Annual API Chaya vigil recognizes ongoing epidemic of violence

The photos of Susana Remerata Blackwell, Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Laureta at the back of a King County Courthouse courtroom during an annual vigil held in their memory. (Photo by Ester Ouli Kim)

Susana Remerata Blackwell had been trying to escape.

The pregnant 25-year-old Filipina immigrant had separated from Timothy Blackwell, whom she accused of assaulting her during their brief marriage.

Susana Remerata Blackwell was with her two friends, Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Laureta, at the King County Courthouse during an annulment proceedings on March 2, 1995, when Timothy Blackwell fatally shot the three women, leading to changes at the courthouse and sparking a movement against domestic violence that continues more than two decades later.

The nonprofit group API Chaya organized the vigil last week on the 23rd anniversary of the fatal shooting. The three Filipino women were killed by Blackwell after a hearing in which all three women testified about his abuse.

Twenty-three years after her death, Remerata Blackwell’s story is still relevant.

“Susana’s story is not an isolated story,” said Joanne Alcantara, executive director of API Chaya. “I think that’s a story for so many immigrants.”

Women like Susana Remerata Blackwell are usually isolated after immigrating to a new country. Alcantara said these women are often afraid to stand up to abuse or say anything because of fear of deportation and because they don’t know where to turn for help.

Susanna Remerata Blackwell had arrived in the United States nearly a year after marrying Timothy Blackwell. She and her husband had only spent two weeks together in the United States when she said that he physically attacked her. He took her to court to annul the marriage, which would have led to her deportation, according to The Seattle Times story in 1996. She countered that he had been an abusive spouse and immigration law allows battered spouses from other countries to stay in the United States.

Timothy Blackwell shot her to death on the final day of the annulment trial.

Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Laureta had been helping Remerata Blackwell during the months of the annulment hearings and had testified to his abuse. Dizon and Laureta were in their 40s, and they each had children of their own. Dizon’s sons have been active in API Chaya’s advocacy.

Susana Remerata Blackwell’s story happened in a very public place. It created a certain type of public outrage and became a rooted part of API Chaya’s history, said Alcantara.

“But domestic violence happens every day in private ways,” Alcantara said. “It’s still an ongoing issue, an ongoing epidemic in our communities.”

API Chaya is a nonprofit that seeks to end systemic violence in the Seattle area. They support Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander survivors and families impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other forms of oppression, especially violence against women and the most vulnerable in our society.

Almost 200 people said they were interested on the Facebook event for the vigil. According to Alcantara, the vigil usually expects about 100 people to attend. Over time, the community has come to expect the event and it has become intergenerational, with women who were the same ages as the victims in 1995 bringing their children and grandchildren today.

But their goal is not necessarily about increasing the size of the vigil, Alcantara said. It’s about building a movement. API Chaya’s outreach has grown in the past year. Between 2016 and 2017, API Chaya’s reach to community members grew from about 9,800 people to a little over 12,000 people, according to Alcantara.

The vigil this year started outside of the courthouse. People drew in closer as the vigil began with a song by four members of the Raven clan of the Haida people. Then a few board members, along with some founding members, welcomed the crowd.

Four members of the Raven clan of the Haida people welcomed the attendees of the annual vigil organized by API Chaya in front of the King County Courthouse in Seattle, Mar. 2, 2018. (Photo by Ester Kim)

“In this courthouse we know that we have experienced many tragic moments,” API Chaya board member Norma Timbang said, making reference to Blackwell’s murder, the continued systemic oppression of people of color and the original taking of the Duwamish land where the King County Courthouse now sits.

The human rights group Gabriela Seattle was also there and sang a medley of songs while other attendees marched around the King County Courthouse. Lyrics to the song were passed out to the crowd along with cups of chai.

One of the songs that Gabriela Seattle sang was “Rise Up” by Andra Day.

“And I’ll rise up, I’ll rise like the day, I’ll rise up, I’ll rise unafraid, I’ll rise up, and I’ll do it a thousand times again.”

Gabriela Seattle and API Chaya have a long working history, because Gabriela Seattle addresses issues affecting Filipina women, said Donna Denina, who is involved in both organizations.

The Filipina advocacy group Gabriela Seattle sang a medley before leading a march around the King County Courthouse. (Photo by Ester Ouli Kim).

The march ended at the front of the King County Courthouse as people formed a line to go through security. Blackwell’s murder led directly to the installation of metal detectors at the courthouse and a change in security measures to prevent the public from bringing items that can be used as a weapon.

Volunteers handed out flowers for attendees to lay in remembrance of the three Filipino women. On the ninth floor, the courtroom was lined with newspaper clippings and photos commemorating Blackwell and her friends’ stories.

Moments of silence were held to honor and remember all the lives lost and affected by systemic violence. The room breathed in and breathed out together, processing the present moment.

This year’s theme was Kapwa, which is a Tagalog word that means “finding refuge in each other.” Just as Blackwell, Dizon and Laureta came together in support and friendship, API Chaya wanted to bring together the many communities affected by and standing up against systemic violence.

API Chaya is still working to change the culture that causes and sustains systemic violence. So in response, they are “creating more community-based skill and developing more community solutions around addressing violence,” Alcantara said.

This would include training community members to respond to victims of domestic violence.

“Communities would have the skill to talk, deescalate and rectify” domestic violence situations, Alcantara said.

Volunteers hand out flowers to lay in remembrance of Susana Remerata Blackwell, her unborn daughter, and Blackwell’s friends Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Laureta. (Photo by Ester Ouli Kim).

Alcantara said domestic violence is often something people witness but don’t feel like they have a place to say anything. The group wants to increase community outreach and training as a response to domestic violence, she said.

“We recognize that’s messy and have a long way forward,” she said.

Alcantara said that good community members should get educated about domestic violence, know the resources that are available to help, and first and foremost, listen to and believe victims of violence.

Just taking that time to be with somebody during a hard moment and believing what they have to say, Alcantara said. Because for them to know that they deserve to be well and loved is a huge step.