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How the #ProtectOurElders Movement Helped Create a Wave of First-Time Asian American Activists

An older Vietnamese American woman practices self-defense moves on a volunteer.
An older Vietnamese American woman practices self-defense moves on a volunteer with the new group Seniors Fight Back outside the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster. | Josie Huang/LAist
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The following article was originally published March 22, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Josie Huang

Celebrated for his knockouts, mixed martial arts fighter Ron Scolesdang is used to cheers and jeers from a rowdy crowd as he bounces about the cage like a live wire.

But on a Sunday afternoon in late May, he had a different kind of audience outside the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster: Vietnamese American women in their 70s covered in hats and masks.

The animated seniors gamely copied his moves as Scolesdang avoided using his spotty Vietnamese to coach them in English.

"We're not trying to turn you into a cage fighter," he said from his perch at the mall fountain. "We just want you to be safe."

Scolesdang is a founding member of Seniors Fight Back, part of a wave of new groups and efforts that have formed over the past year that saw a rise in attacks on Asian Americans and the mass shooting in Atlanta that killed six women of Asian descent.

MMA fighter Ron Scolesdang, left, teaches a class of seniors how to knee his sparring partner.
MMA fighter Ron Scolesdang, left, teaches a class of seniors how to knee his sparring partner outside the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster. | Josie Huang/LAist

Historians say not since the Asian American movement that began in the late 1960s and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin has there been such a surge in grassroots participation, though it remains to be seen how lasting and impactful it will be.

Compared to the past, seniors have figured especially prominently in activism efforts that have often kicked off on social media platforms that didn't exist decades ago.

Graphic footage of Asian American seniors being publicly assaulted across the country has spawned hashtags such as #ProtectOurElders, driven fund-raisers, public art and PSAs and led to community-based efforts to look outside of police through chaperone services and neighborhood patrols and information campaigns.

Many of the founding members of Seniors Fight Back, which include an epidemiologist, a tattoo artist and a food blogger, were complete strangers from Orange and Los Angeles counties until they joined forces on Instagram.

Social media coordinator Alyssa San Agustin, left, and epidemiologist Tina Koo are founding members of Seniors Fight Back.
Social media coordinator Alyssa San Agustin, left, and epidemiologist Tina Koo are founding members of Seniors Fight Back. | Josie Huang/LAist

They come from different Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds — Korean, Chamorro and Vietnamese to name some — but share the same worry for their parents and grandparents.

"Elders are the most respected in the whole community," said Scolesdang after teaching one of several sessions with the seniors. "Like, shoot! If they're wrong, it doesn't matter. They're right, you're wrong. You bow down to them."

The little information available about anti-Asian incidents and crimes indicate that seniors are actually not disproportionately experiencing attacks. The Stop AAPI Hate online tracker in its latest report found that less than 7% of the 6,600 incident reports it received over the past year involved Asian Americans ages 60 and up.

But community leaders say underreporting is rampant because older Asian American victims are reluctant to talk with authorities — and when some have, they're not always heeded.

Meanwhile, attacks on Asian seniors continue to take place across the country, including in Southern California. Seniors Fight Back plans to hold one of its next training sessions in Cerritos, where this month an assailant gave a 70-year-old Filipino American man a black eye and told him to go back to his country.

A Long History Of Asian American Activism

The focus on protecting seniors gives activists the ability to do something material in the face of random attacks on the most vulnerable community members in the most everyday of settings.

"I know this sounds so cliché but there's this whole aspect of filial piety," said Janette Lee, a seniors activities coordinator for the long-standing Little Tokyo Service Center in downtown L.A. She added: "It makes it easier for people to sympathize when it's older people being attacked than with younger people."

A second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, Lee began teaching martial arts during senior wellness classes. Her commitment was bolstered after her own father was verbally attacked last year at a grocery store in East Hollywood and one of her elderly students was hit with an egg in Little Tokyo a couple of months ago.

Lee welcomes all the Asian Americans getting involved with seniors, but she's also been frustrated that some newcomers don't recognize that similar work has been carried out for decades by community organizations such as the Little Tokyo Service Center or that there's a long history of Asian American activism. She points to the trailblazing work of Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama.

"I just think it's kind of sad that a lot of Asian Americans are now realizing that anti-Asian racism is a thing, that it had to come to this point for people to realize, Oh, people don't see me as American, like I will always be 'other,'" Lee said. "Like, this has been going on for over 200 years."

Hashtag Activism?

There is the question of how long these new groups will last after hashtags fade from use.

