Last week, the city’s labor unions joined the Occupy Wall Street protests in earnest, swelling the ranks of the demonstrators from a couple of hundred to tens of thousands. Before the scene was marred by a couple of sporadic outbursts of violence, a half-dozen or so members of the City Council stopped by Zuccotti Park to raise a fist and become among the first elected officials in New York City to officially declare solidarity with the demonstration.
“My schedule,” Ms. Chin said when asked why she didn’t join in last week. “I had all these important meetings that were scheduled. We have major issues down here—like the Seaport Museum, how to save it. Then we had the Stated Meeting [the City Council’s monthly legislative session], then after that we had caucus meetings, so it’s like all of a sudden, ‘Oh, this was planned?’”
Plus, Ms. Chin adds, “I have been to so many marches.”
Indeed she has. As all of New York City pols struggle to find the right tone in talking about Occupy Wall Street, none perhaps have struggled quite as much as Ms. Chin, who has been aggressively low profile since the protests first landed in her neighborhood three weeks ago. For one thing, Ms. Chin is the only member of the City Council for whom Occupy Wall Street is more of a constituent concern than a global protest movement, as a horde of new residents have helped transform the financial district from an office park into a neighborhood where one must dodge $400 strollers and designer dogs. And never mind that many of those new residents/constituents are the very same people the protesters accuse of alternately screwing the world, eating the poor and poisoning the planet.
Although she doesn’t like to talk about it much these days, Ms. Chin, a soft-spoken, 4’11″ immigrant from Hong Kong, who has lived in or near Chinatown since moving to the U.S. at the age of 9, got her start in community activist circles while a student at City College as a member of the Communist Workers Party, and in particular a local off-shoot called Asian-Americans for Equality. According to a two-decade old article in the conservative publication City Journal, the C.W.P. was a Maoist sect aimed at infiltrating local politics and “it declared its ‘guiding ideology’ to be ‘Marxism/ Leninism/Mao Tse-Tung thought.’ Its publications mourned the death of Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev and hailed the economic policies of Pol Pot. It rejected Deng Xiaoping for being too soft on the West and capitalism, and embraced the Gang of Four.”
Ms. Chin went on to become a teacher and housing activist and fought for the City Council to create a district that could insure the election of an Asian-American. She herself ran for that office three times and lost before finally upsetting a two-term incumbent just as she was on the verge of becoming the kind of gadfly who gets tarred as a perennial candidate. Part of the reason Ms. Chin was unable to win a seat was due to a lingering distrust of her radical past in certain circles in Chinatown, where older residents in particular feared anything that smacked of the Cultural Revolution. At times, her races started to look like the last remaining battles of the Cold War.
When asked about her past, Ms. Chin laughed nervously and said, “Of course it’s just like groups of people fighting for a cause and saying that, O.K., we have to improve the lives, especially workers, lower income [people], and also solidarity internationally.
“There was a lot of concrete day-to-day community issues, but theoretically you have stuff to read about and then open your eyes to what was going on in South Africa,” she added. “So when people ask me I say I am very proud of my development because I could have gone another route.”
She was not, she said, as her opponents allege, a card-carrying Maoist.
“There was no card-carrying. There were associations,” Ms. Chin explained. “I mean, if they take your picture and you happen to be at an event or a press conference, that’s it.”
It took time, Ms. Chin said, for her neighbors to come to grips with her political history.
“Back in those, in the early days, it was a lot of what I would call negative campaigning, just trying to use that,” she said. “But I think for me the issue is—I don’t really know how you would say it—but the weak part of my community was not ready. We didn’t have the vote.”
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