By GREG KLEIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
About 250 people attended a rally Sunday, May 2, at the Otsego County Courthouse, to support the community’s Asian American and Pacific Island residents.
The “Otsego Rally for Solidarity with Asian Americans” was organized and run by a group of Cooperstown Central School freshmen, including 15-year-old Cate Bohler, who said she wanted to speak up to support her friends or anyone who is being harassed.
“As a young Asian-American girl, hearing people call COVID the China virus is hurtful,” Bohler said, reading from her prepared statement about why she wanted to stage the rally. “It is more than hurtful. It is harmful. It perpetuates anti-American sentiments and racism.”
Speakers included the students, as well as local officials, including Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh, Cooperstown Police Chief Frank Cavalieri, Otsego Town Supervisor Meg Kiernan and Otsego County Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, who said he thinks he is the county’s only elected official of Asian descent. Lapin’s mom is Japanese.
“The deep-seated nature of systemic racism requires us to make continuous choices and take continuous actions to advance anti-racist ideas in the public space,” Lapin said.
Lapin read a resolution in support of the county’s AAPI population and against anti-Asian hate sponsored by Rep. Andrew Marietta, D-town of Otsego, which he said the county would be proud to support. Kiernan and Tillapaugh also spoke about resolutions their municipalities have passed, including in support of the AAPI community.
Kiernan noted Vice President Kamala Harris is the first Asian VP, “and it doesn’t hurt that she’s also our first female vice president,” she said.
Rain began almost immediately after the event started, and increased intermittently, but most of the onlookers stayed throughout the hour long program.
“I want to take a moment to say how invigorating it is to see so many friends and allies today,” Lapin said.
Several prominent local Asian-American women spoke as well, talking about issues that face their communities now and historically.
Sallie Han, a SUNY Oneonta anthropology professor, talked about the myth of the “model minority” and how it hurts Asian Americans and pits groups against one another.
“And particularly as a cultural anthropologist, I can assure you that the values of learning and teaching are foundational to every human culture,” Han said.
Dr. Joon Shim, the director of the general surgery residency program for the Bassett Healthcare Network, and a former Army surgeon, who did three tours in Afghanistan, spoke about the long history of hate crimes against Asian immigrants. She also gave examples about how individuals can make attempts to be allies with little gestures, such as asking how to pronounce an unfamiliar name properly.
“It does not have to be perfect. Just try, and it will make a difference,” she said.
Liane Hirabayashi, the regional coordinator of Bassett’s New York Center for Agricultural Medical and Health and co-president of the Cooperstown area League of Women Voters, spoke about her father’s internment and her uncle’s protest and imprisonment during World War II.
“They lost their home, their livelihood, their privacy, their dignity, because of their ancestry, because of their race,” Hirabayashi said.
She read her uncle, Gordon Hirabayashi’s reply, when he was ordered to comply with the internment notice.
“I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards from which this nation lives, therefore I must refuse this order for evacuation,” his reply read.
Many of the speakers praised Bohler and her classmates, a group which included Jaine Bischof, Charlotte Feury, Riley Fillion, Elizabeth Hughes, Olivia Loewenguth and Maya Pandit.
“One of the things I told (Cate) was I was very proud of her for organizing this,” Cooperstown Police Chief Frank Cavalieri said. “At the same time, I was very sad of the fact that here we are in the 21st century still dealing with racism and that these young adults are the ones that organized this. I kind of felt like we failed them, and obviously we have, because in the 21st century, we are still dealing with this. As adults, and supposedly older and wiser, we have not corrected this problem.
“At 15 years old, I told Cate, I was still trying to figure out where I belonged in life, what my purpose was and trying to figure out my dreams,” he continued. “For her to be doing that and to feel unsafe, what a horrible place to be, and that’s our fault.”
May is Asian American and Pacific Island Heritage month.