‘You’re Asian, Right? Why Are You Even Here?’

Aaron Mak, Politico, August 23, 2016

I knew the protest was going to spiral into something bigger when I saw a man in tears push a police officer. I had never seen anyone lay a hand on a cop, even amicably. But these people gathered now in the street were utterly out of patience. I wasn’t sure whether I would be caught in the crossfire. Then a community activist I had earlier asked to interview spotted me, and called me over.

“I can see from your face that you don’t think you’re safe,” he told me. He was black; I’m Chinese-American. “You are. You’re a minority, too.”

It was just the reassurance I was looking for. It would also turn out to be wrong.

It had all started earlier that day, around 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 13, when Milwaukee police officers pulled over two black men in the city’s predominantly African-American Sherman Park neighborhood. The men fled on foot with the officers running after them. Officer Dominique Heaggan caught up with one of the men, Sylville Smith, who was armed. After a confrontation, the details of which are still unclear, the officer shot and killed Smith.

Outrage at Smith’s death surged over social media, and hundreds of people came out to protest on the street where he was killed. It was the latest in a string of often-dubious police shootings in the city. I was sent to go report on the scene as an intern for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—my last assignment for the summer.

Shortly after I arrived, I saw the beginnings of a shoving match between a line of policemen in riot gear and the distraught residents of the neighborhood. I was the only non-black person there at the time–the other news crews had left–and my presence was soon questioned: Some pointed me out as an interloper; others, like the reassuring activist, told me I would be fine. I brushed off the more hostile comments as much as I could: They were angry, and anger doesn’t always hit its intended target.

As the confrontation went on, the crowd became more and more violent. What started as shoving and rock throwing escalated into smashing cars and setting businesses aflame. By nightfall, I was crouching behind a Chevy Suburban to avoid bullets. Another intern, a white man who had arrived later on to take photos, huddled beside me. After the gunfire ceased, he emerged from behind the car to take more pictures while I stayed behind.

“Get your white ass out of here!” he soon heard. “You better not let me fucking catch you!”

After trying unsuccessfully to defuse the situation, my colleague was flying down the street with a group of men chasing him. Wanting to help, but not knowing how, I decided to run after them. In order to run faster, my colleague dropped the two bulky cameras hanging around his neck. When I tried to retrieve them, and yelled at him to get out of the area, some in the group of rioters started chasing after me too. As a former back-of-the-pack runner in middle school gym class, I wasn’t surprised when they caught me. When they threw me to the ground, I reflexively curled up into a ball. Blows landed on my back, head and torso.

“Stop! He’s not white! He’s Asian!”

I wasn’t sure who said it, or how they knew my race, but within seconds, the punches stopped. Someone grabbed me by the arm and lifted me up. As my vision came back into focus, I saw a group of concerned black faces and heard someone repeating, “Don’t fuck with Chinese dudes.” My attackers had run off. Those who had intervened escorted me to safety.

The Journal Sentinel pulled its reporters off the scene that night once it got violent; thankfully, I walked away from the incident with only scrapes and bruises, and none of my colleagues were injured. Still, I was rattled.

The voice that stuck in my head over the next few days, as I talked to my relatives and friends about it, belonged to a woman who’d come up to me in the afternoon scrum: “You’re Asian, right?” she said to me. “Why are you even here?”

{snip}

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