Chinatowns Must Radicalize to Survive

Atlas Capital protest

Members of the coalition Coast to Coast Chinatowns Against Displacement protest the real-estate developer Atlas Capital Group in front of its New York offices, March 9, 2020. Other C2C members protested Atlas’s developments in Los Angeles on the same day. (Tomie Arai)

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Chinatowns were in crisis even before Covid-19 hit North America.

Low-income residents in these neighborhoods were already being displaced, as cities allowed developers to build luxury apartments and commercial buildings that raised property prices and rents.

Then, once the first cases of the novel coronavirus were found in the United States, Chinatown economies were the first to be hit, as messaging about the “Chinese virus” influenced many to stop frequenting Chinatown businesses as early as January.

Not only that, but the New York City Human Rights Commission found that nearly half of all reports of Covid-related discriminatory harassment have been directed at Asian Americans. These aren’t abstract numbers: A man threw acid on an Asian woman’s face in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and a group of people in the Bronx attacked a 51-year-old woman on a bus.

As Covid-19 exacerbates the precarity of working-class communities and the fragility of market-based solutions, it is clear that Chinatowns across North America need an inclusive, grassroots politics that empowers workers and tenants to advocate for themselves.

The last upsurge of Asian American and Asian Canadian radical organizing started in the late 1960s. There had been earlier organizing efforts in diaspora Asian communities—including the Chinese American anarcho-syndicalists in the Industrial Workers of the World, starting in the 1910s. The revolutionary collectives that started to form in the 1960s were influenced by the New Left, and included groups in New York and San Francisco such as the Communist Workers Party, I Wor Kuen from New York, and the Red Guards. Their members started movements with working-class and immigrant Asians in Chinatowns and other diaspora communities across the country. From anti-eviction protests at San Francisco’s International Hotel that began in 1968, to the women-led Garment Workers’ Strike in New York Chinatown in 1982, revolution was in the air.

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