BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The message was clear at the #StopAsianHate Rally and Vigil Saturday at Memorial Field where close to 300 community members came in solidarity to support the Asian community.
"We are here today because hate crimes and harassment against Asian American Pacific Islanders has been steadily rising," said Angus Chen, rally organizer. "We are here because we are sick and tired of hearing words of hate. We are here because we need to grieve. We need to share, we need to listen, and we need to take action.We are here because we are one country, one community and what affects some of us affects us all."
Chen opened the rally and vigil with a moment of silence to memorialize the eight people who were murdered in Atlanta. He read the names of the victims that lost their lives during the mass shooting on March 16. The attack occurred at three Asian owned spas in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women, and one other person was wounded.
Cady Wang, a junior at Union County Magnet School, told the story of each victim. Going through a range of emotions, she is just really tired. "The majority of this country still continues to ignore, deny, dehumanize and gaslight us," she said. "The police said that he was just having a bad day. -- And behind the shooting is the silence and minimization of Asian American issues," she said. "You know, the model minority myth again erases the struggles of working class Asian American Pacific Islanders -- while driving a wedge between black and brown people."
Mayor Angie Devanney provided a statement that was read by Cady Wang. Devanney said, "Unfortunately, our Township is no exception to the hate and racism. -- Early in the global COVID-19 pandemic, adults and children alike were targeted and even blamed for the coronavirus. -- Our Asian neighbors responded with generosity and compassion for our community as they raised funds and donated personal protection gear to our first responders when they needed it the most and more recently raising money for the BHPD. They are our business owners and business patrons and have launched community organizations geared to giving back to Berkeley Heights. The true definition of neighbor,” she said. "I ask every resident to join me and pledge to work together to #stopasianhate." To sign the pledge, visit https://stopaapihate.org/.
High school students and community members shed light on their experiences with living in a predominantly white community and racism they have experienced. Gov. Livingston High School junior Helen Liu asked, "When does a joke cross the line? I say it does as soon as it insults and stereotypes someone else's culture -- explicitly belittling a part of someone's identity is not and should not be acceptable."
Several students spoke of similar experiences in the schools. Mei-Ching Huang, Gov. Livingston junior is also tired. Huang said, "I am a Taiwanese American female living in the United States. I'm tired. It's a mental exhaustion that's been hurting me for so many years deep in the back of my mind. It rages behind the mask I wear to school every day." Gov. Livingston sophomore Katherine Zhou said she grew up trying to hide her culture from her classmates. "At school, I never acknowledged Asian holidays, didn't like bringing Asian food to school, and I never dressed in Asian clothing. I didn't want other students to see me as more Asian than I already appeared to be. So, I tried to block out every aspect of my Chinese heritage when I was at school, not because I disliked the food or the clothing, or the holidays, but because I was scared of being judged for it."
"We're seen as filthy foreigners who brought the Kung Flu to the United States. We're seen as the silly Chinese who have heavy accents, regardless of if we're actually Chinese or not," said Huang. She further said that because of the teachers, administrators and the culture at her school, she doesn't feel comfortable. "Why are my peers and my teachers tolerating this kind of discrimination that I face -- that my Asian friends face -- that my black friends face -- that my LGBTQ friends face -- that every minority faces? Shouldn't these be the things that parents teach their child at home? Shouldn't these be the things that they learn at school? Shouldn't they have learned before that these actions are hurtful and wrong?" She said, "These are the basics of being a decent human being -- respecting others, humanizing your peers, seeing everyone as human, regardless of their background, their ethnicity, their gender orientation, their sexuality., Aren't these the things that make a good member of society? But, to know how to respect others, you have to educate yourself. --- Teach them that we are American, Americans who will not tolerate any form of discrimination in this land of the free. Do not ignore us. We will be heard."
Alyssa Pradhan, a junior at Gov. Livingston, told the similar story of insults and stereotypes. "I cannot, and I will not succumb to be a passive young Asian woman and let this hatred fester in our country," she said. "I refuse to stay silent. And I will gladly give anything and everything to support and encourage those who have not been able to express themselves. It is time for us to come together to unite and to join hands to stop Asian hate."
Although Pradhan has experienced racist and discriminatory aggressions during her three years at Governor Livingston, she has noticed positive efforts being made to change the culture. "So, I stand before you today with a heavy heart but with confidence. I'm proud to see so many people here to stand with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to condemn violence and hatred. Never before have I felt so represented. We will not tolerate hatred, we will continue to fight to be heard, and we will achieve racial equality and in this very moment, I believe."
