By KATE ALBRIGHT and DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
About 1,200 white paper lanterns illuminated Edgemont Memorial Park Friday evening, in tribute to victims of racial violence and injustice.
The Lantern Festival for Justice and Remembrance, which drew close to 1,000 people to the park, was hosted by AAPI Montclair, a grassroots organization of more than 300 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Montclair. The organization started two months ago in response to incidences of violence against Asian Americans nationwide.
“This has all come together in two or three weeks. So, it’s kind of been a whirlwind, but it’s also been really gratifying to see how much community support there,” Julie Kim, a founding member of AAPI Montclair, told Montclair Local. “And I’m really hoping that that stays going forward.”
Kim told the crowd Asian Americans living in and around Montclair needed a community “to share our collective grief and fears” over violence, harassment and intimidation.
“Xenophobia is the fear and hatred of the foreign and we are perceived as perpetual foreigners yet this is our home,” Kim said. “We belong here.”
A report released this month by advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate identified 6,603 reported bias incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the course of the pandemic — from March 19, 2020, through March 31 of this year. The number grew from 3,795 to 6,603 during March of this year, Stop AAPI Hate says. That’s the same month a 21-year-old man allegedly went on a rampage through three Atlanta salons, killing 8 people; most of the victims were of Asian descent.
Of the incidents Stop AAPI’s report references, 65.2% were for verbal harassment, 12.6% for physical assaults, 10.3% for workplace discrimination and 7.3% for online harassment.
The lanterns laid out at Edgemont “will shine brightly and symbolize peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. May we all walk together on this path,” Kim said.
Several community leaders took up the stage to share their experience with racism and bullying as Asian-Americans, or to share their support for the community.
Serena Lee — a Montclair High School sophomore and former student at Glenfield Middle School, as well as Hillside and Nishuane elementary schools — spoke of bullying she and Asian American peers experienced when she was younger. She recalled a group of kids pulling back their eyes to make fun of the Asian children, and being called a “weird Chinese disease” in the third grade.
“As an Asian American child in Montclair I’ve always felt a little bit out of place, despite us being a diverse bubble. I faced racism and microaggressions from my peers and my teachers have turned blind eyes,” Lee said.
She was glad for an outpouring of support after the Atlanta shooting. “But more than anything, my white peers were surprised. But this should not have been shocking,” Lee said.
Alice Young spoke about her experience raising her children in Montclair, and said there’d been a lack of Asian American representation in the school curriculum.
“I was surprised when my daughter came home from public school one day and asked why when there were so many famous whites and Blacks in American history, [but] there were no famous Asian Americans,” Young said. “And now almost 35 years later, I am delighted that there are so many more Asian faces in the crowd and an even more diverse community. But I am frightened by the racism and violence against Asians. I carry this yellow whistle, which says we belong, as protection and a reminder that we all must be upstanders, not just bystanders.”
Khyati Joshi, a Fairleigh Dickinson University professor and social science researcher, in 2019 co-authored a report for advocacy group Jersey Promise, “The State of Asian Americans in New Jersey.” She told the crowd Friday: “We couldn’t believe that something like this didn’t exist” before then.
She said Asian Americans make up 10% of the population in New Jersey, but anticipated the figure could be 15% after figures from the 2020 Census are complete. But the researchers found “people feel invisible,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter what job, what occupation, what age,” Joshi said. “So, it’s wonderful to be here and to be visible. We are not only part of the story in the United States. We are part of the story on race in America, where we get marginalized.”
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, Montclair resident and Democrat representing the 11th Congressional District, said she was proud of the support she’s seen for AAPI members of the community.
“This really gives me hope. It gives me joy to see our community taking a stand against the hatred that we’re seeing in so many places and in so many ways across this country,” she said.
As AAPI Montclair came together earlier this year, its leaders organized a group letter to Montclair school officials, pressing them to do more to combat anti-Asian bias and protect students who’d soon be returning to school buildings for the first time in the pandemic. Schools Superintendent Jonathan C. Ponds met with the group in April to discuss ongoing education and training, and more representation in the school curriculum.
“‘I’m not racist’ is not good enough,” Ponds told those at Friday’s gathering. “Do more. Do more on our end, day in and day out to make it better for all Americans. All people in this country, in this world deserve better. It will happen. It will happen here in Montclair. Our Asian American families and our students, we love you. You belong. This is your home. I will work for you. I work for you and your families.”
Montclair Councilman Bob Russo told the crowd the Township Council has selected a member of AAPI Montclair to serve on its Civil Rights Commission. The appointment will be announced soon, he said.
“I’m still in shock about how many people came out to support us tonight.” Amber Reed, one of the organizers, said at the end of the night. “It turned out to be such a beautiful experience and for everyone to come out for [an event] hat we just started thinking about two weeks ago. And to see it take such beautiful form tonight, it’s just overwhelming. I think I’m still in shock from it all.”
Editor’s note: Amber Reed is married to Justin Jamail, a member of the Montclair Local’s governing board.