‘In Defense of Civil Rights’ Honors Beginning of U.S. Asian American Movement

Gary Iwamoto April 17, 2013 0
‘In Defense of Civil Rights’ Honors Beginning of U.S. Asian American Movement

Photo caption: “In Defense of Civil Rights: The 40-Year History of the Asian Law Caucus” by Sam Cacas (Smashwords Edition, 2012). by Sam Cacas

In the early 1970s, in the days of the “Asian Movement” when young Asian Americans began asserting their ethnic identities,  community lawyer and law professor Ken Kawachi and law students Dale Minami, Garrick Lew, Gene Lam, Michael Lee and Eugene Tomine began meeting with the idea of forming an organization of concerned Asian Americans to address the legal issues specific to Asian Americans that were not being served by any organization at the time. Their plan essentially called for the formation of a nonprofit group which would deliver politically and culturally sensitive legal services, referrals, community outreach and impact litigation to low-income and underserved Asian Pacific Americans in the Bay Area.

The Asian Law Caucus (ALC) is perhaps, the preeminent Asian American civil rights advocacy organization in the country. In “In Defense of Civil Rights: The 40-Year History of the Asian Law Caucus,” author Sam Cacas has capsulates the numerous accomplishments that the ALC has made in advancing the civil rights of Asian Americans during its 40 years of existence. According to Cacas, the Asian Law Caucus had served more than 35,000 clients, conducted over 6,000 community meetings, distributed over 60,000 “Know Your Rights” brochures and litigated more than 500 court cases, while advocating for countless pro-civil rights laws and policies and generating volumes of media coverage. ALC conducted other activities — all related to its goal of providing better civil rights protections to Asian Pacific Americans relative to community needs.

When asked why he decided to write this book, Cacas, a Bay Area journalist who has written for Asian Week, Philippine News, the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and the International Examiner, explained: “I had written numerous articles about the Asian Law Caucus’s accomplishments in the 1980s and 1990s and thought many of these articles deserved a longer narrative than a couple hundred to several hundred words. I felt that many of the accomplishments of the ALC are a part of American legal history we Asian Americans and we Americans of any race have not been exposed to.”

The Asian Law Caucus developed a model of legal advocacy, grassroots community organizing and community education in support of institutional change.  Cacas’ book provides a chronological timeline of the incredible accomplishments of the ALC in fighting for the civil rights of Asian Americans in various legal areas: criminal defense, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, immigrant rights, violence toward Asian Americans, housing discrimination and national security. Comments by past and present ALC attorneys such as Dale Minami, Bill Tamayo and Ed Lee (now the mayor of San Francisco) who were involved in the cases are included to provide background and context. In addition to describing the legal work done in each of these cases, Cacas also provides descriptions of the corresponding community organizing and community education efforts which were mounted in support of the work of the Asian Law Caucus.

Cacas devotes special attention to the coram nobis petition of Fred Korematsu, who successfully appealed his World War II conviction 40 years after being found guilty of violating the exclusion orders of Japanese Americans from the West coast. Other cases highlighted include the case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee (the Taiwanese scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory accused of passing classified information to the Chinese government), the Vincent Chin case (a Chinese American murdered in Detroit because his assailants thought he was Japanese), and the International Hotel (a rallying issue for preservation of low-income housing in San Francisco).

The Asian Law Caucus continues to be a formidable presence as a civil rights organization.

“The longevity of the ALC is a testament to its recurrent relevance to the most pressing issues during different time periods, whether it be the current ALC initiatives against hate violence and discrimination against Middle Eastern and Muslim people, the 1980s resistance to repressive/discriminatory immigration proposals and laws, the filing of the Coram Nobis petition in the Korematsu case, and the 1980s push for legislation and other initiatives against anti-Asian violence following the Vincent Chin case in 1986,” said Cacas. “Whether it has assisted in the defense of the undocumented Asian Americans incarcerated because of their race like Wen Ho Lee, or Chinese garment workers denied fair wages and decent working conditions, the Caucus has always tried to take on the issues in the Asian American community that no other Asians and Asian groups in this country wanted to take on.”