By: Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein
Someone was selling cigarettes illegally. The State didn’t need the money, but it did want to be in control of how everyday citizens made money. When the authorities showed up, the enforcers could have let the sale of contraband cigarettes go, but they didn’t. Instead, they used force and the cigarette seller ended up on the ground. Not long after, a man was dead.
On first thought, this sounds like it’s just the story of Eric Garner’s death on July 17, 2014 in New York City, USA.
But Eric Garner’s story resonates across the continents and the decades. The story above could have been describing not his death but instead an incident that occurred decades earlier in another hemisphere, with the death of an unnamed man in a crowd that gathered when the cigarette seller was attacked by police on February 27, 1947 in Taipei, Taiwan.
In other words, what happened to Eric Garner and what has happened to Black Americans so many times is, in fundamental ways, not that different from how the Taiwanese 228 Incident — as it is known for the mass violence that started on February 28 — began. On February 27, 1947, representatives from the recently self-installed Republic of China government in Taiwan went to a tea shop to confiscate cigarettes from a woman who had been selling them illegally. The authorities hit her in the head with the butt of a gun and injured her, causing a crowd to form. An agent shot into the crowd, killing one bystander. Thus began a night of unrest that would be quelled in the subsequent months and years through extreme violence. The exact number of Taiwanese who were disappeared is not known, but it is believed 30,000 or more people were murdered and many others who were incarcerated for decades before returning unrecognizable to their families.
Until democratization in the 1990s, the name of the 228 incident was whispered in hushed tones out of earshot of the Kuomintang (KMT) party dictatorship that outlawed discussion of it. Those who did ended up in jail, executed, or disappeared. For 50 years, Taiwan survived and mourned the subsequent White Terror, in which an estimated tens of thousands of Taiwanese were murdered by the KMT’s colonial forces and many more were imprisoned for a decade or longer. All of this because the KMT had occupied the island of Taiwan while it planned to wrest control of China from the communist People’s Republic.
Two-thirds of a century after the 228 Incident and it can feel like the election of President Donald Trump means talking about the death of Eric Garner — and all the other Black folk who have been murdered extrajudicially by police and vigilantes — will soon become outlawed. We cannot utter the words “Black Lives Matter,” that simple declaration of humanity, without risking physical assault, paramilitary oppression by police forces, and white supremacist vandalism. And though the story of oppression and silencing is familiar, Taiwan’s history also demonstrates the power of remembering our history and speaking the names of the fallen.
The first generation to grow up in a Taiwan where the 228 Incident was publicly acknowledged became the Sunflower Movement of 2014, occupying their country’s parliament until it became impossible for the KMT to capitulate to economic domination from the People’s Republic of China, sometimes mistakenly known as “the Mainland,” as if Taiwan is an province of China, not an independent national community. This same generation began 2016 by helping to usher in the electoral victory of Taiwan’s first woman president — Tsai Ing-wen — from a party that has long opposed the KMT’s colonial and pro-China unification agendas. It has been an emboldened movement of Taiwanese youth, raised by families and communities who urged them to remember and make right past injustices, who have the led the charge to dismantling the political, economic, and cultural legacy of half a century of a right-wing dictatorship.
Yet, as we end 2016, it’s hard to envy President Tsai Ing-wen, who now finds that holding hands with Taiwan’s long time military ally, the United States, involves having phone conversations with President-elect Donald Trump. The very fascism that President Tsai was elected to confront now threatens the one ally that stands between Taiwan’s independence and China’s territorialism. White Americans and the media establishment continuously wring their hands over the question of whether the rising spectre of American fascism is due to racism or economic discontent.
For many of us in the Black community, this is not a question because we know white supremacy when we see it. However, not enough has been said, in light of the death of Eric Garner and others like him, about the intersection of economics and race: the uses and abuses of economic regulations as a form of colonialism and control. State power uses the excuse of regulating the marketplace as a tool for furthering control of oppressed and disempowered communities. This strategy can be seen clearly in both the historical “228 Incident” in Taiwan and the murder of Eric Garner. The linkages between the struggle of Black Americans for civil and human rights and the movement of Taiwanese that has led to a people-powered collectivist movement is deeper than one of just both having experienced violent military and paramilitary control. It is a shared history of being subjected to radical authoritarian nationalism, or fascism: an ideology that seeks to order society through political violence, war, and imperialism, especially by controlling the freedom of those ethnic or racial groups deemed inferior to work and live.
The strains of fascism within American policy are most obvious in the military-industrial complex and its domestic predecessors. In the case of the former, a nationalist economy benefits from the sales of arms and war abroad, enriching Americans at the expense of the residents of countries considered to be inferior. For example, U.S. imperialist policy sanctioned the colonization of Taiwan by the KMT from China. The subsequent killing of tens of thousands of Taiwanese was irrelevant to an American establishment focused on domination. This intentional effect of U.S. imperialism draws from the legacy of anti-Black racism, a project of controlling Black communities through State-sanctioned violence. From the inception of white colonization of, what is now, the United States, white nationalism has been comfortable declaring war on indigenous, Brown, and Black bodies, a war that has created jobs for weapons manufacturers, slave catchers, and now paramilitary-like police.
For Black Americans, one possible takeaway is that anti-fascist efforts require a multi-pronged strategy. Over the decades of martial law, Taiwanese campaigners for democracy used grassroots, legal, and electoral strategies in tandem to push for change. Each approach creates openings in the others. The grassroots Sunflower Movement, for example, gave rise to the independent New Power Party, led by heavy metal vocalist Freddy Lim. Resistance to fascism requires not just political speech, but a commitment to cultural production — to the arts — even when it is demonized by the authoritarian government. The many Taiwanese languages that predated the arrival of the KMT–Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, and fifteen indigenous aboriginal languages (the “Formosan languages”)–are still spoken today, a testament to maintaining independent ethnic identity in an illiberal society focused on homogenization.
Notably, political organizers and activists in Taiwan use hip-hop as a political vehicle to express their anti-colonial sentiments, rapping in Taiwanese Hokkien or singing in Hakka in order to keep alive the stories of where their people have been. Artists like Chang Jui-Chuan have used hip-hop to ensure that Taiwanese people never forget what their fight for freedom is about. Even as white politicians and respectability politics teach us that hip-hop is dangerous, hip-hop is saving lives, not just here, but in Taiwan too.
Our tools are that effective, that powerful. Taiwan’s success in wielding them reminds us to see the strength in ourselves. More broadly, we are not alone in our freedom fight. Decades after the 228 incident, grassroots activists have changed the conversation in Taiwan. The arc of the moral universe is long, but in Taiwan we see more evidence that it is possible to bend it toward justice.
Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein is one of too few Black American women with a PhD in physics. Her husband’s family survived the White Terror.
Photo via Wiki Commons.