"The only way we can put an end to this is to take the time to learn about other cultures and grow to be more accepting of those that are different," said Zhou. "As humans, it is our first instinct to reject anything that doesn't follow our traditional idea of what is normal. By rejecting other cultures, we create the perfect breeding ground for hate. So to all the student allies of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, I encourage you to branch out from your own culture and learn a little more about Asian holidays and traditions. I encourage you to try and understand some of the struggles that we endure. And I encourage you to speak out and act out to create a more welcoming environment for Asian Americans, both in and out of school. And most importantly, I hope you will take the time to consider how your words and actions can always impact those around you. And to all the Asian American and Pacific Islander students out here, I want you to know that you're not alone."
After listening to the students' experiences, Ayana Joseph, Berkeley Heights Diversity Council Board Member, demanded action. "We need to fix this, we need to fix this now. It is 2021. We are all here. We have survived COVID. We have a responsibility to these children. We have a responsibility to our community. We have to do better -- we have to listen, we have to educate, and we have to embrace one another." She pointed out the community leaders in attendance that included elected officials from government and school, church leaders, police, and Diversity Council members. "We are all here -- it is time to roll up our sleeves -- it is time to have these uncomfortable conversations, and it's time to do better."
Dr. Melissa Varley, Berkeley Heights Superintendent of Schools, spoke in solidarity with the Asian community to condemn the violence and to mourn the loss. "Time and time again, our history has shown us that we the people have the power and responsibility to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. -- -Together, we stand united in our diversity, and together we proclaim our resolve to stop the hatred and violence," said Varley.
Ronald K. Chen, distinguished professor of law, former Dean, Rutgers Law School and General Counsel and National Board Member also addressed the crowd. He is a 56-year resident of Berkeley Heights who attended the Berkeley Heights school system. He said it is time to get together and realize these battles are our battles as well, and we should not ignore them. "And also, to our neighbors who are not of Asian heritage, please join with us in combat. -- We are not mythically all immune from the hardships, especially those that have been imposed upon us in the last year. --- I look forward to working with all of you fighting this fight."
Also in attendance was Anjali Ganeriwala Mehrotra, who represents the Union County Advisory Board on the Status of Minorities. "We pledged to listen to the concerns of the Asian community and to find solutions to allay their fears. We call upon all our elected officials, community leaders and residents to join in on our commitment to ensure that humanity triumphs over hate in our communities in Union County."
"There's a long way to go before we can fully transform this community into a welcoming and accepting environment," said Zhou. "But I assure you all that it isn't impossible. Already at GL, our Understanding Asian Cultures Club has gained popularity among students and teachers. And we are continuously looking to educate others and ourselves about Asian culture. And finally, just take a look around. The sheer number of you here today, standing and rallying for justice, tells me that there's hope for the future."
Ryan Wang, a student of Han Academy, captured everyone's heart when he said, "I hope this country will be filled with happiness, fairness, and justice for all." He closed the rally by performing on the ukulele and sang "This Land is Your Land" with the crowd clapping and singing along.
Newly sworn in Police Chief Jason Massimino told the attendees, "If you know somebody who's a victim of a bias crime, or a bias incident, please, I'm asking you --- please report it. We're here to help you and assist you 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
The rally and vigil was the organized through the effort of many including Angus Chen and Natalie Chin; Qing Li, owner of Han Academy in Berkeley Heights; Han Wu, current principal of the Berkeley Heights Huaxia Chinese School; and Tianxin Xu, former principal of Berkeley Heights Huaxia Chinese School.
Speakers (Click links for Youtube Videos):
- Angus Chen, resident and event organizer
- Cady Wang, Union County Magnet High School student
- Chief Jason Massimino, Berkeley Heights Police Chief
- Professor Ronald K. Chen, Professor of Law, former Dean, Rutgers Law School, Former Public Advocate of New Jersey, General Counsel and National Board Member of the ACLU
- Dr. Melissa Varley, Berkeley Heights Superintendent of Schools
- Anjali Ganeriwala Mehrotra, Union County Advisory Board on the Status of Minorities
- Mei-Ching Huang, Gov. Livingston student
- Ayana Joseph, Berkeley Heights Diversity Council Board Member
- Katherine Zhou, Gov. Livingston student
- Thu Novak - New Providence parent
- Alyssa Pradhan, Gov. Livingston student
- Herman Matfes, resident
- Helen Liu, Gov. Livingston student
- Ryan Wang - Sings "This Land is Your Land" - Han Academy Student