The day Uncle Bob passed away, I was in a car with a few young Asian American activists. We had just spent the day at the API Cultural Awareness Group’s (APICAG) annual banquet at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center. It was an intense day filled with joy and grief, but mostly love. We celebrated and broke bread with our friends at the APICAG, most of them young men, all of them with tremendous human potential, locked up with decades-long or life sentences. Visiting them always feels like an intimate crash-course on humanity. The group, led by Felix Sitthivong and Jerry Flowers, has organized inside the prison to create and teach their own Asian American Studies course and has built deep alliances with Native American, Chicano/Hispanic, and Black prisoner groups. Their work within and beyond the prison walls, inspired and supported by the longer established Black Prisoners Caucus, reflects the essence of multiracial unity and political solidarity.
Having to say goodbye is always heartbreaking. As we walked out of the barbed wire gate and left our brothers locked behind it, I know all 11 of us from various API organizations felt our souls crumble a little. We took a group selfie in the parking lot; we smoked; we laughed about the funniest moments of the day, and the most moving; we lingered because we didn’t want the day to end. Members of the APICAG had spent months preparing music, dance, poetry, spoken word, and personal stories of going from hopelessness and isolation to determination and collective growth. They shared all of this with us and with their family members. As exploited workers earning 35 cents an hour, they showed us the meaning of love and solidarity by presenting us with a seemingly endless stream of gifts that day: school supplies for the kids, candy necklaces, printed collections of their members’ writing, handmade pendants, and food that they had cooked themselves. Some of us spoke at the banquet, and Katrina Pestaño, spoken word artist and organizer at API Chaya, even rapped. We all vowed to put more work into the next banquet, to come ready with a group dance or something.
After we finally left the parking lot and went our separate ways, some of us headed out to Makah Days at Neah Bay, out on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. We wanted to keep reflecting together. We walked along the shore of the vast Pacific Ocean, chewing on fry bread, visiting and joking with vendors, and watching the canoe races. The heaviness started to lift a little. At the time, we had no idea that the hardest part of the day was yet to come. It would be one of the saddest days of my life.
Looking back now, I realize that Uncle Bob had been with us throughout the whole day. His example of building deep, lifelong bonds of friendship that crossed racial lines had reshaped the culture, institutions, politics, and lives of Seattle’s communities of color. That example reverberated inside those prison walls. The spirit of the Gang of Four – Uncle Bob, Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett – is alive inside that prison, a beating heart that could be felt that day. If Uncle Bob had been there with us, maybe it would’ve reminded him of working at CARITAS in the late ‘60s, where he provided space for the Black Panthers, the United Farmworkers, and United Indians of All Tribes to hold their meetings. Maybe he would’ve told his stories of getting arrested six times, of growing up with prostitutes and other “criminals” whose kindness nurtured him as a young boy in the International District. Yes, Uncle Bob’s spirit was there, from the opening prayer by the Cambodian elder, to the Native American Circle’s blessing of the food, to the Fa’ataupati Samoan slapping dance and the powerful solidarity messages from the Hispanic Cultural Group and the Black Prisoners Caucus. His spirit was there when we all got up to do the Electric Slide. I can hear him saying, “Soya, this is just so cool. This is the kind of unity we need on the outside!” I agree, Uncle Bob. You would’ve loved it.
Later that day, as we headed back to Sequim from Neah Bay, our conversation turned to brewing tensions between some older and younger activists in Seattle’s Asian American community, especially regarding policing and public safety in the International District. There was no cellular service out on those winding roads on the peninsula, so I still hadn’t gotten the multiple voicemails from friends letting me know that Uncle Bob had passed. But again, his spirit was right there in the car with us. The younger activists asked me how to create more intergenerational dialogue to address these tensions. I told them that about 17 years ago, some of us organized “A Night With the Elders” with Uncle Bob, Tyree Scott, Cindy Domingo, and others, to hear their stories and lessons learned. I explained that as young activists today, they would have to take the lead. The younger generation must always lead.
Tensions in the International District came to a head last summer, when the neighborhood lost its beloved guardian, Donnie Chin. He was fatally shot while patrolling in his car near King’s Hookah Lounge on July 23, 2015. Controversy flared around efforts by the City to shut down all the hookah lounges, which were owned primarily by East African and Middle Eastern people. There were stark ideological differences between older and younger members of the API community. Older, veteran API activists were heartbroken and enraged at Donnie’s death, and wanted justice to be served. Younger activists were also heartbroken, but felt shocked and betrayed by the retributive nature of the demands to bring the killers to justice. They feared that this would lead to divisions between Seattle’s Black and API communities. As someone who falls somewhere in the middle of that generational spectrum, I worked with a group of Black and API activists to write an open letter calling for unity and for solutions to violence that addressed segregation, poverty, lack of jobs, discriminatory policing, failing public schools, gentrification, and the proliferation of handguns.
Uncle Bob published his own heartfelt letter to Donnie in the International Examiner. He described the early years of Donnie’s work with Dean Wong to lay the groundwork for the International District Emergency Center nearly 50 years ago. For decades Donnie would advise limited-English-speaking Asian seniors living in the neighborhood on how to access medical and social services, and provided first aid and critical support to neighborhood residents in crisis. Uncle Bob, who had grown up in the neighborhood that both he and Donnie loved so deeply and protected so faithfully, wrote, “The IDEC became the ‘go-to guys’ and you started to emerge as the heart and soul of the Center, our Donnie, our first responder.” Donnie’s death was devastating, and it hit Uncle Bob especially hard.
