The quest for equal rights is complex and has many chapters and moving parts. This is a story that has unfolded over many decades and requires a profound ability to understand the subtleties and complexities involved. For instance, the construction of the Confucius Plaza is an example of one situation in which workers unwittingly became activists because they were being unfairly discriminated against. With that in mind, the following is a closer look at how the Confucius Plaza Protests helped spark equal employment in the construction field.
All historical protests have a catalyst, and this one is no exception. Asian Pacific Americans and Chinese American residents of Chinatown, faced discrimination and decided to take a stand. This move was uncharacteristic of the community, who had quietly complained of discrimination in the past but had rarely taken such a bold public stance against it. However, inspired by the African American Civil Rights Movements, Asian-Americans had already witnessed the power of protests and banning together to make change. Together, they decided that they had arrived at the right moment to kickstart their movement. Either way, it would eventually prove to be a major move in terms of furthering the labor movement in America.
The 764-unit apartment building was a massive project that would employ members of the area for months. This made it all the more imperative that they took a stand from the very beginning. Well-organized and akin to other successful movements in the past, the protestors sent a message of determination from the start.
The protests kicked off on May 16, 1974, when a small group of mostly Asian-American workers decided to protest on the construction grounds for the new Confucius Plaza. It seems that many were especially triggered and appalled by the appropriation and use of Asian concepts as a part of their business model. A move that was considered especially egregious considering that they would not hire any Asian-Americans to work on the construction site. So, the Asian American community decided to take a stand against the company that was completing the project, DeMatteis Corp.
Why This Situation Was So Unique
Although Asian Americans had undoubtedly experienced plenty of racism and discrimination, they had yet to take a public stance against this. Being bold enough to spearhead such a movement is what helped solidify their community within America. Moreover, this was also one of the first times both young and old protestors came together for the same cause. This protest transcended race, age, and other barriers that had been established in the past. The quest for equal work opportunities was one that many could relate to, and thus, the movement continued to grow.
Nevertheless, some elders in the community did express criticism of the protest. Given that the community was not known for such things and had a profound cultural background that championed hard work above all else, some elders were critical of the movement. So, when negotiations began, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association requested that they put a halt to the protest. A request that was denied by the determined protestors.
This was most likely their best bet. From the beginning, the Housing and Development Administration asserted that DeMatteis was already in compliance with all applicable minority-hiring rules and regulations. The company asserted that 32 of 71 employees belonged to minority groups. However, they refused to give a racial breakdown in terms of just how many workers they had of each race. Given the fact that the protestors were already privy to the fact that the company was refusing to hire Asian Americans, they had no reason to take such statements at face value. Many of the protestors believed that only four of the workers may have been Asian: two architects and two construction workers.
Doubling down, Al DeMatteis, the leader of the company, said that over 40% of his workforce were ethnic minorities. This was also a difficult notion to believe, given the statements that had been made and the company’s track record overall. Moreover, when he pointed to the fact that they had hired two Asian Americans as architects, Wei Foo Chun of the firm Horowitz & Chun, this further added fuel to the fire. One of the main reasons for the protest was that Asian-Americans were heavily involved in the planning of the building, yet they refused to hire Asian-American construction workers to complete the job.
Details of the Protest
Initially, the protest consisted of 250 individuals who entered the construction site in an attempt to force a work stoppage. Headed by young activists who were members of Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFE’s predecessor), once the word spread, the movement quickly gained momentum. This resulted in members of other Asian groups joining in on the fight and standing in solidarity with the AAEE. As time went on, the group opened up to include a diverse collection of native and foreign-born individuals, all of which were steadfast in making changes and achieving equal rights within the construction sector.
Bold and courageous, this protest was not for the faint of heart. In order to disrupt labor and daily operations, the protestors would regularly stand in front of bulldozers to stop the project in its tracks. Although many never considered the fact that they would have to go toe to toe with police, this became a regular occurrence. The protestors would show up, position themselves in a way that prevented the workers from completing the project, and sooner or later, they were either confronted or arrested by law enforcement.
Just weeks after the protest began, DeMatteis Corp relented and decided to compromise. Agreeing to hire 27 minority workers, including some Asians, the company was able to satisfy the group’s demands and end the protest peacefully. This was considered a major victory for Asian Americans for Equal Employment, as well as everyone who had an interest in establishing equality via the labor force movement. Nevertheless, this was only the beginning.
After the Confucius Plaza victory, Asian Americans led several more protests on behalf of labor rights for Asian Americans. They also began to advocate for those who were being subjected to poor and otherwise unsafe living conditions. In 1977, the organization’s name was officially changed to Asian Americans for Equality as they needed a new name that reflected its expansion and the fact that it was focusing on far more than just unfair hiring practices.
Years later, the AAFE went on to tackle the matter of affordable housing in Chinatown, which eventually led to the area’s first affordable housing unit.
Presently, the AAFE continues to advocate on behalf of Asian Americans. Now considered one of the city’s most well-known and accomplished philanthropic organizations, although its targets and goals may have changed, the organization’s core values remain the same. The AAFE will continue to fight for the rights of Asian Americans and lend its voice to causes that will help propel its movement forward.