Tear Gas, Ferguson, and Anti-Black Racism: Interview with Kalaya’an Mendoza, Amnesty USA Senior Organizer

“Rage. Tears. Grief. Rage.” These are the words of Kalaya’an Mendoza, Amnesty USA Senior Organizer. Kalaya’an was on the advance team supporting the work of Human Rights Observers in Ferguson since Michael Brown was shot in August. On the night of the no-indictment verdict in the Michael Brown shooting case (Monday, November 24), Kalaya’an and other members of the Amnesty staff wore bright yellow shirts that were clearly marked “Human Rights Observer.” Around 1:30 am, they were with community members and protestors in MoKaBe’s coffee shop when they were tear gassed by police. Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with Kalaya’an about the rage and tears and grief. And the rage. With gratitude and respect, our conversation:

 

What is the story from Ferguson that people need to know?

Two things: First, the organizing on the ground since the shooting of Michael Brown is nothing short of inspiring. Folks from everywhere. Some who drove here from other places, and others who are from the area. Most had never been activists before. Now they are battle-hardened, battle-weary activists, many of who have been out here for 110 days straight.

Second, Michael Brown’s shooting is symptomatic of larger issues of racial injustice in this country. The youth involved now were not around when Martin Luther King was fighting, but they carry on his torch. They still feel the same need to fight for their community. This same need exists today.

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Who is there? Who is out on the streets? 

It changes from night to day. In the daytime, it is mostly community organizations—Hands Up United Coalition, and Young Activists United. In the evening, those same groups are there but also lots of angry people. People angry at the shooting. People angry at the system. We saw this in August. We saw this again on Monday.

I was outside the police department when the verdict was announced. Michael Brown’s mother was there, surrounded by her family. I watched her collapse. Everyone was crying. A wave of grief swept over the crowd. Someone yelled, “I’m sick of this. I’m so sick of this.” Everyone’s emotions just erupted. Families started leaving.

It sickens me that parents have memorized the sequence of police actions so that they know when to leave before the police will use tear gas. They know when to get their children away.

You were tear gassed in a coffee shop during the protests.

It was unreal. It all happened without warning. We were meeting with our community partners in a designated “safe space.” These were the rules of engagement. The police and the community had agreed on this. But we were tear gassed.

There were clergy there. There were children there. The café was full of people who were taking a break, resting. There were student medics there. So many kind faces of support.

Some observers were looking out a window and saw police setting up in a weird formation outside of the coffee shop. I went downstairs to go outside, but people started yelling, “Get inside! Get inside!” That’s when they shot the tear gas at the building.

All of our Amnesty human rights observers had safety protocol vests and masks, but other folks did not have them. They weren’t prepared for the tear gas. Immediately it was chaos, panic, fear. People couldn’t breathe. A mother was separated from her son and was desperately trying to find him. A guy was vomiting into a trash can. People were temporarily blinded by the tear gas, and were bumping into each other as they tried to escape.

How do you shoot tear gas at a café full of people? At children? At people trying to have a quiet moment?

How dare they? No one was doing anything wrong.

People went out to the street for fresh air. The police started tapping on their shields. Again, no one was doing anything. No one was doing anything criminal or threatening. The police shot another tear gas canister at the building. One Amnesty staffer was also struck by 3-4 projectiles of some sort. This caused more panic, more anger.

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All of the human rights observers were outside. People went rushing back into the building. I went back in and upstairs to record what was happening and debrief others. I saw Netta—Johnetta Elzie—crying, coughing, and she couldn’t see. She is one of the organizers on the ground, one of the curators on social media, and she had been gassed.

We left the building again, but this time through the back as we didn’t trust the police enough to exit through the front onto the street. The police were not abiding by the rules of engagement. They shot tear gas at people clearly marked as human rights observers.

I’ve been having tear gas flashbacks all day. We are all doing our best to take care of each other.

You’ve mentioned before your belief that Filipino-Americans need to stand with the Black community in this struggle.

When the U.S. occupied the Philippines over a hundred years ago, they called us “niggers.” They portrayed us in American cartoons as caricatures of Black people. The histories of Black people and Filipinos are different. Our histories of colonization are different. But we are linked in the anti-black racism used to dehumanize people.

Until we—the Filipino-American community—see things from this perspective, we will be stuck in the “model minority” myth. This leads to a devaluing of Black lives. We can’t participate in this any more. We need to refuse this sort of thinking. Filipino-Americans are not this imagined model minority. We are not all doctors and lawyers. Many in our community are economically disadvantaged. If we don’t fight for the rights of the Black community, how can we expect the same rights to be afforded to us?

One of the first soldiers to defect from the U.S. army in the Philippine war (1899-1902) was a black man, David Fagen. This racism we see today is linked to what he saw then; it is why he did this back then. He said he was being asked by the government to shoot up people they were calling niggers. “That’s what they call us at home,” he said. “They call us niggers. Same thing here.”

There are long points of historical realization between these communities. I wish Filipino leaders would stand up now to recognize and act on these.

Given this long history of anti-Black racism and of white dominance, what future do you envision? Where do you find hope?

Hope is with the organizers. With organizers here in Ferguson, but also in New York City, in Albuquerque, in Oakland. Everywhere. What we’ve seen since August are folks getting involved who are not tied to established organizations, but who are spontaneously organizing. Folks who are learning how to be organizers by doing it. It is not about ego, but about working for justice in our communities.

Social media has been important in getting the word out. And also in spreading ideas and concepts. When I was in college, we would talk about “systems of oppression” and I thought this was classroom talk that I would never use outside that space. Now when I talk in that way, folks understand. Concepts are used now. These are incremental changes, important changes.

This is part of my role, my job as an organizer, to do trainings, to take on actions, to explain oppression and to do so as both an activist and a queer person of color. This can be tiring work but I’ve seen a shift. More allies have stepped forward. Friends will say, “You take a rest. I’ve got this one” and step in to speak. This is not just guilt making them do this, but a processing of guilt, then saying eff that, let’s do this work. Mistakes are made. It’s OK. We keep going, learning, and take uncomfortable moments as potential for growth.

I’m very hopeful. Things will change because people want change. We vote. We write. We teach. We raise children. There is not just one type or form of change, but myriad forms. There are many ways to engage and to challenge. But, what’s clear is that there is no in between—there is the oppressor and the oppressed. What side of history will you stand on?

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

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