Sep 27, 2023
27 min
Episode 5

We Are San Francisco: 'Elevating Asian Issues' with Forrest Liu

Ben Kaplan  00:00

Hey, BART riders. Hey San Francisco. I'm Ben Kaplan and this is the podcast where we define who we are and who we want to be.


We are diverse. We are innovative, we are inclusive. We are change makers, problem solvers, activists, leaders, citizens, we are open minded optimistic, because hope for a better tomorrow and you and you and you gotta get in the hole.

Ben Kaplan  00:27

This is the podcast. That's more than a podcast for Cisco.


They are the world champion,

Ben Kaplan  00:34

our San Francisco

Ben Kaplan  00:42

Hey San Francisco. Today I'm chatting with Forrest Liu. He's an anti Asian hate activist and a co founder of dear community, a group that supports Asian Small Business corridors that have been negatively impacted by COVID 19 and racism against the Asian community. Forced is something of an accidental activist. In 2021, the unprovoked attack and murder of grandpa feature, an elderly Thai American man in San Francisco spurred forced into action. He started a nonviolent volunteer foot patrol in Chinatown, recruited dozens of others to the cause, and eventually left his profession to focus on Asian issues full time. So despite San Francisco's population being more than 1/3, Asian, does the city actually elevate and celebrate its Asian community? Or do Asian issues and concerns get swept under the rug, unless it happens to be when a local politician needs support? Let's find out with Forrest Liu.

Ben Kaplan  01:44

Forrest, I think your story of how you came to be an activist, almost parallels the story of San Francisco as Asian hate has been an increasingly worrisome trend in recent years. To start with, how did you go from your regular job, so called regular job to getting really involved in the future of the city and especially elevating Asian issues?

Forrest Liu  02:06

Yeah, thanks. Thanks, Ben, for having me, really grateful to be here. It's a really important issue and really important issue to me. I used to work as a regular finance worker here in San Francisco, basically, my whole career. And I saw a video one day in early 2021, of an elderly Asian man, same as cramco Bucha retirement party, he was horrifically murdered. And it just kind of sparked all these emotions in me had a very visceral reaction. And I wanted to do something about it. So because of that video, I just started organizing after work, a patrol group in Chinatown, a non violent volunteer patrol group, and we would meet up after work and, and we walked the streets of Chinatown. And we saw I mean, all sorts of shocking stuff, you know, people stealing from merchants, people, kissing ATMs, people targeting the businesses for robberies and attacks, to community most vulnerable,

Ben Kaplan  03:02

take me back to organizing those patrols. It's interesting, both in terms of just being really concerned about what's happening to especially those elderly members of the Asian community in San Francisco. But it's also a really good example of just the power of individual people doing things. You don't have to be elected to something to make a difference or create change. So how did that even happen? Let me

Forrest Liu  03:24

let me take you back a little further. If you don't mind, Ben, I want to tell you why the video sparked this in me when I was like seven or eight years old. I remember this really vividly my mom, she was a librarian. She was working at the Richmond Public Library. My dad was working here in the city. So every morning, my dad would commute to San Francisco, and my mom would take the BART to the Richmond BART station, then walk to the library. And if you remember the time, or knew the walk Richmond used to be not the safest place in the world. And that walk from the BART station to the library. What took you through a pretty unsafe part of Richmond the city. And one day, I remember just my dad came home, and he threw this newspaper on the table. And there was two Asian people. The other Asian person and his elderly father and there are a walk, and they were robbed. And during the course of the robbery, the the father, the older Asian man was shoved to the ground. He struck his head on the ground, he passed away. And I remember my dad was so upset because he could not like accompany my mom to work. He couldn't keep her safe. He felt very helpless. And he felt very upset and angry. And I was there thinking as a seven or eight year old kid, like what can I do? Like what can I do? To do something about the situation for my dad. And so when I saw the video in 2021 of grandpa Petia all of that came up in me again and I was like, I need to do something right now I have to and yeah, it just started. I just want to do the patrol and I was in this group of people who are Asian and and unemployed, or they were unemployed at the time, and I was chatting with them. And we were trying to figure out basically how to get jobs and I was chatting with them and how angry I was about the video. And I have other like friend group chats. And as I just started texting people, that's how that's how organizing is you just you're just texting people and asking them to show up for something. And I asked him to come up with a troll and like a bunch of people came and people were are angry, just like I was about what they saw about grandpa feature. And, and the like, kind of bubbling up on social media of these attacks against the Asian elders. And I don't know, like, we were in Chinatown, we were walking around. This other activists named Wilhem, flew in from New York. And then, because he came like the media came and because of the media, more people came to the patrols. And it was just kind of a compounding effect, that chronicle did a feature on our patrol. And, and then the Atlanta spa shootings happened. And we went from, I don't know, like a 12 person patrol every few nights, to like a weekly patrol five nights a week, 30 plus people coming out to Chinatown, to walk the streets.

