After years of silence, New York City’s Filipino community has found its political voice again. Drawing on one injustice to right another, it’s supporting a hate crimes bill that should have become law a decade ago.
Unsurprisingly, this political resurgence was born out of violence. In Los Angeles this August, Buford Furrow shot and killed Filipino-American postal worker Joseph Ileto, affectionately known to his family as “Jojo.” Earlier that same day, Furrow, a self-declared white supremacist, also wounded five others, including four children, at a Jewish community center.
In response, Filipinos in seven major cites across the country launched days of mourning and protest. In New York City, hundreds of Filipinos, joined by a mix of allies from Koreans and Jews to lesbians and gays–and even postal workers–held a candlelight vigil turned rally. Looking out at the gathering, Jojo’s uncle remarked, “Jojo’s death is an awakening for all of us.”
In fact, not since the protests against Ferdinand Marcos in the mid-1980s have various Filipino groups in the city united for a political purpose. This time around, the city’s 115,000 Filipinos have a local, more accessible target for protest–and a ready-made coalition to back them up.
Every year since 1990, the New York State Bias-Related Violence and Intimidation Act–which increases the penalties for crimes based on race, religion or national origin, and adds age, disability, gender and sexual orientation to the list-has passed the State Assembly. The push for tougher laws has also won over Governor George Pataki. Yet each legislative session, without fail, the bill stalls in the Republican-controlled State Senate, which has repeatedly refused to vote on the measure.
More than 1,100 bias complaints were reported in New York City during fiscal year 1999, according to the City Commission on Human Rights. Even though a tougher statute won’t prevent all bias crimes, it would send a resounding message that these acts will not be tolerated. To make that statement, the Assembly’s bill creates an additional law through which offenders can be given two consecutive sentences, one for the violent act and another for the bias itself, while a Pataki version stiffens existing laws. These bills take different approaches, but the underlying thought is the same: Our laws won’t do. New York is the only state in the Northeast not to have broadened its bias crime laws to include sexual orientation–and some of these states have already stiffened the penalties for hate crimes.
New York’s antiquated laws will become even more out-of-date while a powerful few hold up progress. There are enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill if Majority Leader Joseph Bruno would ever allow it to come up for a vote. Early on, Senate Republicans said they’d support the bill if it removed lesbians and gays as a protected group. But the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, with other advocates, refused to support a biased bias bill. It has been stalled ever since.
Now, because of Jojo, New York’s Filipino community wants to change that. Filipinos are the newest members of a coalition of lesbians and gays, legislators of color, civic associations, churches, labor groups, and district attorneys to push for the bill’s passage.
So begins the difficult task of rousing a sleeping giant. In addition to lobbying senators, we are trying to mobilize individual Filipinos. At the vigil for Jojo, we passed out voter registration forms and collected nearly 200 signed postcards addressed to state senators, including Bruno, asking them to pass the bias crimes bill. An array of groups have signed on to the fight, including the Filipino Civil Rights Advocates, Filipino American Human Services and Philippine Nurses Association. Even prayer groups and church committees have promised to get their members involved.
The night of the vigil, a young, openly gay Filipino activist raised his fist with the cry, “Furrow shot Joseph Ileto because he had brown skin like me.” Though in its infancy, this new political spark burns bright. Most Filipinos may not be ready yet to shout down a politician or shut down Broadway, but they are ready to push for protections that are long overdue.
Glenn D. Magpantay is a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.