American Justice and Harry Wong

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This is a republication of a pamphlet about an issue in San Francisco Chinatown in the early 1970s. It was an early rallying point for the Asian American Movement about the progressive newsvendor Harry Wong. The reposting is 'as is' with the typos.


The evening of August 23, 1972, was a typical summer evening in Chinatown. Many of its hardworking residents and throngs of tourists filled the sidewalks. Harry Wong was in his usual spot at the corner of Grant Avenue and Jackson Street selling newspapers and magazines from the People's Republic of China and the Asian-American movement. Harry's many sales reflects the growing interest on the part of Chinatown residents in China's great advances.

At about 8:30, the corner of Jackson and Grant was suddenly thrown into chaos. Six uniformed policemen, without warning or explanation, forced Harry from his newsstand, choked him, and threw him into a waiting police car. What had Harry done to warrant this police brutality? It was not until several hours later that it was learned that Harry had been arrested on several charges and was being held in jail. The principal charges against Harry were selling without a permit and obstructing the sidewalk. The true reasons for Harry's arrest were that he is non-white, poor, and politically progressive. Harry's arrest was nothing new. Chinese and others who are non-white, poor, and progressive have long been victims of the police and the courts. The few rich who make the laws know that it is in their interests to keep the rest of us oppressed and frightened by the law. Therefore, in the past they have made and enforced laws against 1) the Chinese, 2) the poor, and 3) the politically active.


The State of California has a notorious history of racist laws which were used in the most regressive ways against Chinese people. For example, in the 1850s many of the lynchings and other bloody attacks which the early Chinese suffered went unpunished, because Chinese were not permitted to testify in court against any white person. In 1876, the Legislature passed a law directed against the Chinese which made it a crime to sleep in a room containing less than eight square feet per person. This made possible police raids on the miserable over-crowded rooming houses where many Chinese because of poverty were forced to sleep packed together in a room. After arresting the Chinese, the police would enforce the Queue Ordinance, designed to humiliate the Chinese. The arrested Chinese were forced to have their hair cut to one inch in length and upon getting out of jail would bear this mark of being a “criminal.” In 1873, the Legislature put a special tax on Chinese laundries because they feared that white-owned laundries would suffer from Chinese competition.

The laws directed against the Chinese enabled the rich to get richer and prevented the Chinese from escaping poverty. Since the rich were determined that California would be dominated by whites exonomically, politically, and socially, they caused the Exclusion Act to be passed in 1882, forbidding further Chinese immigration. The law's success was expressed by the California Board of Control in 1920:

Oweing to the effectiveness of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese cannot be considered a menance for the future.


The Chinese are not the only ones who have been singled out for oppression by the law. The poor, in general, whether Black, Brown, Yellow, Red, or White, have been victims of laws created for the benefit of the rich ruling class. The rich keep the poor in poverty through monopolistic practices and unfair laws. They create tax laws which allow them to pay little or no tax and which places the tax burden on the poor. For example, last year millionaire Governor Ronald Regan did not pay one cent in tax because he had smart lawyers who found loopholes in the law. In the same year Chinatown residents spent 30 - 50% of their earning on taxes.

Laws make it a crime to be poor. Today, unemployment is 6% in the U.S. due to inflation caused by the unjust Vietnam War. The rich has created vagrancy laws which enable the police to throw people in jail for being unemployed or having no visible means of support. Though unemployment is caused by the rich and powerful rulers, it is the poor who suffer this double oppression. We all want jobs, but there are none available.


In spite of the so-called Constitutional guarantees of free speech, etc., America has a history of repression of those whose political views are different from those of the rich and powerful. During the era of McCarthyism during the 1950s many Chinatown residents were arrested and persecuted under the Smith Act not for any violent and dangerous acts but because they had progressive beliefs. Many of them served long jail terms or were deported. Today the repression continues against many non-whites who have political beliefs which are progressive.


Many courageous people, non - white and white alike, have fought very vigorously to change or repeal those laws designed to oppress the poor, the non-white, and the politically active. For example, in 1873, Ho Ah Kow challenged the Queue Ordinance in court and had it overturned. Recent1y, Japanese Americans fought successfully to repeal the McCarren Act, the Act which made possible their imprisonment during World War II. Blacks have fought to repeal the segregationist laws in the South and are now fighting against the suppression of Black political activists.

In response, the government has had to repeal many of the obviously discriminatory laws against the non - white, poor, and politically active. However, they are determined to maintain their oppression through the enforcement of more subtle and less obvious laws. For example, one of these subtle laws directed against the poor is that requiring a permit or license in order to sell merchandise. The violation of this law is one of the charges against Harry Wong.

The business interests in San Francisco are determined to create a monopoly for themselves. Over the years the big businesses have grown bigger and the smaller ones have been forced to close. Big business supports politicians who create laws making it impossible for small businesses and individuals to compete against Macy’s, Safeway, and the other Big Boys. The law requiring a permit or license to sell merchandise was passed to cause the little man to have to go through a lot of red tape and much expense before he can sell merchandise. Most people, like Harry Wong, cannot afford the license fees or the expense of getting a lawyer to get through the red tape. This law, like so many others, is clearly designed against the poor.

Harry, like the rest of us, is only trying to make a simple living in a society in which jobs are very scarce, especially for non-white people. The government is denying Harry the right to make a living at all.


The oppression also continues through “discriminatory enforcement” of the law. The police and the courts will stretch the law in order to persecute the poor, non-white people but will close their eyes to the many crimes that the rich commit.

A good example of “discriminatory enforcement” is the charge of “Obstructing the Sidewalk” which was lodged against Harry Wong. As we all know, it is not Harry Wong or the other news vendors but the tourists which obstruct Chinatown’s sidewalks. They stand in huge groups either listening to tour guides pointing out the sights or listening to the street musicians. Why aren’t the tourists, the tour guides, or the street musicians arrested for “Obstructing the Sidewalk?” Why is Harry Wong?


For many months now the police have been trying to find an excuse to arrest Harry Wong. They have harassed him constantly and have stood by laughing when Harry was attacked by two hired thugs. Harry is all of the things which the police and their bosses aim to suppress --- Harry is Chinese, he is poor, and he is progressive.

In theory, a crime is only committed when an innocent person is hurt by a wrong-doer's act. Harry has hurt no one. In fact, by selling newspapers and magazines from China he has provided a service to many Chinese who would not otherwise have an opportunity to learn about China's progress. Harry is not the criminal.

It is they who have tried to oppress us so long who are the criminals. For as long as we can remember, the police have made unjust and vicious arrests in Chinatown. They continue to do so because they believe that the Chinese will not react to protest such racism and injustice. We must begin to show them that we will no longer tolerate such acts in our community. For if we do not, these brutal arrests will continue.

A Committee to Defend Harry Wong has been formed to protest the injustice of Harry's arrest. A group of progressive lawyers are defending Harry in Court. Others are drawing up petitions and leaflets to circulate in Chinatown. You can voice your protest of the police action by joining our efforts. For information, please call 398-2212 or stop by the office at the Committee at 850 Kearny Street.