before Fonda’s trip to Hanoi, a radical Asian
American newspaper called Gidra viscerally undermined
this idea. On the cover of their May 1972
issue
was an illustration of a white officer ordering an
Asian American soldier to
“kill that gook, you gook!”
Inside the paper was a piece
detailing the participation of Asians in a recent march in Los
Angeles,
part of protests
drawing out some 100,000 people across the
country. In the familiar tone of an activist who was no
stranger to marches, Steve Tatsukawa recounted procedure: “A
sleepy Asian contingent met at Bronson and Eighth … [it] was
one of seventeen in the march and someone had worked it out so
we would be third in line right behind the Chicanos and the GI
Vets.”

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

Gidra—whose name is a misspelling of King Ghidorah, a
kaiju from the Godzilla franchise—ran for five years, from 1969
to 1974. It was started by five students from UCLA who decided
to each pitch in $100 of their own seed money (“a huge amount
for students at that time,” according to Mike Murase, one of
the Gidra’s founders) to ensure that the paper would
have editorial independence from the university. It ran pieces
on everything from the war and the drug crisis among Japanese
American youth to recipes and diagrams on
how to fix your toilet
.

Today, “Asian American” has mostly become a demographic
signifier, but it was originally conceived as a political
identity. Gidra was there to document this conception.

“It was the first voice of the Asian American movement,” Karen
Ishizuka, author of the book, Serve the People: Making
Asian America in the Long Sixties
, told me. “You really
see it unfolding in real time, the concept of political
identity and how it was created.” In the newspaper’s
first issue
, Larry Kubota wrote in an article on yellow
power: “This is a new role for the Asian American. It is the
rejection of the passive Oriental stereotype and symbolizes the
birth of a new Asian—one who will recognize and deal with
injustices.”

Perusing through the pages of Gidra, what I noticed
most was its voice—irreverent and clever, proudly Asian and
radical. Here was a political history I was vaguely familiar
with but had never really seen laid out before me, an
incarnation of unabashed Asian American radicalism so different
from the image of the head-down, hard-working immigrant that
dominates the mainstream.

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

The paper’s politics stood firmly in solidarity with groups
like the Black Power and the Chicano movement, believing that
Asians could only achieve equality if racism against all
minorities was eliminated. Gidra also brought to light
racism against Asian Americans that would have likely flown
under the radar. This included things from the
firing of a Japanese-American L.A. county coroner
, a
decision that was eventually reversed, to exposing the dual
racism and sexism embedded in American soldiers’ perceptions of
Vietnamese women. (One Asian American G.I. recounted how they
were taught in boot camp that Asian women’s vaginas
“were slanted, like their eyes.”
)

Today, anti-Asian racism may have evolved—and is certainly not
felt on the same level as anti-black and anti-Hispanic
racism—but it has not disappeared. As we hear Trump declaring
to cheering crowds that China is “raping our country” and that
the Chinese have committed the “greatest theft in the history
of the world” by stealing our jobs, we are reminded that our
place in the racial hierarchy of America remains conditional.
And as the administration deploys ICE officers to churches and
schools, Trump encourages police to be
“rough,”
and a prominent Trump supporter references
Japanese incarceration as a
“precedent”
for a Muslim registry, the anti-police-state
politics of Gidra seems as relevant now as they were
then.

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

It’s hard to tell how much impact Gidra had; it only
had a press run of 4,000, but because it was run by an
ever-rotating cast of volunteers, hundreds of people were
involved at some point in its production. While Gidra
did have its limitations—it was run mostly by
Japanese-Americans and had a male-dominated staff—the paper
served as an incubator for Asian American activists, many of
whom have gone on to do other work in the larger community over
the past decades. Two Gidra editors I spoke to, Mike
Murase and Evelyn Yoshimura, both continue to work at the
Little Tokyo Service Center, a non-profit that provides social
services to the Asian American community in Los Angeles. Like
the scattering of seeds, the paper was grassroots at its most
elemental.


I came across Gidra almost entirely by chance. The
unusual name, nestled in a footnote of a something I was
reading for another piece, caught my eye. When I first clicked
through to the digital archive,
meticulously preserved
by the Densho Project, I was sure I
had never seen anything like it. But when I was interviewing
people about Gidra I almost felt ashamed admitting it
was new to me. Here was a newspaper many
referred to
as the “voice of the Asian American movement.”
As a young Asian American political journalist, I’m supposed to
know about these things, but I had never heard of it.

Gidra was the road map I wish I had as a kid. As my
own politics have developed over the years, I’ve often felt
like I am blundering my way into a tradition of Asian American
political activism. I grew up comfortably
middle-class and in a nearly all-white rural town in the
Northeast. My mother, who moved here from Taiwan as an adult,
knew just about as much about this country’s politics and
history as I did, often by reading my middle school textbooks
at night.

The Asian American political
identity is one that has been crippled by a thousand
silences.

And in those textbooks, Asian Americans are rarely portrayed as
political activists. Growing up, we learn mainly about Japanese
incarceration and Vietnam War protests (often led by
non-Asians). If we are lucky, we might learn about the Chinese
Exclusion Act or perhaps the redress movement. Having more
nuanced conversations in public school—say, about how
light-skinned and dark-skinned Asians
are treated differently in America
—seems almost
unthinkable.

Once we start reading the news, we hear about the
apathetic
and
apolitical
Asian voter. Or, when stories do focus on
organized Asian Americans, it’s often when they are for
conservative stances, like those
against affirmative action
and
sanctuary cities
. Googling
“famous Asian American activists”
gives you a whopping
three names.

