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In Orange County, Anti-Vaccine Activists Attack Top Elected Official For His Vietnamese Heritage

Image of the inside of the Orange County Board of Supervisors chambers. Andrew Do, the chair of the board, sits in the middle seat of a large dais, flanked by the U.S., California, and County flags, with two of his colleagues on either end of the dais. Three employees are seated at a large desk in front of the dais.
This week's Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting saw xenophobic verbal abuse heaped on the Vietnamese American chair, Andrew Do.
(Screenshot from Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting)
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Throughout the pandemic, anti-vaccine activists have attended meetings of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to rail against shots, mask requirements and stay-at-home orders, likening them to decrees issued under Nazi or Communist regimes.

But at this week’s unruly meeting, anti-vax sentiments turned into a torrent of racist and xenophobic tirades against Supervisor Andrew Do, the board’s chair, who is of Vietnamese descent. In his role as board chair, he has been directing the county's COVID prevention efforts.

One speaker who identified himself as Tyler Durden, a character from the film Fight Club, blasted Vietnam’s COVID quarantine policies and said to Do: “You come to my country, and you act like one of these communist parasites. I ask you to go the f—k back to Vietnam!”

Do was a refugee whose family fled the communist regime in Vietnam and has lived in the U.S. for 46 years.

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Another speaker said: “You have the audacity to come here and try to turn our country, Andrew Do, into a communist country. Shame on you!”

“You talked about escaping communism this morning,” said yet another speaker. “Why are you bringing communism to Orange County? We want our freedoms. We're Americans, we have freedoms.”

'Horrifying' Comments

Tuesday’s attacks on Do led to condemnations by other Asian American politicians from Orange County, some of them progressive Democrats who usually find themselves on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the supervisor, a conservative Republican.

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“It’s just horrifying,” said State Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine. Asian American politicians are used to receiving racist e-mails and voicemails, but Min said the vitriol directed at Do “was really different.”

“This was a public forum in which several members of the public felt like they could go out, knowing they're being videoed, and voice extreme and disgusting racist statements,” Min said.

“It really hurt,” said Thai Viet Phan, a Santa Ana city council member who is Vietnamese American and has been accused of being a communist by political foes. Referring to the man who told Do to go back to Vietnam, Phan, a Democrat, said, “I felt it in my gut that he really meant it.”

Accusations of an immigrant official being “un-American” are not just being lobbed in Orange County. In Missouri, the acting public health director in St. Louis County was also targeted this week for his South Asian race and heritage by anti-vaccine activists who blamed him for the adoption of an indoor mask mandate.

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For his part, Do said that he does not want to elevate the racist barbs that he said he’s regularly faced over six years of serving as a supervisor, which he described as worsening because of former President Trump’s racist rhetoric, so he shows little reaction during meetings.

But he said being told to go back to Vietnam during a board meeting “crossed a line.”

“That’s the part that was surprising to me,” Do said. “I just never thought from [arriving in] the ‘70s, I would ever live again in a time where that kind of comment would be used against me again.”

I just never thought ... I would ever live again in a time where that kind of comment would be used against me again.
— Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do

Long Bui, an associate professor of international studies at the University of California-Irvine, said in an e-mail that he was not surprised that anti-vaccine protestors were weaponizing Do’s Vietnamese heritage against him, because of “a convergence of anti-government sentiment with white power and nationalism.”

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Anti-vaxxers, Bui said, “displace their felt rage and sense as social outsiders onto the perceived ‘real’ outsiders: foreign immigrants.”

“Their international and postwar experiences are not understood by nativists, who do not get why we are here and why we believe what we believe in,” Bui said.

Orange County is home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, many of whom came as refugees and are staunchly opposed to communism.

"My whole family lost everything because we were from the south and then we fled communism," Phan said. "So, the very notion that somehow Vietnamese refugees would be trying to spread that ideology here is just absurd."

Outspoken Critic Of Communism

Do is an outspoken critic of communism and perhaps the best-known Vietnamese American leader in Southern California. Some critics say his measures to combat COVID have not been aggressive enough compared to neighboring Los Angeles County, and they find it ironic that anti-vaccine activists are focused on him.

"I think most people look at Andrew Do and say he's certainly not at the vanguard of some of these efforts to limit COVID," Min said.

I think most people look at Andrew Do and say he's certainly not at the vanguard of some of these efforts to limit COVID
— State Senator Dave Min

Phan and Min said they were concerned that the hostile climate during board meetings and the unmasked activists could chill the public’s willingness to speak out on issues.

Asian Americans who see how Do is treated have cause to believe they will also be racially abused, especially during a surge in anti-Asian incidents, Min said.

Do said he is disturbed by the unruliness of board meetings, but added he does not want to open the county up to a First Amendment lawsuit by stifling comments, however racist or profane they may be.

He said since Tuesday's raucous meeting, the board has conferred with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department over how to respond to disruptive behavior, although when asked about what would be grounds for removal, Do said each situation had to be taken case-by-case.

For members of the public frightened to be in the same room with the anti-vaccination activists, Do suggested they address the board from an adjacent room with a glass wall facing the supervisors.

“We should never let intimidation silence our freedom of speech,” Do said.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.