RIDGEWOOD, NJ - On a sunlit Saturday afternoon, Van Neste Square Memorial Park was the site of the Stop Asian Hate Peaceful Rally, where leaders of local Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations joined local government officials, including Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco, to denounce the increasing violent hate crimes and bigoted language against the AAPI community. More than 300 people attended.
The event was organized by the Ridgewood Chinese American Association in partnership with Ridgewood Ambassadors for Global Citizenship, the Martin Luther King Committee of Glen Rock/Ridgewood, the Ridgewood Indian Community and the Ridgewood Korean Home School Association.
Christina Huang, a junior at Ridgewood High School, said that at age 7, schoolmates on her bus stretched their eyes at her and mocked her grandmother, who was waiting to pick her up at her stop. More recently, her mother was called an anti-Asian term.
“These comments or jokes are seeds of hate that breeds biased attitudes and creates an environment that allows hate crimes to happen,” she said.
Kevin Chen, a board member of the Ridgewood Chinese American Association, said: “I share the sorrow and anger when there are outrageous attacks against the most vulnerable people in our community, the elderly. The fear, the anger and the remembrance are critical but at the same time, it’s more important for us to speak up. What this community needs is the encouragement and support for all of us to speak up. And that’s why I’m here.’’
Chen added, “We’re all different. Let’s admit the fact. From the color, the language, the food we eat, the traditions that we have. But that doesn’t matter. That’s not a reason for us to be separate. We all came to this country because the American dream is all about embracing the differences. Now is the time to defend the dream. I’m not here simply to represent Chinese Americans or here to represent Asian Americans…I’m here because I’m one of the 300 million people who live in this country.”
Former Ridgewood Mayor Ramon M. Hache, Sr., now a Bergen County Commissioner, said: “It’s a terrible reason that we have to come together today,” referring to the bigotry and violence. “By being here today, you are helping to break the silence. You are helping to raise the voices of our Asian American Pacific Islander community. This is a very personal issue for me…I’m an immigrant…my wife is Asian, I have three children who are Asian. And I have to tell you I consider myself a pretty strong guy. But to see the images of these attacks, it’s hard for me to stomach. And I’m sure it is for you as well. The level of brutality that is only rivaled by the level of cowardice by the targeting of the victims, or worse yet, the cowardice of those who stand by without stepping in.’’ He referred to the recent high-profile attack of a woman kicked and beaten repeatedly on the ground in front of a residential building in Manhattan while the doorman (since terminated) watched the incident and did nothing to intervene.
Mayor Susan Knudsen was the next speaker, but a few minutes into her remarks, Ridgewood Police Chief Jacqueline Luthcke (also a scheduled speaker) and some of her officers had to step up to the area near the podium. That’s because a woman with a megaphone and two or three other supporters who surrounded her, interrupted the mayor at the podium and began shouting about human rights grievances around the world that had nothing to do with the event. The crowd booed the woman and called for her to leave. Knudsen, though, let her speak for a few minutes while Luthcke and her officers kept the peace and ensured there was no escalation.
Upon resuming her comments, Knudsen told the crowd that while participating in the organization of the event, she recalled her own horrific experience years earlier when she was the victim of a violent crime. “And in that meeting, it brought many of those memories back. When you are the victim of a violent crime, you live with it every single day of your life.’’ As for the current bigotry against the AAPI community, Knudsen said that some want to pretend that it doesn’t exist here.
But she noted that after proudly watching members of the Ridgewood Chinese American Association march in the Village’s Fourth of July parade a few years ago, a resident called Village Hall to complain about the group’s participation. “The parade was magnificent,” Knudsen said, noting that seeing the Ridgewood Chinese American Association there was a proud moment.
“Not only did we want them to march in our parade,” she said, “we want them to be part of our lives. Diversity has enriched us. You have enriched our lives. All ethnicities enrich our lives. All cultures enrich our lives. We need to stand together. We have to stop this hate.’’
Local resident and activist Vannorth Imm said, “I grew up dealing with racism my entire life.” But she said that was nothing compared to having to talk to her son about the horrific mass shooting in Atlanta in late March. Six of the eight victims killed there were Asian American women.
“Hateful speech leads to hateful acts," Imm said. “If anything, they (the attacks) have gotten bolder. We must demand action now. Hate has no place here. You need to tell your stories. Encourage people to speak up. Don’t suffer in silence. Look around you..these are your allies. Find your courage and your voice.’’ Imm encouraged the crowd to ask government representatives and school officials what they are doing to stand up to Asian hate and all forms of discrimination. “We are strongest when we are united…united against racism, united against violence and united against hate,” Imm said.
Mike Keo, founder of the #IAmNotAVirus campaign, expressed visible pain that many violent attacks against Asians have not been labeled as hate crimes, but they bring terror. “Racism against Asian Americans goes unrecognized,” he said.
Ridgewood Schools Superintendent Thomas A. Gorman, told the crowd: “Unfortunately, we have observed an escalation of fear among the Asian American community. And we must stand together against all acts of bias and prejudice. Hate-based behavior has no place in society or our schools — and change begins in our homes and village.”
Gorman said that as a social studies teacher, he educates his students about the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps and anti-immigration policies that do not align with the values of our our most sacred American values.’’ He said that the diversity of Ridgewood’s student body is a source of pride. “We are better individually and collectively because of our different backgrounds and experiences,” he said.
Ridgewood Board of Education member Hyunju Kwak said: “We are here to amplify calls for unity against all forms of prejudice because when a segment of society is marginalized, it is a major setback for all of humanity. We are here to speak up because the inverse of speaking up is silence. And silence can be interpreted as acceptance. We showed today that silence will not reign in Ridgewood.”
Police Chief Luthcke told the crowd that when she traveled to Japan on a student exchange program while a student at Ridgewood High school, she felt like a minority for the first time in her life. “As soon as I got on the tram, the conversation would stop,” she said. “And everybody would whisper, and they’d stare at me. It was a really weird feeling, that coming from here, I wasn’t used to.”
Luthcke said her department has officers who speak Korean and Spanish and that surrounding towns have officers who speak multiple other languages who can help translate if the need arises in Ridgewood. She also reminded the predominantly Asian American audience that the department uses a vendor called LanguageLine, which quickly identifies what language is being spoken and can translate it when a police call comes in. Luthcke concluded her remarks by saying that it’s important for residents to not only ‘love thy neighbor’ but to make an effort to get to know their neighbors.
Tedesco, who spoke at a similar rally in Fort Lee last month, said: “Hatred and bigotry will not be tolerated...an attack on one must be viewed as an attack on all. Bergen County’s diversity is our greatest strength.” He noted, too, that the Asian American community represents 15 percent of the population. “We are here to stand with you and listen to you. Hate has no place here in Bergen County.”