This is not a benign erasure, but rather one that serves to
prop up racist hierarchies. The Asian American political
identity is one that has been crippled by a thousand silences.
The prevailing narrative is still that of the model
minority—that we have successfully overcome a history of racism
through education, hard work, and keeping our heads down. It is
a tactic used to both vilify other minority groups like black
Americans (if Asians can prosper in America, why can’t they?)
and to flatten a population consisting of numerous
subgroups—not just the East Asians we usually think of—that
continue to suffer from
racism
and
poverty
.

Take, for example, the narrative of how Japanese Americans
persevered after World War II incarceration. As historian Ellen
Wu detailed in an interview with
The Washington Post
, “Japanese Americans aren’t
perceived to be doing any kind of direct action, they weren’t
perceived to be protesting. A bad thing happened to them, and
they moved on, and they were doing okay. These stories were
ideologically useful. They became a model for political
cooperation.”


Gidra didn’t play along. In 1971, it
printed the story
of Mary Kochiyama (better known today as
Yuri Kochiyama), who had lived through Japanese American
incarceration. Her father, who ran a fish market, was one of
the first people to be rounded up the day after he returned
from an ulcer surgery. A month later, he was returned home in
an ambulance only to die the next morning. According to
Kochiyama, the FBI told them that anyone attending her father’s
funeral would be surveilled. Following her account, the paper
warned: “It has happened here. It can happen again—to you,” and
sounded a “call to action” for all repressed people to rise up
against the American police state.

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

Gidra shows that there has always been that history
of Asian American people fighting, coming together, and trying
to change things,” Nina Wallace, communications coordinator at
Densho, told me. “Not just kind of being the little quiet
Americans that we try to think of.”

Even Gidra itself was combating the model minority
stereotype decades ago. In his article for the first issue,
Kubota wrote that “traditionally, yellow people have spent a
great deal of time observing the behavior and mannerisms of
white people. We have tried to act like them, speak like them,
look like them, and be like them in every way…It is time we
understood that white people cannot be taken as models.”

But the stereotype has not gone away,
even today
. Just this April, in response to claims of
anti-Asian racism against United Airlines dragging victim David
Dao (one of them
by me
), New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan

dismissed the idea
, writing, “Today, Asian Americans are
among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic
groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that
they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social
networks that looked after one another, placed enormous
emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false,
negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?”

It’s an argument that reads almost exactly the same as the ones
in 1960s newspapers, like
one article
from US News that stated, “Visit
‘Chinatown U.S.A.’ and you find an important racial minority
pulling itself up from hardship and discrimination to become a
model of self-respect and achievement in today’s America.”

Courtesy of Densho and the Gidra Collection

An uncomfortable truth is that Asian Americans, especially East
Asians, have historically both promoted and benefited from the
model minority stereotype that puts them adjacent to whiteness.
As Wu noted in
The Washington Post
, “The model minority
myth as we see it today was mainly an unintended outcome of
earlier attempts by Asians Americans to be accepted and
recognized as human beings.”

The result is a community that often reveals itself to have
what
Jay Caspian Kang has termed
a “stunted language of a people
who do not yet know how to talk about injustice.” This usually
comes up in
debates around affirmative action
and was most prominently
seen recently in the case of the protests last February around
NYPD cop Peter Liang’s manslaughter conviction in the shooting
of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man. Chinese-Americans saw
racism in the fact that Liang was the first cop to be convicted
in New York in the line of duty in nearly a decade, holding
protests that featured signs that read “Peter
Scapegoat.”

On one hand there was truth to the claims; white cops have
always been afforded an impunity that does not necessarily
extend to minority cops. But the fact that the first major
political outcry heard from Asian Americans in years were
protests against the conviction of the police shooting
of a black man revealed a crude modern political identity.

But if the Asian American political identity is stunted, it’s
not necessarily because a radical identity has never existed,
but rather because we are told that it hasn’t. Some of this is
due to the community’s own silence; as Kang writes of the Liang
protests, “because it’s historically been in the best interests
of people like me to never discuss these things, even in
private, I lack the vocabulary to discuss it.”

Part of it is also due to the fact that many of our parents
were not born here and thus lack a lived understanding of
racial history in America—73
percent
of today’s adult U.S. Asian population was born in
another country (as opposed to
48 percent
of the adult Hispanic population). “I think the
fact that there is a larger percentage of first generation
people tends to affect the entire discourse,” Murase told me.
“It’s almost like re-creating the model minority and faith in
it.”

But, perhaps most critically, it is because it has benefited
those in power to tamp down this identity over the decades.
Today, it’s clear that the model minority myth is not only
untenable when it comes to combating white supremacy and
fostering solidarity across races, it is also ineffectual as a
survival tactic. Donald Trump’s rise and rhetoric reveals that
another pernicious myth—Asians as a yellow peril—persists as
well. As Trump terrorizes the undocumented community, it’s
worth thinking about the fact that Asians are the
fastest growing group
of undocumented immigrants. And while
there is scarce data,
that which does exist indicates
hate crimes against Asian
Americans are increasing, part of a
larger rise in the Trump era
.

Documents like Gidra remind us that a full-throated
radical Asian American political identity built on inter-racial
solidarity does and can exist. “When I was a younger person I
found Gidra very inspiring,” Brian Niiya of the Densho
Project told me. “Just knowing that there was someone before
you who was doing this kind of thing.” Many activists are
already working in that vein, whether it’s the former
Gidra staffers or the young people
organizing for black lives
and writing letters to their
parents about the importance of
standing with the Black Lives Matter
movement.

Gidra was born in the beginning of the Asian American
movement,” one former staffer wrote in the paper’s final issue
in April 1974. “Does its death mean the end of the movement? I
hope not.” But decades later, it seems the biggest danger to
the movement isn’t the death of papers like Gidra—it’s
that we might not even remember they existed at all.

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