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2.25.2011

guest post: the military wants us to say sorry

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the ECAASU 2011 at UMass Amherst, the oldest and largest Asian American student conference... where some very interesting stuff went down. When I arrived at Amherst late Friday night, the conference was already buzzing about it...

Lai Wa Wu, program coordinator at MIT Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, and Professor Vijay Prashad, Director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College, were both keynote speakers at the conference. By the end the weekend, they had both emphatically publicly called out the U.S. military, the coast guard and CIA -- "war-makers" -- and their funding of ECAASU.

This, of course, did not sit well with the conference's armed forces representatives -- many of whom were sitting in the audience, in uniform. I was present for Vijay's address, and while it was a tense moment ("awkward," as Professor Prashad put it) I felt it needed to be said, and both speakers were well within their right to speak out on this matter.

In the ensuing fallout, the military has apparently threatened not to pay their promised contribution to the conference, and ECAASU's National Board has sent out emails disassociating itself from the keynotes' remarks. Lai Wa Wu and Vijay Prashad have responded to the controversy with this essay in Counterpunch. I'm reprinting it here with their permission:

UPDATE: The ECAASU National Board has issued a response to Lai Wa Wu and Vijay Prashad's essay. I've also re-posted it at the bottom.

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What Has Happened to the East Coast Asian Student's Union?

The Military Wants Us to Say Sorry

Lai Wa Wu and Vijay Prashad

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.

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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 vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu.

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 juelz123@gmail.com.

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UPDATE: This is the ECAASU National Board's response to Lai Wa Wu and Vijay Prashad's essay, in order to address misconceptions and broader issues around conference funding. I've also re-posted it here:

ECAASU Welcomes Dialogue on Sponsorship

The ECAASU National Board would like to respond to the issues raised by Vijay Prashad and Lai Wai Wu’s essay (see citations). We hope to clear up misconceptions and discuss the broader issues.

ECAASU National has never tried to suppress Lai Wa Wu’s freedom to speak, by cutting off her microphone or any action otherwise. Furthermore, the military has not threatened to pull funding from the ECAASU 2011 Conference. Finally, the military has never asked our keynotes for an apology*.

Of course, we are open to the fact that there may be misconceptions on our side as well. We have always been open to discussing, and we have been working with and will continue to do so with Ms. Wu and Professor Prashad to engage in direct communication. We just now had a quick phone call with Professor Prashad regarding the misconceptions we discuss here, and he has confirmed that these misconceptions are indeed based on second hand information or incomplete information.

We urge you to read both “The Military Wants Us to Say Sorry” by Ms. Wu and Professor Prashad as well as “ECAASU 2011: Lessons in Mis/Understanding Different Levels of Analysis” by Professor C. N. Le (see citations at bottom). ECAASU’s mission is to educate, not indoctrinate. We encourage everyone to read statements from all perspectives with an open mind.

Corporate and military funding has always been an option, not a requirement. The ECAASU National Board works with the Conference Board to identify sources of funding for whatever size of the conference that the host venue wishes. Nevertheless, the Conference Board is still a main driver in setting the vision and making decisions regarding the annual conference. However, after the 2011 conference to this day, the Duke University ECAASU 2012 conference board has received no feedback from anyone on this matter, and the Board of Directors has received little direct feedback as well. We hope that people will communicate with the organizers themselves to be better informed of all conference-related issues. After all, ECAASU was founded on the principles of self-empowerment, education, activism, and equally as important, communication. To get in touch with the ECAASU 2012 Conference Board, you can email them at duke@ecaasu.org. You can reach the Board of Directors at directors@ecaasu.org.

ECAASU was founded in 1977 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Allan Bakke’s case, in which he alleged that his denial of admission to U.C. Davis School of Medicine was due to “reverse discrimination.” This decision represented an attack on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960. ECAASU was founded upon the calling that the Asian American community needed a comprehensive network for mutual support and education. Since its founding more than 30 years ago, ECAASU has been at the forefront of raising awareness, educating people about critical Asian American issues. In acknowledging the growing diversity of Asian Americans around the country and their need to be heard, ECAASU became recognized as a national nonprofit organization and thus would become nonpartisan, as mandated under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

However, nonpartisanship does not equal political apathy. On the contrary, ECAASU has remained committed to justice for all, standing in solidarity with and giving a voice to all people of color, especially those who have been marginalized. Over the years ECAASU has fought for justice in countless ways. Members of ECAASU have:

* Organized sit-ins, rallies, and demonstrations, including speaking out against the Hot97’s defamation of the Asian Americans
* Denounced MTV’s fetishization of Asian Americans
* Mentored high school students in NYC and Philadelphia who have been victims of bullying and violent hate crimes
* Rallied against a restaurant’s chain mistreatment and harassment of its immigrant workers
* Sponsored and lent support to the formation of ethnic studies programs in campuses around the country
* Conducted grassroots community organizing for participation in the 2010 Census
* Coordinated voter registration programs in collaboration with the Youth Charge Now! civic engagement campaign
* Developed a comprehensive APIA History 101
* Highlighted South Asian community leaders in business, the law, and fraternities through spotlighted interviews
* Advocated for the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform
* Raised awareness about issues that affect Asian American women, including body image and increasing rates of suicide
* Addressed racial inequality in the workplace
* Volunteered as AALDEF-sponsored poll monitors in particularly disenfranchised immigrant communities.