Ben Kaplan  06:04

It was a time when I feel like there's these moments. And we can even talk about whether we're in another one in San Francisco now in a broader sense, but there's these moments where there's sort of this collective will, some of it can be fueled by frustration, and anger, and rightly so others can be fueled by just people just, you know, just being fed up with the situation and being it's time to do something. But there's like these moments, where people come together in surprising ways. And one of the themes of this show is we is greater than me, right? We're always greater together than we are individually. And it sounds like you're describing one of these moments where you describe it as a snowball, it's just like, you can almost prevent it from happening, it just goes. And the reason it goes is just it sort of needs to happen. And people can sense that. And you can feel that. And I just feel like those kind of moments when they happen. You just gotta want you you got to ride the wave until you got to make the most of it. And it sounds like that's what you did.

Forrest Liu  06:58

Yeah, I made a huge change in April, I wanted to patrol or anything like I would leave work, I would, you know, not be completely honest with my supervisors and like leave for 32 Just try to get to the patrol as soon as I could. And I realized that part of what was holding me back was not living in a city. So I stayed on a monthly Airbnb in April 2021. At the end of that month, someone else had booked it for the next month that I got kicked out. And I was like, geez, and so I ended up moving into an apartment, I ended up moving to the city, because I wanted to keep the patrol going. I ended up leaving my career in June because I wanted to just keep what I was doing alive and seize upon that moment. But like, I don't know, make it make a difference, like feel fulfilled in my work.

Ben Kaplan  07:41

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Take us through

Ben Kaplan  08:09

from that point now. Because you really recommitted and kind of change your life's purpose, your life's work really around that moment. And that's amazing. And how do you think about now were a couple of years removed from that the first patrols that you did? And how do you feel Asian issues are treated now? Do you feel like, oh, it's been around for a while, and it used to be covered a lot and it's not being covered as much anymore? Do you feel like Asian issues get attention when politicians need votes and things are going on? How do you feel like kind of the movement has evolved, you know, from those initial just like really brazen attacks and people getting up in arms and then sort of time progressing?

Forrest Liu  08:50

Let me start with with one evolution where that the troll groups and the patrolling that I was doing, we had a big shift. I was bringing all these people to try it out. We were walking the street. And, you know, it's not the most exciting thing. It's really good. It's really raw. Days go by nothing happens. Sometimes something really bad happens. And after patrol, the community building happens when we meet up at a local restaurant. When we after the restaurant, go to a local bar, we hang out and that's where the community building was happening. And, you know, I was made to change my mind. I just thought like as a finance major, more patrols, more patrols, more taps, more patrols everywhere. It was actually another person named Amy Lee, who convinced me that like actually the way I was helping was because all these people were coming into Chinatown. They really wanted to help they really wanted to get involved. And after patrol, we'd spend money in a local restaurant, we spent money to local bar. These businesses needed help. They needed people around people around keeps them safer. They were open longer, you can make more money. And so the patrol pivoted to an organization that we co founded called Dear community where we bring people together we're building the community people who want to stop Asian hate and support local Asian business. says in the name of uplifting nation pride, but desperate question. I also myself, got involved in local politics, because we needed our elected leaders to advocate for for our community because we were under attack, you know, feeling safe as a basic human right. And we didn't have that. We didn't have that. We didn't, you know, the top prosecutor of our city and county chase that Dean refused to even say the word stop patient hate, never said it. Three words, not long, multi syllable words, by the way, a lot of the activism, I was getting translated directly into action, political action, which is I mean, the very definition of being an activist, right, you know, the recall of tasted redeemed, and, and galvanizing the Asian community behind a school board recall, and then driving that home in November. It's like, the deadly days again, where these invoice has suddenly become relevant and important because of what happened in 2022. With the the elections,

