Kevin Ha, though barely out of his teens, is no stranger to activism. He, like hundreds of his former classmates in Des Moines have made 2020 a summer of social change, where a new community of activists, artists, and protesters are working to hold our city systems to account. Black Lives Matter is a movement that transcends one organization, growing in response to constant examples of police brutality, violence, and even outright murder across the country. Kevin sits at the intersection of a variety of identities. He is Vietnamese American, a person with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and a young adult growing into his political philosophy.
“I was born and raised in Iowa…..Growing up, I was blessed and fortunate enough to grow up in a bilingual home. Being around friends, I was able to learn English, but being at home I was able to learn Vietnamese. I think having a different language, or a second language, really opens up who you can talk to. Who you can experience.”
This balance of identities have given Kevin a wide perspective, expanding his empathy for others, and showing him how disabilities can be viewed in the community.
“What a lot of people don’t like to talk about, and this is kind of where my disability comes in…you know in my own community, I’ve often felt like an outsider. That I was being judged for being different from other people. Having a different condition, being in a wheelchair, not looking the part. Like, ‘Oh my gosh. You’re so skinny! Do you eat? Like what happened to you?’ And I ask myself…wouldn’t you like to know me first?”
Unfortunately, this lack of understanding can have profound consequences on mental health.
“I had issues with depression, anxiety, not feeling like I’m good enough, feeling like I’m a burden. I literally just need help with my physical to maintain my life. We really need to talk about the mental health issues that come with having a disability.”
Luckily, Kevin found an outlet for his creativity and frustrations beginning a lifelong passion for the arts.
“I’ve always had a knack for coloring, drawing. I’ve taken an art class every year of school. In 2015 I took my first graphic design course…I wanted to do digital art and having a disability, played into that. I’m not saying I can’t draw or use my hands, I just saw myself using digital art to make a career out of it. Retail wasn’t going to ever hire me.”
“I really want to travel and learn new traditions, make art and put art it is where I can put it. Go around the world and do that, continuing to be inspired by places to produce art that reflects the times. At the end of the day, I just want to express my mind through art and poetry.”
Kevin found a unique community within a local art non-profit, and participated in the social justice activities that sprang out of it. Movement 515 is an art community in Des Moines, created to give young poets and artists a place to express their art, and find the powerful agency that comes with the community.
“My roots start in Movement 515. They are a poetry and advocacy group for young people of color. My family is involved with it, and about the same time they joined, I was interested in learning about M515’s work in the (Black Lives Matter) movement. I just saw everything as a 14 year old kid and said dang, this isn’t right. Why are black people being killed for virtually nothing? I didn't think police would kill people that young. I think Trayvon and Mike were teens when they were killed by police.”
“Being involved, I went to my first protest with Movement 515. I learned about black history, I learned about LGBTQ history, immigrant rights, and all the things I wasn’t taught in regular schools. Movement 515 is where I really started.” Kevin was taught this in the Urban Leadership program, headed by Emily Lang and Kris Rollins at Central Academy.
What was originally a chance to practice his art and an opportunity to connect with fellow poets quickly became a point of access for opportunities to protest and be heard.
“I didn’t know what to do but show up. I remember the excitement, the joy of fighting for something we really believed in. Going up and down these malls shouting chants, getting people who don’t listen to us to listen. Due to my past experiences, I’d feel like I didn’t belong in any space…but in that crowd, in that movement, that was a place I felt like I belonged.”
For Kevin, this is an intersectional fight, open to all marginalized people striving for equality and dignity.
“You know, someone could have asthma, you can’t really see if someone has it…..But just because other people don’t see it, doesn’t mean you don’t have a disability. You have a disability, doesn’t mean people know it doesn’t exist. There are lots of black people with mental or physical disabilities who have been unjustly harmed by police...We with disabilities just want the quality of life offered to the privileged. We are just asking for the help we feel like we deserve to maintain that quality of life. Have compassion for us, whether it be for black people or people with disabilities. Be compassionate, be empathetic. There’s no one way to play the part of being human.”
Despite the powerful rhetoric often used within the movement, the goals of these young protesters could not be more clear or concrete.
“There are a large number of people with felonies here in Iowa that have been reintegrated in society, they pay their taxes, they do their work, I don’t understand why they are denied the right to vote. That is one of the main things we are looking to get changed.” (Since this interview was conducted, The Black Lives Matter movement of Des Moines has successfully pushed to get Kim Reynolds to sign an executive order to restore voting rights for people with felonies.)
“If you can, go to at least one protest. At least one. Go with a friend, go by yourself. If you can at least once, come and see how we get down with this movement. But I guess for how people with disabilities can support us, use your platform. Personally, I was able to use my art as a platform. Donating, sharing bail funds, just look around you and don’t be blind to this kind of thing. Really understanding social media is a powerful tool in this movement, especially right now. You could be that person who reaches the other person, and then it ripples out. Remember, try to not feel bad about not being out there, just know your role and do it”. “
Even in his dedication to the cause of social justice, Kevin recognizes his responsibility to examine his own behavior, and language. He views it as his responsibility to respond to criticism, and always strive to speak from a place of racial justice.
“I’ve had experiences where I said the wrong thing. Don’t make it about yourself, don’t try to explain you didn’t mean any harm…..Just do the work that needs what you need to do to fix it. If you tweet and someone says “this isn’t it”, take that tweet down.”
“Right now, THIS MOVEMENT IS FOR BLACK PEOPLE. It’s not like we can’t advocate for other people of color, but right now it is black people who need the most uplifting. I’ve seen white people and non-black people speak over them numerous times, this isn’t the time for that…if ever.”
“The police are illegally arresting people for expressing their rights. I just got off the phone with my friend Viet Tran, who was charged with “illegally” sharing documents, and a white reporter with the press had access to the same information. Nothing happened to her. She isn’t advocating for him.”
Viet Tran, a local activist leader within the BLM movement had shared with the reporter a picture he took of a form police were using to identify protesters, and his arrest prompted outrage at what many view as a clear attempt to intimidate leaders within the movement. (He has since then been released.)
“Racism next to Covid, is is one of the biggest issues in Des Moines and the rest of America. People act so oblivious to it when it’s so obvious what police are doing. They are targeting protesters, breaking down doors…I don’t even have the words for it sometimes. Just how angry it makes me. People know. People know there are big issues happening in our city and this country. The main thing that gets me is people acting ignorant to it, like it doesn’t exist.“
“I hope I see my friends and peers in positions of power. I want my friends to be mayors, to be governors. I want them to shine in the positions they are in, to have better quality of life for people all around. Nothing will be the same because of Covid. But maybe I don’t want everything to be the same…Imagine a world where the 13th amendment doesn’t exist, prison slave labor doesn’t exist...Let's find alternative ways for our generation to make money, to be taken seriously. I want to be an artist and homeowner, to give back to my community. I want there to be more compassion, more empathy. Let’s live in a world of radical love.“
Kevin's twitter: https://twitter.com/kevkneezy
Kevin's Insta: https://www.instagram.com/kevkneezy/