They gather almost every night at San Francisco’s Dragon Gate, the ornately decorated entrance to the nation’s oldest Chinatown. Armed with only whistles and pamphlets, the volunteer neighborhood patrol roams the streets, checking out ATMs and mom-and-pop shops in areas where Asian residents have experienced attacks that have left this neighborhood on edge.
Some volunteers drive more than an hour to walk these blocks — largely deserted by a combination of fear and pandemic lockdown — to hand out bilingual fliers that explain how to report a crime to police. Similar patrols have sprouted in Asian neighborhoods in Oakland, Calif., Los Angeles and New York City, a response to what these communities say is a wave of racist violence and harassment since headlines about a virus from China began appearing in U.S. media a year ago.
Data is scant, but at least two U.S. cities logged an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020. The New York Police Department reported at least 28 hate crimes that targeted Asian American victims last year, compared with three the previous year. San Francisco’s preliminary data shows that nine hate crimes targeted Asian Americans in 2020, up from six the year before and four in 2018.
Several viral videos of attacks on Asian pedestrians this month have heightened concerns: a Filipino man slashed with a box cutter on a New York City train; a 52-year-old woman shoved to the ground in Flushing, Queens; an Asian woman punched in the face on a subway platform and a Los Angeles man beaten with his own cane at a bus stop.
It’s unclear if the violence in each of those viral videos was racially motivated, but the incidents have left Asian Americans feeling not only under attack but also largely alone in addressing neighborhood crime, with many of the assailants remaining elusive. While some have joined neighborhood patrols, others are arming themselves for protection. And still others have pushed for law enforcement to create task forces and liaisons to better address neighborhood concerns.
“People are fed up about not being heard, not being seen and waiting for help,” said Will Lex Ham, an activist who has participated in the San Francisco Chinatown street patrols and organized rallies in New York. “We’re not getting the allyship we need, the resources we need. We have to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps.”
Public attention to attacks on Asian Americans soared after 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was assaulted in San Francisco last month. His son-in-law Eric Lawson said he was on his daily neighborhood walk and recovering from multiple heart surgeries when he was shoved so violently that he later died.
“Thai grandpa,” as he was known by community activists, became a rallying cry for celebrities and other Asian Americans who added his face to their social media profile pictures. His daughter Amy Ratanapakdee believes it was a hate crime.
“It’s like a senseless act of violence and could happen to any one of us,” she said, adding that her own children have been called racial epithets on the street during the past year. “I want everyone to know how my father died and hope that in his memory, people will join me to hope that justice presides.”
A 19-year-old man has pleaded not guilty to murder in Ratanapakdee’s attack. A suspect also has been arrested in the case of Noel Quintana, the 61-year-old Filipino man whose face was slashed on a New York City subway train while on his way to work earlier this month.
“Nobody came, nobody helped, nobody made a video,” he said.
Quintana reported the crime to police, and the suspect has been charged with assault. But many cases never get that far.
Victims from marginalized communities can be reluctant to engage with police because of cultural differences, language barriers or distrust. Even when they do report, proving that they were targeted because of their race is difficult.
To fill in the data gap, some Asian American organizations are tracking these incidents on their own. Stop AAPI Hate launched last March to collect information on suspected cases of racially motivated violence and harassment. It received more than 2,808 self-reported incidents from across the country by year’s end.
Of those incidents, 9 percent were physical assaults and 71 percent were verbal attacks. Among the victims, most were women and about 126 reported being older than 60.
“We were flooded immediately with hundreds of incidents,” said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, who helped launch the site. “We have large numbers of elderly reporting that you wouldn’t think would complain, but they knew racism when they experienced it.”
Ethnicities of the self-reported victims largely mirrored their national populations: 41 percent were Chinese, 15 percent were Korean, 8 percent were Vietnamese and 7 percent were Filipino. States with higher Asian populations report more incidents, with California most represented followed by New York at about 13 percent.
But some Asian communities suspect the rash of attacks is even worse than data suggests. The tendency to underreport is why Iona Cheng thinks her community in Oakland has become a target.
“They’re attacking Asian women, often for cultural reasons. They don’t speak out. They don’t press charges. They don’t speak English well in some cases,” said Cheng, who is Chinese American.
The 48-year-old cancer epidemiologist had just delivered a Christmas gift in late December when a group of preteens tackled her to the ground, punched and burglarized her. Police believe the same group stomped on an Asian woman in her 60s later that night, breaking her kneecap.
“I can’t walk outside the door of my house and feel safe,” said Cheng, who added that someone called her “coronavirus” while she was jogging last March in Oakland. “I just feel like that was taken from me.”
Gun ownership has become a solution for some. David Liu, owner of Arcadia Firearm and Safety in the predominantly Asian city of Arcadia, Calif., said his 2020 sales soared four times higher than a typical year. Liu said he saw an uptick in Asian Americans interested in purchasing firearms, but interest has been skyrocketing among “basically everybody.”
National gun sales are not tracked by race or ethnicity, but in a survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation last year, gun retailers estimated a nearly 43 percent increase in sales to Asian customers in the first half of 2020 on average — the smallest jump of the four reported racial or ethnic groups. By comparison, the survey estimated sales grew an average 52 percent to White customers and 58 percent to Black customers.