Ben Kaplan  10:58

so this kind of natural evolution, it sounds like for you, which is an evolution in the city as well, right, which is crime happening, crises happening, you respond to it? Do you do what you can and then to you realize, to have a bigger impact that kind of evolves. And then, you know, what became just an effort of just prevent people from getting attacked becomes like, we have to engage in the political process. And oh, some of the value of our movement is not just the patrols itself, but it's the community that forms it. Can we elevate that and we have financial power, and we have a united voice, and we have all these things. So all those things happen. Do you feel like because Ed Lee was the city's first Asian mayor or Asian issues, just elevated them just because of who he was? Do you feel we've lost some of that even though Asian population San Francisco more than a third of the population, right? Chinese American population, more than 20% of the population of San Francisco? It's like a niche group. Enormous niche for San Francisco. Do you feel like it was different in the Ed Lee days?

Forrest Liu  11:52

You know, I used to intern for Mayor Ed Lee. And I remember that time I was very young, but we had Asian mayor, we had five Asian Board of Supervisors, supervisors on the board, you know, a lot of infighting, but like the infighting was a sign of there's a lot of advocates for the Asian community had passed away very tragically, very suddenly, unexpectedly. A huge community activist advocate for our community rose PAC, then passed away not too long after, and he saw this, this decline in Asian power as other people to control this far left faction in San Francisco. Radical leftism took hold. You know, the supervisor of Chinatown, the kingpin of this activism, Aaron Peskin took over and built this new empire school of thought here in San Francisco, that, that really sidelined and left Asian people out, you know, we we occupy a third of the city in terms of population, but nationally, we're still a minority group. And there's this myth, the model minority myth, right? In San Francisco, we have the highest ethnic median, not average median income. And there's so many of us, many who are not Asian view us as exempt from being a marginalized community. But we face our own struggles as non white America, you know, most predominantly being seen and heard as a big struggle for us, you know, having somebody that have our backs, and we're under fire. I mean, that's something that we need. And we don't have it from other groups. We're the perpetual foreigner, right? We're born and raised here. But we're never truly American. We're always Asian American, you know, our status is is other, right? We're not black and brown communities, marginalized communities. We're not white Americans. And yeah, we've really just seen this decline of Asian representation, Asian advocacy, Asian power since Edley, Rose pack their desks and we hit a crisis point, we had such a little voice in the city that the school board had run amok, that the top prosecutor of the city and county would look at all these horrific attacks and do nothing, because it didn't matter anymore. And that's, that's where this all this all kind of bubbled up from when you know, when Rambo was still on the stop Asian movement happened.

Ben Kaplan  14:09

And even recent examples of things that have passed. I don't know if you noticed this, but in the recent housing element update, which by law you have to do every eight years, and there's new goal setting that was just passed in January of this year. And I was going through that and they have you know, different goals. And one of the goals was repair the harms of racial and ethnic discrimination against American Indian black and other people of color. And I don't know if you saw that if you didn't read the paragraph, it does mention Japanese Americans and it references sort of the Filipino experience but just when I saw that my first thing was oh, here we are Asian community as other again, we're the other in that headline not even mentioned, and I don't know if you notice that but when I did that, I just thought like, oh, that kind of epitomizes and I was like did no one look at that and say like hey, why is the 1/3 of San Francisco's population that definitely has invested role in housing elements is and what the future of housing in San Francisco is, is now other in the major goals of the document.

Forrest Liu  15:12

It fits perfectly into the the national and local perception of Asian people. We're not see as a marginalized community, we're not seeing as leaders either, right? We're in another category where people don't view an Asian man and accompany as how they think an executive should look like. People don't view us as people who who need some level of assistance because of racial injustice. But that's not the truth. Is it? Right? The truth is that we came here to this country in a terrible fashion. You know, we were basically working as you know, below minimum wage laborers to build the railroad treated horribly inhumane conditions, or women were traffic and prostituted on the streets to Chinatown, we refer to it as, you know, a lesson human status. And we worked very hard to write our own history. We put our kids through school sacrificed everything, so they could have a better life.

