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'Urgent Action Really Is Needed': Advocates Fight Anti-Asian Violence As Hate Crimes Impact Community

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Masked shoppers walk through downtown L.A.'s Chinatown. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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A wave of attacks against Asian Americans during the course of the pandemic shows no sign of abating, with recent incidents in California turning violent, even deadly.

A horrific assault caught on surveillance video in late January showed 84-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee being slammed into and knocked to the ground by a man on a San Francisco street. Ratanapakdee, an immigrant from Thailand, later died from his injuries.

Just in recent weeks there have been reports of violent attacks against Asian Americans in Southern California, Northern California and elsewhere, including in New York, where a man was stabbed last week in an unprovoked attack.

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Recent local incidents include:

These attacks continue a trend that developed last year after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S. Former President Donald Trump fanned the flames with racist rhetoric, regularly referring to the novel coronavirus as the "China Virus."

Stop AAPI Hate, a watchdog initiative, has been compiling hate incident reports against Asian Americans with an online "hate tracker" tool since the pandemic took hold in the United States in March.

From late March through last December, the portal received 250 reports from Los Angeles County, said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, or A3PCON, which partnered with San Francisco State University and Chinese for Affirmative Action to create the reporting tool.

Around 5% of these reported incidents have involved elders as victims, Kulkarni said.

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"Unfortunately, vulnerable folks do get picked on sometimes for these types of incidents," Kulkarni told our newsroom's local news and culture show Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC. "And that's why urgent action really is needed."

Many of the recent attacks on Asian Americans have been brought to light via social media, with Asian American activists and even celebrities posting videos of attacks and calls to action.

Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information on the person in Oakland's Chinatown suspected of assaulting three seniors, one of them 91 years old, a few days after the fatal attack on Ratanapakdee in San Francisco.

Kim described the assaults as being "ignored and even excused" in his Twitter post announcing the reward. Subsequent media attention has led to discussion over how to respond to violence against the Asian community.

LA COUNTY RESPONSE

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For Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, combating anti-Asian hate takes on a personal dimension. Toma's mother was one of roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II, in response to an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt. Feb. 19 marked the 79th anniversary of that order.

Toma compares sentiments during that time to the current climate surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, when a time of crisis brings existing hate to the surface.

"One of the reasons that we saw that mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans, based solely on their national origin, was due to the pre-existing prejudice that was already present in the West Coast and other places in the country," Toma said.

The L.A. County Commission on Human Relations has been tracking hate crimes and incidents since 1980. Their data shows that anti-Asian hate was already an issue before the pandemic, with anti-Asian hate crimes going up by 32% from 2018 to 2019.

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Robin Toma, executive director of the L.A. County of Commission on Human Relations, joins other county officials and community leaders speaking out against coronavirus-related racism last year. (Josie Huang/LAist)

In 2019, the commission started working with the county's 211 hotline to track hate incidents, or bias-motivated hostility that doesn't rise to the level of a crime, as part of its LA vs. Hate initiative. People can report hate crimes and incidents through the LA vs. Hate website or by calling 211, which provides services in a variety of languages, including many Asian languages spoken locally. The LA vs. Hate Rapid Response Network, made up of 12 contracted agencies, including A3PCON, coordinates the local response to these incidents.

The LA vs. Hate Rapid Response Network has been able to provide comprehensive support and advocacy to those who contact them. For one Asian woman who was harassed in a restaurant, for example, Toma said the county is trying to get management at that chain to train their employees to respond to future incidents.

In another high-profile case, the LA vs. Hate team is consulting with local, county, state and federal law enforcement on behalf of Asian, Latino, Armenian and LGBTQ families in a West Covina homeowners' association who have experienced daily harassment and intimidation from a neighboring family, said Terri Villa-McDowell, the LA vs. Hate program coordinator.

LA vs. Hate is also helping the families find legal representation in dealing with an unresponsive HOA, she said, and obtain protective orders and pursue civil rights complaints with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

THE QUESTION OF MOTIVATION

In many cases, it's difficult to prove what motivates attackers and whether hate is a factor, and many reported incidents are not investigated or prosecuted as hate crimes.

