We were all watching the Oscars when Will Smith’s open hand struck Chris Rock. You know Rock felt it.
But I did too. We all did. It wasn’t fake. It was real.
Any Asian American who has lived through the last two years of hate and violence had to flinch. These days, we know about violence in America.
According to #StopAAPIHate, there have been more than 11,000 instances of random hate incidents against Asian Americans since the twice-impeached former president scapegoated the community for the pandemic. The signal from the White House somehow has been seen as a declaration of open season on Asian Americans. And the incidents have ranged from epithets, to spitting, to violent death.
There have been way too many victims. Just in the New York area alone in the last few months, we remember Gui Ying Ma, 62; Yao Pan Ma, 61; Michelle Go, 40; Christina Yuna Lee, 35; and Maria Ambrocio, 58. They were all murdered.
Some were lucky survivors. Noel Quintana, 61, was on a subway car when someone slashed his face with a box-cutter in February last year. Vilma Kari, 65, suffered a broken pelvis from a beating while walking from church in midtown Manhattan last year around Easter.
And then there’s the 67-year-old Filipino woman from Yonkers a few weeks ago, who remains anonymous while in recovery. The man arrested for her beating, Tammel Esco, 42, was a convicted felon and a neighbor of the woman he punched 125 times, before spitting on her and cursing her with racial epithets.
These are just some of the people recently victimized by hate violence in America. I’ve written about those named here on this website. I thought about each and every one of them when Smith assaulted Rock and took the life out of the Oscars.
NO ONE DID ANYTHING
It took less than 45 minutes for Smith to return to the stage to a standing ovation when his name was called for the Best Actor Oscar.
What message does that send to the world?
No one had Smith removed or arrested. Everyone stayed cool. Too cool. Who says the show must go on when a crime is committed?
Smith tried to explain it all away in his acceptance speech, accompanied by some tears and a belief that he was protecting his loved ones, and don’t you know how love makes you do crazy things.
That’s what domestic abuse perps say too.
But let’s assume Smith was being gallant and chivalrous, protecting his wife from a weak joke by Rock that barely landed.
Clearly, Smith couldn’t control himself. He should try meditation. And, of course, if Jada Pinkett-Smith were truly offended, isn’t she a strong and powerful woman on her own to defend herself? But she had a sense of control and decency. Not Smith, who had to assault Rock for all the world to see his protective love at work.
Was that the message?
I was horrified.
And when no one did anything, what kind of message was that? That this was the new normal? If you don’t like a joke, get “triggered,” go ahead and beat up whomever you’d like. You can wear a tux, be an A-Lister. Be a star. It’s OK.
That’s what happened on Sunday night.
It’s almost Trumpian, the way that what previously would have been unthinkable or immoral goes unchallenged when committed out in the open. Everyone is too dumbfounded to call it out.
But we must call it out.
And then there’s something a friend of mine raised. What if Smith had struck a white presenter? Would the Academy know what to do then? Would we know how far black privilege extends if we saw Smith give his acceptance speech from an LA County jail cell?
MOTION PICTURE ACADEMY FINALLY CONDEMNS
The Motion Picture Academy tweeted within an hour of the show’s end about not condoning what happened. But that was not sufficient.
By Monday noon, the statement after a virtual meeting was more stern: “The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show.” It also announced a formal review to determine what should happen in accordance to the organization’s bylaws, standards of conduct and California law.”
That is closer to what should happen. The bylaws specifically prohibit “physical contact that is uninvited, and in a situation inappropriate and unwelcome, or coercive sexual attention.” It’s language meant to prevent harassment and bullying. The penalty could mean suspension or expulsion from membership. Or the stripping of Smith’s Oscar.
It was serious enough that by the close of business, Smith’s apology showed up on Instagram.
“Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive,” the statement began. “My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable.”
Smith referred to Jada Pinkett Smith’s battle with alopecia, an auto-immune disease that brings on hair loss, and said hearing Rock make a joke about it made him “react emotionally.” (The joke wasn’t that funny, though Smith laughed while Pinkett rolled her eyes as it was told).
Smith gave a specific apology to Chris Rock, seemingly forgotten by all in the ordeal.
“I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”
And then came the broader apology.
“I would also like to apologize to the Academy, the producers of the show, all the attendees and everyone watching around the world,” Smith wrote.
Smith ended saying he was a “work in progress.”
You mean like Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Harvey Weinstein? An Instagram apology wouldn’t have been enough for Weinstein.
Since all of us watching are included in the apology, I must say, I am not ready to forgive.
We have not begun to see the fallout. People traumatized by what they saw. People encouraged to express their anger openly.
Actors in movies are larger than life. They become heroes and role models for many. So when celebs commit assault and battery on live television before a global audience of tens of millions of people, there must be some price to pay.
Chris Rock reportedly said he will not press charges with the Los Angeles Police.
I tweeted out that I’m looking forward to seeing “King Richard, the Sequel,” starring Chris Rock.
Rock has some leverage here, sure. But I hope he reconsiders his stand about not filing charges against Smith. An apology is cool if it’s just confined to Smith cursing and shouting at Rock about keeping his effing wife’s name out of his mouth. An apology for a yell is appropriate.
But an apology for what is an actual crime (battery) in public view? It’s going to take more than an apology and it’s not really Rock’s decision to make. He may excuse it, but what about all the rest of us?
I’m told by legal experts that if the Los Angeles District Attorney wants to prosecute a case, he doesn’t need a police report. Los Angeles, home to the largest Asian American community in America (nearly 1.9 million), knows about AAPI violence and hate.
We saw what Smith did. We felt the strike on Rock. We know what that feels like when an act of violence stops everything cold.
An apology on Instagram is nice. But not enough.
It may be time for a case to set the example for why casual violence is never the answer. And why it should never be normalized.
Maybe it’s time for the “People v. Will Smith.”
NOTE: I will talk more about this on E274, E275 of “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” the microtalk show of the AAPI. Catch it livestreamed at 2p Pacific on Facebook, on my YouTube channel, and on Twitter. Catch the recording later on www.amok.com