Ben Kaplan  16:18

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Forrest Liu  16:50

I think, yeah, absolutely. If of all racial groups were the worst self advocates, you know, we're taught from an early age, keep your head down, work hard, keep yourself out of trouble. You know, your successes is derived from merit, wealth, don't push your problems to the forefront. I mean, look at how bad we are as a community in terms of mental health, Asian mental health, asking for your for help for yourself when you need it. Don't do that. I mean, you're being selfish, it's bad, it's a negative thing, to want to seek mental health treatment. And that reflects in how we advocate for ourselves, politically, as a community. I mean, we need to we need to step up and get involved, you know, in local and politics, we look at the change that we were able to do as a community 2021. Two recalls unprecedented, right? We made history twice. We ousted a Chinese incumbent, because he believed in alternatives to policing he believed in preventing crime before it happened, whatever that means. We need to turn up for small things like public comment on issues that matter to us. We got to get you know, drag yourself to City Hall and be like, hey, what you're saying is not what I believe it. We have to find our own ways to hold our local leaders accountable, like we did with those recalls. And we need more agents who run for office, what do we need to return to a day where we have a fair seat at the board of supervisors at the school board? D Triple C at at the Democratic Party level? Everything. So yes,

Ben Kaplan  18:12

Forrest when we talk and also when I talk to others, you know, who worked with you and on various campaigns or actions the agent community? I mean, you're known as a hard charging guy, you make things happen, you get people to turn out. How do you do it?

Forrest Liu  18:25

Huh? You're asking me for my secret sauce, Ben. Well,

Ben Kaplan  18:29

not the secret sauce, barbecue sauce. That's not super secret, the secret one you can keep but like the other sauce.

Forrest Liu  18:35

You know, I guess I'll start by saying like, there's so many people that I've met even like, not just individuals like pockets, friend groups who are like when all this has happening when the stop Asian hated moving was happening. I wanted to get involved. I wanted to do something. But I didn't know what to do. I think the first step was how I just outline it over text. We're going to show up right now we're going to ask for this because this is how it translates to stopping Asian hate or building a better community, uplifting Asian Pride. I think also like, I've been through this kind of, like, test of fire wise for fear with force doing. The Why Why? Why is like, you know, the, you know, like the Toyota CEO that asking why, why, why? And, like, my conviction is unwavering. Like, I'll always advocate for my community, stand up for my community, do things that make myself incredibly uncomfortable. And people know that and so, and, of course, I show up for people like crazy. You know, I jumped from event to event at night, I go to birthday parties, I go to funerals, I'm there for people, you know, at their worst times at their best times. I show for them. They show up for me, because like it is the larger stop Asian hate movement that we all believe in. But it's also we believe in ourselves as a community as an Asian community that we shouldn't be there for each other. And to answer your second question, that's what we need to start doing. We need to be there for each other. There's a lot of strange territorialism in fight In the Asian community that happens, and it's I think it's very normal as humans. But when we show up for each other when we come together, that's when we show strength, the strength and resiliency of our community. And that's how we uplift Asia by that's how we get more people to be proud to be Asian.

Ben Kaplan  20:15

One of the aspects of San Francisco that makes San Francisco strong as a sense of one compassion, a sense of to wanting to help marginalized communities, and three, wanting a sense of equity. I just always feel like those are all admirable things. But how do you do that by lifting people up rather than achieving equity by pushing people down? And there's a big difference in that and let's raise everyone up, let's have higher standards, let's have higher expectations. Let's get better education for everyone. Let's achieve equity in that rise, not making everything the same and equal by pushing others down.

Forrest Liu  20:53

I mean, I agree with that statement wholly.

Ben Kaplan  20:57

Do you have an interest in San Francisco small business issues and want to participate in a live in person version of the show? The we are San Francisco podcast will be live at NEON, a co working space and cow hollow on Wednesday, October 25, with business leaders and leaders from San Francisco city governments RSVP now at WWE San See you there.