Data gathered so far via the LA vs. Hate and Stop AAPI Hate initiatives have shown that the incidents reported involve more than criminal acts against Asians -- they also involve hostility, harassment and civil rights violations that require comprehensive solutions at all levels.

"The ability to both identify and seek policy solutions, as well as help individuals, their families and their communities, is so important to our work," Kulkarni said.

Both Kulkarni and Toma see law enforcement as playing a role in responding more effectively to hate crimes and incidents. This includes accurately reporting hate crimes, but also providing recourse to victims of hate incidents, which may not be as severe as a hate crime, but are damaging nonetheless.

Toma recently presented a memo to the Board of Supervisors, in collaboration with Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee executive director Mark Delgado, proposing alternative sentencing programs for some perpetrators that address "the underlying biases of their hate crimes."

"We're actually having perpetrators of low-level hate crimes to address their prejudice, by figuring out what would help to bring about greater understanding, so they are less likely to carry forward these prejudices," Toma said of the proposal.

COMMUNITY SOLUTIONS

In response to the Jan. 31 attack in Oakland on the 91-year-old and two other older people, some Chinatown stakeholders there called for more security cameras and the reinstatement of the police department's Asian American liaison officer, as possible solutions to the uptick in violence.

Other organizers, however, caution against relying on police. Alvina Wong, campaign and organizing director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said that the in-language and culturally competent services that the police can offer are limited.

"There's also been so many stories of like, when folks who have been impacted by crime call the police, because of language and cultural barriers, they feel like they're the ones who are in trouble," Wong said.

Wong and other Oakland Chinatown activists are calling for a community-focused approach instead, including the revival of the Chinatown Ambassador Program, which employs people, mainly those who were formerly incarcerated, to engage in cleanup and de-escalation.

"We know the police can't solve everything," said Ener Chiu, associate director of real estate development at the East Bay Local Development Corporation. "It doesn't always help to have someone armed, come in and solve a problem."

In L.A., Tiffany Do, an organizer with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, which has been in the neighborhood since 2012, also cautions against relying on the police to address anti-Asian violence.

She points out that Asian Americans have also been victims of police violence, including Angelo Quinto, a Filipino American veteran who died last December after police in Antioch, Calif. knelt on his back for nearly five minutes after his mother made a mental health call to authorities, according to a lawsuit filed by his family. And she said there have also been incidents where neighborhood security forces use surveillance and intimidation to harass community members, including elderly street vendors.

In a statement on the recent violence against Asian elders, Do's group called these incidents a "boiling point...after a painful year of simmering anti-Chinese rhetoric, xenophobia, right-wing extremism -- and also, years of unfettered real estate speculation displacing our working-class communities."

This comes on top of the pandemic's economic fallout that has also harmed Asian Americans, Do said.

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A nearly empty parking lot outside the Golden Lake Eatery in Chinatown, after the start of the pandemic last year. (Josie Huang/LAist)

"People...tend to raise issues around the economic violence of what happened," Do said. "People have avoided Chinatown because of the coronavirus. That's where it's really interesting in terms of the scope of harm, where we are invisibilized-slash-ignored."

Meanwhile, she said, long-time residents, businesses and the basic services they rely on have been pushed out to make way for more expensive housing and commercial activity as Chinatown gentrifies. As community organizers, Do and other members of the Chinatown group have seen this firsthand.

"One of our buildings that we were organizing, about five families left," she said. "The reaction to that type of violence is very different, but at the end of the day, very much connected, right? Because that's what we mean, we are seen as disposable and not worth taking care of."

Do said any solution to interpersonal violence targeting Asian Americans must also address these long-term issues.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified a 91-year-old man who was attacked in Oakland's Chinatown on Jan. 31 as Asian, according to news reports. The New York Times later reported that this victim is Latino. We have updated our story.

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