Diane Fujino, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Santa Barbara, said she and other scholar-activists have been watching the groundswell of new organizations.

"The heavy reliance on social media and Instagram to do organizing can shift consciousness and allow for certain projects to develop," Fujino said. "It's yet to be seen as to how this relates to building social movements across time."

What Fujino said is happening in real time are Asian Americans becoming radicalized by the acts of discrimination and taking action — something she finds encouraging and critical to bringing about systemic change.

"If it gets people to read more, to think more, to develop their analysis, to do something, I think it's really important and here to stay," Fujino said.

"We Will Do Them Forever"

Members of Seniors Fight Back say they'd done little-to-no organizing before the pandemic, but the rise in anti-Asian attacks served as a call to activism — and not just for the short-term.

The seeds for Seniors Fight Back were planted months before the training outside the Asian Garden Mall and can be traced back to a friendship that began last fall at a boxing gym in Hollywood.

That's where Tina Koo, an epidemiologist, and Alyssa San Agustin, a social media coordinator, took classes and bonded instantly.

Koo is Korean American, San Agustin is Filipina/Chamorro. Both are devoted to their grandparents, and Koo said they shared their fears with one another after seeing multiple videos of Asian seniors being attacked.

"[San Agustin's] grandparents live in San Diego and mine live in New York," Koo said. "So we're like, We can't even be with them to walk with them."

The two brainstormed how they could turn their love of boxing into something productive and came up with coordinating donation-based boxing classes taught by trainers.

"All the money that we get goes to organizations and activists that are fighting for API against API hate crimes," San Agustin said.

They called the group Box For Change, and began inviting people to classes, including a woman named Hong Lee.

Lee has become one of L.A.'s most visible crusaders against anti-Asian hate in the past year. Her life changed after she posted a viral video of herself being harassed at an L.A. restaurant. A man who was angry that she turned him down for a date yelled at Lee, who's Vietnamese American: "Go back to Asia."

Since then, Lee has gone from being a private mom of two to giving heartfelt speeches at anti-Asian hate events. That's how the Box for Change women learned about her. Hong took up their offer to attend a class.

"This past year, I learned that you are your own first responder," Lee said. "For me, just learning these techniques helps me feel more prepared. Unfortunately, right now, a lot of people in our community are not feeling safe to go outside."

When Hong posted on Instagram about Box for Change late last month, things really gathered steam.

Her friend Andy Luong, a food blogger, reposted her post. He had met Lee at one of several anti-Asian hate rallies that have marked his pandemic year, which also saw him giving back to the community by donating photo services for mom 'n' pop businesses.

Tony Dang is a founding member of Seniors Fight Back and a tattoo artist in Santa Ana.
Tony Dang is a founding member of Seniors Fight Back and a tattoo artist in Santa Ana. | Josie Huang/LAist

Luong's repost of Lee was seen by an acquaintance of his, a tattoo artist named Tony Dang. The connection between the two men is that Dang's mom makes banh khot — Vietnamese pancakes — and Luong had been shooting images for her business.

Dang, who works at a tattoo shop in Santa Ana, had been searching for a way to help protect older people from attacks, and he felt so inspired by Lee's post that they began messaging over Instagram, along with Luong.

"And then, dude, it went wild," Dang said. "It was like people started coming into the group chat."

Someone had connections at the Asian Garden Mall. Others were able to gather refreshments and pepper spray to give away. Dang, meanwhile, reached out to Scolesdang. As it turns out, the MMA fighter's family orders banh khot from Dang's mom.

Scolesdang marveled how within weeks of being added to the Instagram chat, he was standing before the seniors, teaching them how to fend off a taller, larger assailant. During practice, 71-year-old Sandy Nguyen kneed Scolesdang in a sensitive spot, then laughingly scolded him for not using protective gear.

Wincing through the pain, he later got up in front of the rest of the group.

"As you can see, we had someone actually knee somebody in the groin today," Scolesdang said to laughter. "Very, very effective."

After class, Nguyen later demonstrated elbowing someone in the ribs. She had her husband film her moves so she could watch and practice at home later.

"What I want to do, I try my best to do it," said Nguyen who left the mall with free pepper spray and a smile on her face.

Organizers with Seniors Fight Back say they foresee expanding their outreach to Asian American youth and creating bonding activities that bring young and old together.

Scolesdang offered to make this new group one that lasts. He said he felt choked up watching the confidence exude from the seniors after his class.

"If these events are making people feel more empowered, then we will do them forever," said Scolesdang who's set to teach classes in Cerritos and downtown L.A. next month. "We'll donate our time for the rest of our lives."

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