Ben Kaplan  21:27

Forrest, where would you like to see all of this heading?

Forrest Liu  21:31

I think got a high level right now. And the appetite for it and a will for it in the people is to move away from radicalism, we're going to move away from radicalism and towards pragmatism, right? We have tried many radical ideas, you know, and, hey, we have every right to try new things. We've tried to defend the police. We've tried to make heavy the hand of compassion when it comes to drug addiction, homelessness, we've tried to see if an alternative to merit based education would work. And we've seen those things fail. horrifically,

Ben Kaplan  22:06

I actually love this idea of sort of the post COVID world as this reset, because COVID changed some patterns changed some flows reminded us some things. And so it's an opportunity to sort of like create a new world right now. And I think this idea of, hey, things are clearly not working in San Francisco in the status quo. And minor variations of the same failed approach are not likely going to work or change things. So I would actually suggest to your private client, I'm sort of an advocate for now. I call it radical pragmatism, the two things that he's done combined, which is radical, because why is it radical because we can't radical means a change for the status quo. And the status quo is not working. And we need a radical change. But the kind of change we need is a pragmatic one, right? It results oriented. And we've got to streamline things, if programs don't work, we need to cut them not add to them if things are wrong, and we don't find a measurable way to write them. We've got to change things. So it's radical and that we've got to change from the status quo. But it's very pragmatic right now. And there's nothing more pragmatic to your point than local government, local politics, my neighborhood, my block the street in front of my house. And in my opinion, we've got to be radically pragmatic right now.

Forrest Liu  23:31

You know, both of us in our own rights are leading change based organizations. We are San Francisco, dear community, if you're listening this podcast, find a friend that you haven't connected with in a while because a COVID or whatever, talk to them about what you heard, not to make them listen, just talk to them about what you heard from your perspective, and then show up for something show up for a deer community. Chinatown Fridays, Happy Hour ha pir. It's non political. We just are helping an Asian business. We're having food, we're having drinks. It's fun. Show up for a we are San Francisco happy hour. Very light, very casual, you'll meet new people, and you'll meet like minded people. If what we're saying resonates with you. You're not alone. There are hundreds, probably 1000s of us. I don't know how many people you're keeping over there. Ben seems like a lot. There are many of us who desire to change that we're talking about that we want to see. And it takes you coming up in person finding me finding Ben saying hi, how can I get involved to make that change?

Ben Kaplan  24:28

According to force blue, getting involved in Asian issues or any other cause is a matter of finding something you're passionate about taking little action steps and building from there. One day you're watching a video and deciding you can't not take action. And on the next day, to your surprise, you're discovering that you've just found something that could become your life's work for says the to San Francisco recall elections of 2022. First the Board of Education recall, then the district attorney recall you galvanize the Asian community and reminded everyone that Asians have a very, very important role to play in the future of San Francisco. So we're at a crossroads. As far as points out, Asians make up more than 1/3 of San Francisco. Here, we're just a small proportion of the overall US population. We're marginalized in ways that outsiders can't really understand. And that marginalization isn't always economic in nature. So it's time for the Asian community to be seen and be heard. Why did the recent 2022 update to the San Francisco housing elements refer directly to the American Indian community as worthy of special focus the black community as worthy of special focus. But Asians were lumped in the other category? Maybe it's because we don't have enough seats at the table. And we've got to demand to be seen to be heard. Some long for the days of Mayor Ed Lee, San Francisco's first Asian American mayor. Others believe that more Asian representation on the board of supervisors is the key. Why do we even need a board of education recall or a district attorney recall if the Asian community was treated like it was a true partner in San Francisco's future, rather than just the source of votes on election day? So what can you do today to bring about the changes you're passionate about? Just show up, show up when someone needs your support, show up when you're invited to attend an event with others who may not know show up when your cause isn't getting the spotlight? It should show up when folks are in fighting and you can help everyone see the bigger picture. Just show up. Sometimes it's not about having all of the answers. It's about asking the right questions. But you often can't ask those questions. If you don't show up. This is Ben Kaplan, reminding you that we is always greater than me. We are San Francisco

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