Long Beach is incredibly diverse. But while whites and Hispanics make up the majority, a demographic that is often overlooked is the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community that makes up 13 percent of the city’s total population.
To highlight the issues they face, local community groups got together to organize a screening for the documentary “Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story.”
Directed by Ben Wang, ‘Breathin’ tells the story of 16-year-old Eddy Zheng, a Chinese immigrant who was arrested and tried as an adult on charges of robbery and kidnapping. Zheng served over 20 years in California jails and prisons and is now a prison rights activist.
The event was held on Sept. 12 at the Art Theatre on Fourth Street. The event’s organizers included The California Endowment and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee in collaboration with Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), a youth organization that empowers Khmer youth in Long Beach. It concluded with a panel discussion and spoken word performance by local artists.
Executive director of KGA, Lian Cheun, moderated the panel which included both Zheng and Wang; staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), Jacqueline Dan; and Stephanie Sim, a youth activist in Long Beach.
The conversation touched on a range of issues affecting the AAPI community, from the school-to-prison pipeline, to the Cambodian genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and the impact of deportations on local refugees.
In 2013, hundreds of Long Beach students protested at LBUSD demanding an end to disciplinary policies they argued had pushed them out of schools. Soon after the school board switched course and voted in favor of restorative justice policies.
Total suspensions have since fallen from 11,752 to 4,494 in 2015, according to EdData.
But issues for AAPI’s remain. According to reports compiled by AAAJ, AAPI’s are grouped into the “other” category in prison data, which totals 9 percent of all state and federal prisoners.
Made up of mostly immigrants and refugees, the AAPI prison population has sharply risen in recent decades, according to AAAJ. Additionally, over 13,000 Southeast Asians have been ordered for deportation since 1998, most having arrived to the U.S. as toddlers, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.
Eddy Zheng, who finished serving his sentence and is now exempt from deportation, is also now involved in trying to better his community. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Evangeline Reyes, Program Officer at The California Endowment, at the event.
It was while serving his sentence that Zheng first got involved in activism. He proposed that ethnic studies be added to the academic program at San Quentin State Prison, where he was held at the time.
Initially, Zheng was considered a threat due to his petition and was sent to solitary confinement. Eventually, the prison adopted his proposal, which led to the creation of the R.O.O.T.S. (Restoring Our Original True Selves) program.
R.O.O.T.S. is modeled after an ethnic studies curriculum. The program addresses the impact of intergenerational trauma on immigrant and refugee communities, and works towards racial justice. It is part of weekly program offerings at San Quentin.
For Long Beach’s Cambodian community, intergenerational trauma is particularly relevant.
The first Cambodians began settling in Long Beach around 1961 when Cal State University Long Beach admitted Cambodian students in one of their academic programs. Later, in 1975, refugees from the Khmer Rouge takeover began arriving at Camp Pendleton and started settling in the city.
Stephanie Sim, a 17-year-old activist and panel speaker at the screening, shared her family’s story of living as Cambodian refugees in Long Beach and how her brother was deported in 2011 after serving two prison stints.
Sim explained that the stress and trauma of her family’s situation has made it hard to focus on her academic pursuits, though she also says it is what motivates her to advocate for others through KGA.
KGA organizers work to promote the leadership of Southeast Asian youth to create social justice, recognizing that women in the AAPI community can sometimes be marginalized.
Jacqueline Dan, Staff Attorney for AAAJ, has previously worked with immigrant women held at detention centers and has seen the hardship they go through.
Women at these centers face not only poor hygiene and living conditions while they’re there, they also face fear of sexual assault and strip searches, Dan said.
To meet with an attorney, the detained must be strip-searched, an experience that often leads to such discomfort that many clients choose to forgo their attorney consultations. The “strip search is so invasive,” Dan said.
This issue has been ongoing for years, she adds. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2010, a guard at the T. Don Hutto women’s detention facility in Texas was arrested after several women alleged that he had fondled them while frisking them. The report mentions several more assault allegations occurring across the nation’s detention centers.
At the film screening event, panelists stressed the role of women as the backbone of families. “Women are the ones who take the stand,” said Zheng, “so when are we going to appreciate it?”
Zheng concluded the panel discussion by emphasizing the importance of education and the disparity between funding for prisons over schools. California’s prison incarceration rate dropped 28 percent between 2009 and 2015, but the state continues to have the largest corrections budget in the entire nation, the Public Policy Institute of California reports.
During a Q&A session with the panel, one audience member stood up to say, “Our Asian stories are often untold.” With the evening’s events and with organizations such as those behind it, AAPI stories will hopefully start to rise to the surface.
For more on the AAPI prison-to-deportation pipeline, go here.