1.23.2014

Interview with Bao Phi, an excerpt

You’re a spoken word artist. To people who reside outside the scene, how would you explain this particular art form and why it’s so important to you?

The simplest way to explain it is, poetry that has an element of performance imbued in it. Otherwise spoken word, as a term, encompasses so many different styles, voices, and traditions. It's important to me because I've been doing it for over 20 years and it's why I write.

What got you into spoken word? How would you describe your particular style?

I was a refugee from the Vietnam war, raised in an urban poor/working class family. I loved Dungeons and Dragons, kung fu movies, Star Wars and Hip Hop. I loved art and stories from a very young age, but I didn't take poetry very seriously until I was maybe 16 or 17. This was 1989-1993, so there was a lot of poverty, police brutality, crack, gang violence, racism, cross racial hostility, etc. But also, hip hop was really blowing up all over, and at my high school there were teachers and guest speakers teaching about the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Gandhi, American Indian Movement... and artists like The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, Ntozake Shange. I got a chance to see Quincy Troupe read and talk about poetry, and he changed the way I looked at poetry forever. I saw a video of Alvin Eng doing this poem called "Rock Me Gung Hay." My own style has changed, flowed and ebbed. These days I lean more towards persona poems.

I had a hard time trying to decide which poems I wanted to feature, but one of your poems which I can’t stop thinking about is “Eight Nine”. For those who are unfamiliar, please share some background.

I and many other activists worked with the family of Fong Lee in the hopes that we could find some justice and peace in his memory. I had been struggling to write a poem about it all. The poem 8 (9), is what I finally came up with. Regarding the case, here is more info I pulled from the Facebook page:
On July 22, 2006, Hmong teenager Fong Lee was with a group of friends riding bikes near the North Minneapolis Cityview Elementary School when Minneapolis police officers chased them across the playground. Officer Jason Andersen shot Fong Lee eight times, in the back, side, and then five more shots into Lee’s chest as he lay on the ground. Andersen stated he was justified in the killing, claiming that Lee pointed a gun at him. He was cleared by the MPD’s internal investigation even though neighborhood eyewitnesses were not interviewed, many of whom contradicted the police officers' version of events in community press reports.

In 2009 the family of Fong Lee brought a wrongful death lawsuit again the City of Minneapolis and Jason Andersen, citing surveillance cameras that showed Fong Lee did not have a gun and evidence that demonstrated that the gun found at the scene had been in police custody, suggesting that the gun had been planted. When an all-white jury found that Anderson had not used “excessive force” in killing 19-year old Fong Lee, community members held numerous rallies to continue to demand justice in what they saw as a police cover-up.

Jason Andersen was first in the media’s eye with his shooting death of Fong Lee but he has remained a contentious member of the Minneapolis police force. In September 2009Police Chief Tim Dolan fired Andersen for violating the department’s ethics policy because of a dropped domestic assault charge. A state arbitrator returned Andersen to the force after the police union grieved the firing. Andersen is currently being indicted on federal charges for allegedly abusing a black teenager while part of the notorious and now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force. On September 22, 2010 he was fired for a second time for violating the department’s code on “truthfulness” about this incident in which he allegedly kicked the teen in the head.


It stuck out to me for many reasons; I remember when the case broke and I’d been thinking a lot – as many of us are – about how our brothers of color are profiled and targeted by "law enforcement" here in the West. Typically when this happens, people automatically think “Black and Latino”, but a lot of young Asian men have also reported being racially profiled for a long while.

This mostly has to do with white supremacy and the model minority myth: it obfuscates racism when it comes to Asian Americans. To be able to see that racism oppresses Asians negates the model minority myth, so a lot of people don't see racism against Asians as racism - they dismiss it as xenophobia, I guess. I've met Asian Americans who dismiss police brutality cases against other Asian Americans because they see it as something that only effects Blacks and Latinos. Rather than make this about Oppression Olympics, I'd say we need to look at how police brutality effects nonwhites in this country, including Asians, Arabs, and Native Americans. We can talk about how it's enacted differently due to geography, specific races, genders, etc, but I see a lot of people disappointingly just assume Asian Americans don't suffer from police brutality. Fong Lee, unfortunately, is not the only Asian life lost to police brutality in this country.

And women of color and Queer people of color face discrimination and violence from police too - just a few days ago, a Vietnamese woman in LA was sexually assaulted by police officers. I am not at all saying Asians have it worse, nor am I trying to lessen the brutality that Black people and Latino/as face from police officers. What I am in favor of, is asking questions that need to be asked, in the interest of solidarity and justice for all people. For example: do Asian Americans face a lot of discrimination, but are scared to report on it due to being undocumented, fear of deportation, language barriers, or mistrust of authority figures? I think we need to take all of that into account.

Read the complete version At the Bar.

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