Our actions speak for themselves.

ECAASU thus has enjoyed a rich history of activism, while at the same time recognizing the new and incoming students who are only beginning to discover what it means to be Asian American. Without seeking to recruit and indoctrinate (lest we become our own worst enemies), ECAASU aims to educate, raise awareness, and let each attendee realize his or her individual ability to effect positive change. Throughout its history, ECAASU’s mission has changed with each new generation of Asian American students. Currently, we have seen an uncomfortable trend: too many students are unaware and underinformed, not knowing enough about what issues there are to even begin taking action. That is why we currently strive to educate, encourage debate and discussion, so the new generation of activists is informed and as empowered.

In our inclusiveness of both activists and and those who there are to learn, ECAASU has grown tremendously over the recent years. From about 500 students in the early 1990s, attendance at our conferences has blossomed to more than 1500 students in the last three years. As a result, the cost of such conferences has become more demanding. Especially in light of the unforgiving economic circumstances, the increase in students that continue to get involved, and ECAASU’s commitment to including all enthusiastic participants, the capital required to administer a conference like ECAASU has become ever more imposing. The option of choosing the support of our armed forces has allowed the conference to expand under challenging circumstances, and it must be made clear that accepting their money does not mean that they have control of our programming. For many students, this support has enhanced their conference experience. On the other hand, we understand that many other students may find the military’s presence to be uncomfortable, given the foundations on which ECAASU was built.

There is no such thing as a perfect organization, we ECAASU strives to continuously grow and develop. We open the floor to you: in a few days we will be sending out a survey to our members - the Asian American community and its allies - to better understand what you want. We will consider these results seriously when making decisions about ECAASU's continuing mission and sponsorship, so we hope you will give us your opinions.

Finally, we have been highly encouraged by the recent level of passion the Asian American community has demonstrated over the direction of ECAASU. We are glad that sponsorship-related questions are finally getting the attention they deserve. ECAASU stands by freedom of speech, and we are committed to providing a forum in which all parties come to share their opinions and to discuss. At the same time, ECAASU also believes in the pursuit of truth and fair representation. We hope the following facts will clarify any misconceptions that may have arisen in the recent heated dialogues:

First, to our knowledge, the military has asked neither Professor Prashad nor Ms. Wu to apologize*. The National and Conference boards were never requested by the military to have the keynote speakers apologize. And even if such a request were made, the National Board would never ask invited guests to retract their statements.

Also, ECAASU National has never asked anybody to cut off a keynote speaker’s microphone, nor has ECAASU National sought to silence speech. The National Board is appalled to hear of how anyone would suggest cutting off Ms. Wu’s microphone. None of the members of the National Board made such a request. It goes against ECAASU’s commitment to free speech, and thus we applaud the sound engineer for refusing to give in to such a request. This information was given to Professor Prashad or Ms. Wu by a backstage engineer, who did not specify who exactly made the request.

Furthermore, ECAASU is sponsored by a variety of organizations, not just the military. ECAASU works tirelessly to seek out college funding — past sources from the most recent conferences include:

* Academic/Campus Units: Asian American Studies Programs, Sociology Departments, Economics Departments, Public Policy Departments, Anthropology Departments, Education Departments, Johnson Graduate School of Business, Office of the University President, LGBT Resource Centers, Office of Social Justice Education, Women’s Resource Centers, Multi/intercultural Organizations

* Non-Profit Organizations: Organization of Chinese Americans, Japanese American Citizens League, Korean American Community Foundation, the Fox Leadership Program, the Civic House

To the best of our knowledge, our sponsors have never expressed a wish to silence any keynote speaker's opinions. Although they have conveyed disappointment in the way the opinions were expressed, they also conveyed interested in engaging with these issues in panels or in other open forums. We do not seek to defend anyone. We simply want to state the facts.

ECAASU National has never sought to silence anyone's opinions. On the contrary, we have welcomed all our keynote speakers to speak with us directly, as well as anyone else who has had questions about our sponsorship or had any feedback related to ECAASU. We share our contact information with all the registrants and welcome discourse and debate.

We have asked to meet in person with Lai Wa Wu and Vijay Prashad, and are currently working with them to set a time and place. We are working to improve communication between them and our organization. We are disappointed to see the spread of misconceptions, the lack of true understanding, and the absence of dialogue. We look forward to solving these problems together.

ECAASU has a continuing commitment to student activism and justice for all. Because attendance at our annual conferences continues to burgeon, and because we are eager to welcome any student willing to join us, the growing variety of voices and views on sponsorship decisions may have diverged somewhat. While many students enjoy the expansion of conference programming, others may question the appropriateness of the funding sources.

Therefore, ECAASU wants to hear from you. And with the purpose of learning how to become a better organization and offering empowerment to our members, we would like to receive both your criticisms as well as concrete ideas for solving the problem. The direction of ECAASU stands on its commitment to its membership — the Asian American community — and so we invite everybody to contact us at directors@ecaasu.org or to comment here. To speak is to be heard.

signed,
The ECAASU Directorate & National Board
Nancy Liang, Calvin Sun, Allen Pan, Andrew Lee, Tiff Su, Michelle Horikawa, and Derek Mong

* We got in touch with Professor Prashad and he informed us that his statement “The military wants to say we’re sorry” was meant as a figurative statement, not a literal assertion of fact