However, especially with the rise of anti-Asian racism, specific strategies are needed to organize Asian diaspora tenants toward an abolitionist vision. Abolitionist tenant organizing strategy must build from community safety demands particular to different racialized communities to bolster our collective solidarity against capital’s myriad expressions. A revolutionary horizon for Asian diaspora communities must connect immediate struggles around community safety—from protections against evictions to anti-Asian racism—to a strategy of independent mass action that refuses the crystallization of movement gains within bourgeois and reformist solutions. We demonstrate this through our work with CCED around local-level tenant organization, which serves as the basis for a city-level fight for housing decommodification.
Practicing Abolition Through Tenant Self-Organization
Organizing with immigrant working-class Asians in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, many living in the single room occupancies that Kang describes, shows us that abolition can emerge from the practical activity of tenant self-organization. Around 2016, CCED, then a small, all-volunteer base of Chinatown tenants and activist allies, began organizing autonomous tenant unions among residents in single room occupancies and other low-income tenements around the neighborhood who were facing rent increases and evictions. These struggles led to the development of an organized mass base of Chinatown tenants. The All-Chinatown Tenants’ Union (ACTU) emerged as a monthly forum for tenant unions co-organized by CCED and other tenant leaders to discuss common issues in the community and build toward political programs and actions led by working-class Chinatown residents. To empower tenants’ self-activity, this space was organized independently from the influence of Chinatown neighborhood associations, electoral parties, and staff-directed community organizations.
ACTU was thus a natural space to work through questions of community safety at the height of anti-Asian violence, especially when the shootings at the Atlanta massage parlor occurred in 2021. It was also a site in which political differences in our community on this issue came to the fore. At the time, we were meeting on Zoom because of the pandemic. Virtual meetings actually enabled participation from more tenants in the community, creating different possibilities for configuring political discussion. Some tenants, including many Chinese immigrants, called for more policing—though not all. One of them, a rank-and-file homecare worker leader in her union, brought up the self-organized community patrols she heard about from her friends in Oakland’s Chinatown as an alternative model. In the English- and Spanish-speaking breakout room, Cambodian tenant Khinn Ung named her fears around anti-Asian violence—but also her experiences around police harassment, echoed by other Black and Latino tenants. “What do the police do for me?” Ung responded when asked why she did not report an incident of anti-Asian harassment that she experienced to the police. “I don’t think they do anything for me. The law is not on our side.”
As ACTU’s facilitators and translators at the time, we realized that ACTU could begin to model abolition democracy, which Andrew Dilts defines as “organizing people to confront concrete political problems as the work of politics…in the building of communities of safety, mutual accountability, and shared liberation.”5Andrew Dilts, “Crisis, Critique, and Abolition,” in A Time for Critique, ed. Didier Fassin and Bernard E. Harcourt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 247. Abolition democracy was first coined by W. E. B. Du Bois and subsequently theorized by contemporary Black abolitionists like Angela Davis. Furthermore, ACTU grounds abolition democracy in the everyday practice of tenant self-organization, enabling tenants to democratically plan for political alternatives to policing. Facilitating the sharing of tenants’ immediate concerns about safety enabled space for the practical activity of strategizing beyond policing. Bringing these varied experiences together in a larger discussion after the language-specific breakout groups enabled tenants to educate and listen to one another on policing and safety. The issue of anti-Asian violence functioned as the immediate background for the conversations. At the same time, tenants centered the long-term question of whether the police are the best solution for community safety. In the end, tenants of different politics and identities were discussing ways to keep one another safe without policing. Such conversations begin from the specificities of people’s identities and lived experiences, which are unevenly shaped by capital and other intersecting forces of oppression.
The practical experience of collectively generating political alternatives that render policing obsolete can help bridge existing divisions within working-class communities. Sometimes these divisions manifest within an ethnic community itself, but nonetheless in terms that cannot be fully disaggregated from a collective racialized experience—especially among those who do not take on traditional forms of waged labor. The workers targeted in Atlanta cannot be divorced from their racial and gendered identifications as Asian immigrant women employed in a massage parlor. Asian massage workers have long been attuned to police violence because of the uniquely vulnerable conditions of their workplace. Asian diaspora sex workers’ organizations like Red Canary Song and Butterfly thus call for the decriminalization of massage and other forms of body work often overwhelmingly dominated by Asian migrants, as well as sex work. The incident points to the need to respond within a framework that recognizes violence targeting the broad Asian community just as it exposes the political and material divisions long registered within this identity rubric. ACTU’s base is mainly composed of immigrant Asian tenants living on supplemental security income and informal labor. Some Asian tenants harbor prejudice toward other tenants with less “respectable” avenues of work, from trash collecting to massage and sex work, partly stemming from forms of respectability politics informed by their own particular cultural traditions and practices.
The shared cultural experience creates tensions among these Asian-American tenants, but also opportunities for particular modes of solidarity. Asian massage and sex workers and organizers embody a longstanding history of organizing against racialized, gendered, and class-based police violence. For this reason, they can be a vital link to connecting the Asian diaspora and abolitionist organizing in other communities. For another ACTU meeting, we invited organizer Elene Lam from the Toronto-based massage and sex workers’ collective Butterfly to speak with Cantonese-speaking tenants about how massage workers have faced police violence and protected themselves. Originally from Hong Kong, Lam spoke in Cantonese and accessibly drew on everyday practices of mutual aid and community care from her upbringing that tenants, largely from nearby parts of southern China, would recognize. She reminded them of the ineffectiveness of policing in their hometowns, and how many of them may remember how women would walk each other home together when there were reports of serial harassers left unchecked in the area. Her dialogue with Cantonese-speaking ACTU tenant leaders facilitated their participation in brainstorming alternatives to policing with other tenants in the subsequent meetings.