That summer, at the National CAPACD convention in DC, Uncle Bob wanted to pass a resolution on gun violence. This didn’t surprise me, because one night at Bush Garden, he nudged me with his elbow and said excitedly, “Hey, we’re gonna introduce a resolution on gun violence at the CAPACD convention. We as APIs haven’t spoken out on that issue. We need to do it, for Donnie.” I said I thought it was a great idea, and then we both kept singing.
At the convention, I was in my room preparing for a panel with API organizers the next day when I suddenly got a flurry of texts and calls. The draft resolution had been circulated that afternoon, and a few grassroots organizers were concerned that some of the language reinforced the criminalization of young people of color. These organizers worked directly with Southeast Asian youth who were battling racial profiling by the police daily, and faced disproportionately high rates of criminal deportation. South Asians and Pacific Islanders were also facing racial profiling and criminalization, and the organizers knew they couldn’t be silent about it.
Soon, several of us were in a private room to discuss the resolution. It was emotional. Uncle Bob and Sue Taoka, both longtime, beloved, and dedicated leaders from Seattle who helped to found National CAPACD, explained who Donnie was, and how raw and painful it felt to lose him. Powerful young organizers like Naroen Chinn from 1Love Movement in Philadelphia and Sarath Suong from Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) in Rhode Island listened and empathized, and then shared their concerns about the resolution. They too had lost loved ones to gun violence, and wanted it to end, but their communities were being profiled by police gang units, and steered into a carceral system that exacerbated, rather than fixed, the problem of violence.
Looking back, the meeting could easily have gone badly, but it didn’t. Everyone spoke honestly, with respect and compassion for each other. Uncle Bob didn’t mince words when it came to Donnie’s death. “I’m fucking pissed,” he said. But he also listened, intently. After hearing Naroen and Sarath’s concerns, he felt strongly that the resolution needed to be changed to avoid disrespecting the young people they worked with. That night, a few of us, coordinated by Nancy Dung Nguyen of Viet LEAD and 1Love Movement, rewrote the resolution. The new language honored Donnie, named the root causes of violence, opposed criminalization as a false solution, and committed to ending gun violence. The next day it passed unanimously.
Even though they were coming from different perspectives, Uncle Bob respected the way that these young organizers stepped up to do the right thing. I know he was proud of them. Some time later, as we were having lunch one day, he told me how important it was to bring younger and older activists together in Seattle. He felt strongly that we needed to bridge the gap between those like him who had dedicated their lives to building community organizations and to protecting the International District, and those who were concerned about criminalization. To be honest, he and I had some challenging conversations during the months after Donnie death. We did not always agree, but Uncle Bob was always open to hearing what I had to say, and to seeing another side to things. And we never, ever turned to one another with anger.
Movement building, at its best, brings together people who may not agree on everything, but who work together to build power around mutual interests. The best leaders understand their role as bridge builders who can listen, think critically, and move in service to the broadest numbers of “the people”. Uncle Bob mentored so many young people to become the best community advocates they could be, by knowing when to fight and when to listen, by acting out of a fierce commitment to serve the people, and by building real political power. That is not an easy set of mandates. What makes it possible is a commitment to love and compassion, a willingness to stay engaged in the hardest moments.
Ayan Musse, a dear friend of mine who organizes in the East African community, recently sent me this message about Uncle Bob:
You learn about a person most not through agreement, but through disagreement. And I will never forget how generous he was to me when we were in disagreement over the hookah issues… I truly understood why folks called him uncle. He was honest about telling me that he was hurting, that he was wounded, but he still really strived to understand where I was coming from.
That’s the critical lesson that Uncle Bob taught us. That was his way. Regardless of disagreement, he saw everyone’s humanity and worth, especially those who were acting out of a deep love for their communities. His was no kumbaya kind of wishy-washy love. It was the powerful love that Dr. King described when he said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
To be honest, my relationship with Uncle Bob didn’t center on politics. We had known each other for decades, since my time as a staff writer for the International Examiner in the early ‘90s. My subsequent political work with the API community was only possible because of what he had done to nurture and develop that community. But we became genuinely close much later, at a time of pain and upheaval in my life. I was spending a lot of (too much) time at Bush Garden, and even dropped all of by movement work and became a karaoke host there for a while. He would talk with me about what was going on in my life, and when I told him what a mess I was, he would comfort me and make me laugh with his own stories. He always kept an eye on me and made sure I got home safe, and he was the best singing partner ever. Uncle Bob saw me with all of my imperfections. He taught me that you should never hide who you are, because you never know what beautifully imperfect kindred spirits you will find.
The world feels colder without Uncle Bob in it, but his lessons will live on forever: Love with all your heart. Serve the people. Lift up the next generation. When your heart is broken, love even harder. And always, always keep singing. I hope we can all live those lessons together as we work through some of the tensions that the API community is struggling with now. As my dear friend and community historian Karen Ishizuka reminded me, in my grief: “You carry on his passion. That’s how you live on with him always. He will make you even stronger, and you will make him sing on and on and on.”