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Tsiwen Law L’84 and his lifelong dedication to securing Asian American civil rights

August 26, 2021

Tsiwen Law L’84 has been an Asian American civil rights activist for decades, dating to the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 1960s.

In early March, after nearly a year in which the U.S. and much of the world came to a standstill due to the global pandemic, Dean and Bernard T. Segal Professor of Law Ted Ruger joined the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Asian Pacific American Law Student Association (APALSA), South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA), and others issuing a message denouncing anti-Asian racism in the wake of a resurgence of discrimination and violence against Asian and Asian American individuals, much of it stemming from racist rhetoric that wrongfully associates COVID-19 with people of Asian descent.

Stop AAPI Hate, an organization launched last year by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University to track and respond to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., saw anti-Asian hate incident reports nearly double in March.

These incidents, which jumped from roughly 3,800 reports in the first few months of 2021 to over 6,600 in March alone, include reports on everything from verbal harassment and abuse to physical acts of violence across the nation, including violent attacks on Asian American elders and the March shootings in Atlanta, Georgia in which six women of Asian descent were tragically killed.

These recent events have catalyzed a new sense of urgency and activism that mirrors the civil rights action taken in the aftermath of the tragic murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. The Chin tragedy and other crimes like it were not exclusive to just metro Detroit at that time as through the mid-80s to early 90s in Philadelphia, a wave of anti-Asian violence against Southeast Asian refugees swept through communities in West Philadelphia as well – and one Law School alum has been on the frontlines as an Asian American civil rights activist for decades.

Shortly after Tsiwen Law L’84 graduated from the Law School, he took action.

Spearheading a movement

“The city government was treating the incidents against these former refugees as just ordinary crime, and I was saying that in light of what happened to Vincent Chin, this was anti-Asian violence,” Law said. “And so we went to the Philadelphia Bar Association to ask the chancellor to write a letter to the mayor, to ask him to hold hearings about these incidents. And Wilson Goode ordered the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to hold hearings and I was willing to testify at those hearings.”

At the time, he had just graduated from the Law School and joined Galfand Berger, LLP. And as a result of his testimony, Law, now an adjunct instructor at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and a practicing real estate attorney at Law & Associates, L.L.C., helped to create an early report of the number of people of Asian descent who were reportedly the victims of “ordinary” crimes, which actually turned out to be hate crimes.

The resulting report found that at the time, people of Asian descent were five times more likely to be the victims of these types of hate crimes. Law says that after the findings, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations hired Asian Americans to work as bilingual staff workers because there were none on staff up to that point.

“The people working there didn’t have a clue about Asian American communities. During my testimony at the Commission, they were asking me all kinds of questions, demographic questions about the community, like I was the first one they ever talked to,” he said. “To me that was an odd experience, coming from having spent so much of my time in the Asian American Movement, to me it was pretty pedestrian for them to ask me that.”

Law’s early activism

Prior to his enrollment at the Law School, Law was involved in the anti-war movement in 1969 as a student at the University of California, Berkeley during the Vietnam War, after strikes began in November of 1968 at San Francisco State University, Law joined fellow student activists at Cal, participating in strikes that began in January of 1969, and advocating for the establishment of Ethnic Studies programs at colleges and universities. Both strikes ended in March of 1969.

Law was also active in the beginning of the Asian American Movement, which began with the formation of the Asian American Political Alliance at Cal in May 1968, the first organization to use the term Asian American. Opposition to the War against Vietnam crystallized with the disclosure of the My Lai Massacre in March 1968 by Lt. William Calley and a platoon of 26 U.S. soldiers. Only Calley was convicted and sentenced to three years of house arrest. The 500 victims of the massacre were Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men.

“The war became a center point in terms of Asian Americans coming together to say, ‘This is wrong, this is a racist war,’” he says. “And it’s not just a war, it has all the elements of racism that we’ve experienced as Asian Americans in the United States. So, the Asian American Movement started, where we actually shut down the University of Cal and San Francisco State to start third world studies programs – now they’re known as African American studies, Asian American studies, Native American studies, but none of those things existed.”

Law’s ongoing legacy

Law is credited as one of the original instructors of Asian American Studies at Cal, and he has taught APA Studies for over fifteen years at other institutions, including Penn, the University of Michigan, and Temple. In the years after graduating from the Law School, Law also helped found the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania as well as the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

“Every single APA attorney has the opportunity to engage with NAPABA, either directly or through one of its affiliate APABA organizations at the local level,” said Adam Tsao L’17, startup attorney and Penn Law Asian Alumni Network Board Member. “So while Law’s impact may seem more abstract at the national level, he’s helped create a platform that reaches a significant portion of all APA practitioners across the country through city and region-specific APABAs.”

And his testimony to the Commission in 1984 helped to establish an early baseline for tracking hate incidents in Philadelphia and illustrated why it’s so crucial in the actual practice of investigating and prosecuting hate crimes moving forward.

This heightened, specific focus and increased emphasis on stronger reporting tactics and opportunities present in the 2021 COVID-Hate Crimes Bill, signed by President Joe Biden in May with overwhelming support from Congress, marks an important shift from what Law, and many other legal activists, saw in the 1980s. The recent legislation, introduced by Representative Grace Meng and Senator Mazie Hirono, is a direct response to the rise in hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the increase in anti-Asian violence.

Referring to the 1980s, Law noted that there was “serious underreporting,” but it was still considered a good starting point at the time.

“The whole problem with depending on hate crimes is that you have to have an underlying crime in order for it to be counted or investigated,” he said. “If there’s not an underlying crime – whether it’s an assault or battery or murder or something then it doesn’t go any further, it’s merely an incident.”

Law explains that an emphasis on tracking incidents on all levels – from verbal assaults to physical altercations that may or may not result in a crime – there is a stronger likelihood to build evidence of a pattern of behavior to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed with racial or discriminatory motivation.

“The point is we’d made some changes at that point, but the Hate Crime Statistics Act didn’t pass until 1990, and it was all completely voluntary reporting,” he says. “And that’s what [the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act] is attempting to correct, which is there will be mandatory reporting if law enforcement receives federal funds.”

Law says the challenge was often building that body of evidence to prove a particular crime was a hate crime, leading to a general reluctance to charge the hate aspect of a crime, in large part because that charge would ultimately not be sustained in many cases.

“Back then there was a reluctance to charge – it was like a label. If you were charged with a hate crime, you were a racist forever and people didn’t want to charge a good ol’ boy with that,” he says. “A lot of those incidents, hate crimes were either not sustained or not charged. So that all contributes to the fact that people feel that the records don’t show a lot of hate crimes even though hate incidents are occurring.”

Tracking prior incidents and conduct, Law says, is how you develop data that can later be used as proof of racial motivation for a given crime.

“That’s why we end up talking about the need for more education, about Asian American history, Asian American culture and so on so that more people understand,” he said.

This article is the first of two that explore the broader topic of Asian Americans in the legal profession. Read the second installment.

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