‘A Time to Rise’: A Revolutionary Asian American Movement

Tracy Lai October 22, 2017 0

Just in time for October, National Filipino American History Month, University of Washington Press released A Time to Rise: Collective Memoirs of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP). Co-edited by former leaders of the KDP—Rene Ciria Cruz, local community activist and independent scholar, Cindy Domingo, and Bruce Occena—this nearly 20-year project is a remarkable documentation of one of the leading revolutionary Asian American Movement organizations. Augusto F. Espiritu’s cogent Foreword provides an overview of the KDP in the context of revolutionary currents and organizations of the 1970s–’80s. Espiritu captures the socio-cultural landscape of Filipinos and other Asian Americans “shattering the model minority stereotype of political passivity” while simultaneously building solidarity with the anti-imperialist struggles of Asian homelands.

As a community college historian committed to teaching social movement theory and history, I find this powerful analogy timely, especially since each section addresses political transformations of individuals, their leadership and collective relationships, and the KDP’s approach to organizing. More than 35 former members wrote vignettes from growing up as children born into the KDP to taking on unexpected roles simply because it was necessary. Each story tells both personal choice and change, while contributing to a much larger whole, whether national campaigns such as defending two nurses, Filipina Narciso and Leonora Perez, framed for murdering 35 patients at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or international campaigns to defeat the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

A Time to Rise is organized into four sections that correspond to the formation of the KDP in the context of the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines; the evolution of KDP’s dual program (support of the Philippines left and establishment of socialism in the United States); the political assassinations of KDP leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes; and legacies.

A significant number of KDP members were women and many members were young—in their 20s, similar to other revolutionaries and activists of the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, KDP was intergenerational with the support of manongs and other elders, such as tenants of the International Hotel, whose battle to save this low-income hotel spanned over 10 years. The relatively greater acceptance of gays/lesbians in the KDP countered the homophobia still prevalent among the left in the ’70s.

Romy Garcia’s “How My Life Changed,” could easily be the same story of an immigrant youth today. Gangs and the violence of street life could have defined Romy’s life, as happened to several of his relatives, but for a chance encounter with a Philippine National Day celebration in Dolores Park in San Francisco. As Romy became more knowledgeable about the situation in the Philippines, he began to help distribute the Taliba, national newsletter of the Anti-Martial Law Coalition. His politics and sense of purpose guided him towards radically different life choices to the present as a labor and community activist.

Michael Withey’s “A Night in Camelot,” Cindy Domingo’s “Long Road to Justice,” and Jim Douglas’ “Defeating the Marcoses in a Court of Law,” address the extraordinary 10+ year
defense campaign of the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes. The committee’s meticulous work resulted in the criminal convictions of the men who assassinated Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes and a federal civil suit against the Marcos family and other defendants with a judgement of $23.3 million, an unprecedented legal victory. One can only marvel at the multiple layers of organizing, whether on the legal side or in the community. Cindy recounts her revelation at the final day of the civil suit in 1989, “To me that was what justice was—building a movement that would not forget.”

A Time to Rise provides much greater complexity to teaching and learning about both Filipino American and Asian American movement history. For example, the interference and intimidation of the Philippines government targeting anti-Marcos activists in the United States is exposed in the Philippine Infiltration Plan, bearing uncomfortable similarities to the U.S. FBI’s CounterIntelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that sought to undermine the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement. The story of the KDP gives new meaning to “solidarity” work by detailing the high levels of organizational coordination, exchange and shared politics. More than lessons of the past, A Time to Rise illuminates the way forward to complete unfinished revolutions.

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