San Francisco social worker Jason Gee decided to buy a handgun in the spring after a series of incidents, including an assault, home invasion and his car windows being broken. And on his way to buying a gun, in the parking lot, four White men called him and his friend “the coronavirus” and “chinks.”
While in line to buy the firearm, Gee said, he noticed that most of the customers were also Asian.
But he soon started to worry that his purchase was “playing to fear,” ultimately making his community less safe and decided to sell the firearm back.
“If you show up here … expecting violence, that may put you in a certain mind frame, where you may misread a situation and respond to it with violence.”
Local leaders have made similar pleas, including Oakland Police Department Chief LeRonne Armstrong who expressed concern about civilian gun owners creating “unintended victims.”
He held a news conference Feb. 16 after a Chinatown shopkeeper was jailed for allegedly firing his weapon at a man he believed was robbing a woman on the street.
“We don’t want people to fire weapons into our community,” he said. “While we appreciated people’s interest in keeping our community safe, we want them to observe and report.”
That sentiment makes San Francisco gun owner Chris Cheng furious. Cheng, who describes himself as a Second Amendment advocate, has owned a gun since 2008 and said friends and strangers have been reaching out to him about gun ownership in response to the attacks.
“I think a lot of Asian Americans are realizing that the police can only do so much and that the police are not always there to protect us,” Cheng said. “They’re only there to take the report.”
Some law enforcement agencies have been trying to do more. Police departments in San Francisco and New York City have set up task forces to focus on the issue and increased police presence in predominantly Asian neighborhoods.
The 25 detectives on the NYPD’s all-Asian task force speak 11 languages between them. In July, when an 89-year-old woman, who was slapped in the face and her shirt set on fire, initially did not cooperate with the investigation, Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo, commanding officer of the task force, sent a detective who speaks Cantonese to talk to her.
“She saw him, and it was like seeing her grandkids or something like that. She opened up,” Loo said. “The details [she gave] were very precise, very clear. And from that interview, she was able to ID the people that tried lighting her on fire, which led to an arrest.”
At least 18 people have been arrested in suspected hate crimes against Asian Americans in New York so far since the attacks began in 2020, Loo said.
Many have placed blame for anti-Asian violence on President Donald Trump, who repeatedly called the coronavirus the “China virus” and “kung flu” during his time in office. The Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Asian sentiment on Twitter spiked after Trump’s October covid-19 diagnosis. Even before that, about a third of Americans reported witnessing someone blame Asian people for the pandemic in a survey released in April.
But Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) believes the problem runs deeper than the former president. During House Democrats’ roundtable discussion about the attacks on Friday, Takano noted that “this sort of bias is latent throughout American society, and it gets worse or less worse depending on the moment.”
As far back as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States, insidious ideas about Asian people’s influence have fueled racist sentiments in the country. The Act was a product of the “yellow peril,” a paranoia that Chinese immigrants were a threat to White Americans’ jobs and other aspects of Western life.
These ideas carried into the 20th century, when Chinese American Vincent Chin was fatally beaten in Detroit in 1982 after two men allegedly mistook him for Japanese, a group that was being blamed for the decline of U.S. automakers. Chin’s assailants received a fine and probation for his death.
Tensions between Asian and Black communities also date back decades and have been reignited by videos that show Black perpetrators in many of the recent attacks on Asian Americans. Those tensions are rooted in the proximity in which the two under-resourced communities often live and work, while “fighting for crumbs,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Washington.
That mutual suspicion has boiled over several times in recent history. In 1991, a Korean American convenience store owner in Los Angeles accused 15-year-old Latasha Harlins of shoplifting before fatally shooting her. The shopkeeper was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but served no jail time. A year later, the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King set off riots in the city, during which many Korean shops were burned and looted.
“There was a sense that the shopkeepers were not respectful of the Black clientele, didn’t trust the Black clientele, and also overcharged the Black clientele,” said Brenda Stevenson, a history professor at UCLA and author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots.” “On the other side, the Korean American shopkeepers at the time felt that the clientele were dangerous and untrustworthy. Some of them had been assaulted, some had been killed.”
As the coronavirus pandemic has saddled low-income communities with economic hardships, community callouts and social media posts seeking volunteers to help protect business owners and older residents have proliferated in Asian American neighborhoods. The volunteer patrols pass out whistles so residents can alert others to active crimes and offer to walk with older neighbors as they run errands.
“Our community is hurting,” said Kevin Chan, owner of Golden Gate Fortune Cookie, which has been a stop for the San Francisco patrol. The Chinatown shop has been open for 58 years, but business has declined by 80 percent since the pandemic, Chan said.
“Everybody is worried about what’s happening, not just me, everybody in the community,” he said. “Because they just want to make a living and then people are attacking them just because they have a store or they’re walking on the street.”
When it comes to anti-Asian sentiment, there are no boundaries to who could become a victim, said Tzi Ma, known as Hollywood’s go-to Asian father. The actor, in his 60s, said he was yelled at by a passerby in a car to “be quarantined” while in a Whole Foods parking lot in Pasadena at the beginning of the pandemic, before the shutdowns.
“No matter what happens to us, no matter what contributions we make,” Ma said, “all the prestige, all the wealth that we’ve accumulated, we’re still treated the same way.”