Last September, a group of Chinese Americans in San Leandro asked the city to fly the red and gold banner of their homeland at City Hall in honor of the country’s national day on Oct. 1. Initially, the request appeared perfunctory. Raise the flag in place of the San Leandro city flag, make a few speeches celebrating the city’s diversity, maybe a song or two and that would be it. However, some in San Leandro took offense to honoring a flag they strongly believe represents oppression and civil rights abuses.
Mayor Stephen Cassidy added his voice to the anti-flag faction that now included Bay Area Tibetan independence activists. The City Council, though, has always been untethered from Cassidy, an often dictatorial bully who prefers leadership by blunt force rather than a sugar and honey approach and voted, 4-3, to allow the flag-raising.
But, the issue was not dead.
A few days later, Cassidy used powers contained in the City Charter to nullify the vote and called for an ad hoc committee to study the city’s policy on flying foreign flags at City Hall. Politically, the decision by Cassidy to allow the divisive and potentially harmful issue (to his own re-election this year) to periodically reemerge is a questionable. Cassidy’s critics quickly labeled him anti-Democratic for reversing the will of his colleagues who colored their arguments in favor with general calls for cultural unity.
As the council’s ad hoc members, Councilmembers Benny Lee, Pauline Cutter and Cassidy met over the months to hash out a compromise, the issue had lost its direct connection to whether the Chinese flag should fly in San Leandro. After all, Oct. 1 had long since passed and the ad hoc committee was seemingly designed to tackle the general act of flying any country’s flag at City Hall. Ostensibly, Cassidy’s rationale for overturning the council’s vote was to call a timeout and figure out a new play for the city.
However, when the issue returned to the City Council Monday night, an entirely different rhetorical tactic was employed by Cassidy. One that strongly indicates Cassidy is aiming to replicate his corrosive campaign strategy of four years ago: Divide and conquer San Leandrans. In 2010, he aimed to pit recession-weary residents versus allusions of city employees living high off the hog. In 2014, the same theory will this time employ xenophobia and irrational fears of Red China to divide the city.
When Cassidy narrated a PowerPoint presentation Monday night laying out his position against flying foreign flags at City Hall, it likely represented his campaign kickoff speech. The presentation featured gratuitous use of images and quotes from some of history’s greatest leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and the Dalai Lama. It was also tailored toward China and its civil rights abuses. Clearly, Cassidy’s rhetoric was designed to again stoke divisiveness against Chinese Americans in San Leandro, which, incidentally, is now the city’s largest demographic at nearly 30 percent. And to further indicate Cassidy’s real intent, as part of the ad hoc committee, he was the lone dissenting vote against a compromise presented by Cutter to construct a new flag pole at nearby Root Park reserved for foreign celebrations like the Oct. 1 Chinese national day celebration.
On Monday night, Cassidy noted he would back Cutter’s proposal “for the sake of compromise,” but the motion was never offered for consideration. In fact, after the City Council voted, 4-3, Monday night to support the existing policy allowing the mayor to make the call on future flag ceremonies at City Hall, Cassidy strongly indicated he would again disallow any flags flying. It’s a line in the sand, which almost assuredly will be crossed sometime next September if the flag issue is again broached in advance of the Oct. 1 Chinese holiday.
What will happen then? The same four members, Councilmembers Jim Prola, Diana Souza, Lee and Cutter will vote for the flag-raising in the name of cultural comity and what will Cassidy do then? Again reverse the will of the council? And at what cost?
In the meantime, nearly every public speaker Monday night continually referenced the Chinese flag even though the proposal to fly their banner had come and went. Tibetan freedom fighters argued passionately against oppression by the Chinese government, yet one couldn’t help wondering whether the initial spark in this controversy would have never ignited if the flag initially considered was a staunch ally of the U.S., like say, Australia or even Mexico. This is the message of many of the city’s Chinese Americans are likely taking from Cassidy’s comments.
Proponents of the flag have continually argued their reasons for flying the Chinese flag is solely cultural and a manifestation of their ancestry, not the action of the Chinese government. It’s also a notion people without a direct connection to the American immigrant experience cannot fully grasp and one Cassidy is betting to exploit in the next seven months. If an American is far removed from their family’s journey to America, the idea of simultaneously pledging primary love for the United States and, secondarily, for the nation of your birth or your parent’s birth is a difficult for some to comprehend. However, this duality exists, is powerful , and poses no hindrance to how much pride you have in being American, or, one day becoming one. In fact, the notion you may not be American enough is despicable. A generation or so ago, San Leandro could have been labeled the East Bay’s capital of racism. Before 1970, the question would not have been whether you were sufficiently American, but whether you were white enough to live in San Leandro (i.e., not black). Despite a truly miraculous four decades in which the whitest city around became literally the most equally diverse city in the region, the terrible ghosts of leaders like Mayor Jack Maltester are aching from the ether to bring racial divisiveness back to San Leandro. All it needed was a simple red flag flapping in the wind.
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Originally posted at East Bay Citizen.