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String of attacks against older Asians leaves big city Chinatowns on edge

Violence, robberies and burglaries have some Asian Americans afraid to leave their homes and brought a greater police presence to Bay Area neighborhoods.
/ Source: NBC News

A wave of attacks on older Asians has stoked fear in some big city Chinatowns, led authorities to assign extra officers before the Lunar New Year on Friday and take other measures to combat a problem that has worsened since the start of the year.

San Francisco is assigning more police to its Chinatown this week, for example, after older Asians have been targeted in a wave of robberies, burglaries and assaults. Area officials have advised residents to be vigilant after three violent attacks on Jan. 31 alone. One incident made national headlines as security cameras captured a 91-year-old man being pushed to the ground unprovoked.

None are being investigated as hate crimes, authorities said.

“These attacks have been caught on video, and I know not just these seniors but their family members live in fear when their grandparents or parents go out during New Year to pick up their groceries,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed visited the city’s Chinatown on Monday to address residents' growing safety concerns and to condemn the violence.

“These attacks have been caught on video, and I know not just these seniors but their family members live in fear when their grandparents or parents go out during New Year to pick up their groceries,” she said. “We don’t tolerate this. ... We need to look at every elderly person in this city like they’re our own parents, our own grandparents.”

Carl Chan, a resident of Oakland's Chinatown and president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, said he’s never seen this much violence in his neighborhood before.

“I’ve been around for so many years, and I thought I had seen the worst,” he said. “But we’re actually seeing worse than that.”

Heightened caution during Lunar New Year events

On the day his gift shop was robbed, Kenneth Lam called for more police presence in the area along with many other community members with the same plea. At a busy shopping time like Lunar New Year, Chan said the violence has hurt businesses because older residents have told him that "they’re actually afraid to come out, to walk their own streets.”

“Due to the increased number of crimes," he said, "many of our customers have decided to turn away coming to Chinatown and shop elsewhere."

Another Jan. 31 attack captured on surveillance video turned deadly after 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was pushed to the ground by a 19-year-old assailant. Ratanapakdee, who is Thai American, was on a walk when the attacker ran up from behind, shoved him to the ground and walked away. Ratanapakdee died of his injuries a few days later.

In a show of solidarity and to condemn the violence, many Asian Americans on social media changed their profile picture to an illustration of Ratanapakdee for 24 hours.

Though neither of these incidents nor the Oakland attacks have been investigated as hate crimes, Ratanapakdee’s son-in-law and daughter spoke to KPIX, a CBS News outlet, saying they think racism was definitely a factor. His daughter, Monthanus Ratanapakdee, said she has been targeted for her race during the pandemic.

“When people (see) me because I’m Asian, they blame me that I bring the Covid to this country,” she said.

Chan also said that he’s seen people blaming Chinatown residents for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. He also thinks that Asians are often targeted because of the stereotype that they keep a lot of cash on hand in their homes and businesses.

Last week, major cities saw more violence against Asians, with a 64-year-old woman attacked and robbed in San Jose, California; a 70-year-old woman shoved and robbed in Oakland; and a 61-year-old man slashed across the face after a dispute on a New York City subway.

Last week, the actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu announced that they’re offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the Oakland attacks, but shortly afterward police announced that a person of interest was already in custody on unrelated charges.

Some say calls for more policing might not be the answer

John C. Yang, president and CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says he thinks this violence is a clear manifestation of the anti-Asian rhetoric and hate that has persisted since the start of the pandemic. Yang said that AAJC data shows Asian Americans reported more than 3,000 hate incidents last year.

“And those are just self-reports,” he said. He blames the Trump administration for using hateful and misleading rhetoric scapegoating Chinese people when talking about COVID-19. He said that anxiety is growing within Asian communities where this violence is happening.

“There's no question that there's fear,” he said. “They themselves are already dealing with the pandemic, but then they have the second virus to contend with, the virus of racism.”

But while some community leaders in Oakland’s Chinatown are calling for more cops on the streets, Yang says over-policing the community might do more harm than good.

“An increased police presence isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem,” he said. “We worry about over-criminalization of communities. ... We could develop community-based solutions — assistance for the victims, assistance for the businesses that are damaged.”

One expert acknowledged that some of the assailants in these attacks have also been people of color, and he said the focus should shift from punitive action to coalition-building.

Yang acknowledged that some of the assailants in these attacks have also been people of color, and he said the focus should shift from punitive action to coalition-building. He encourages people who have been appalled by these attacks to reframe and focus on the root causes rather than demonizing people or advocating for more policing. Cross-racial discussions are essential “to address that fear in order to move forward together.”

“Sadly, the perpetrator in some cases has been African American,” Breed said. “And as an African American woman, as the mayor of your city, I am here to hold everyone accountable.”

Breed said the videos of the Oakland attacks and Ratanapakdee’s death left her “heartbroken.” She said that the city has a responsibility to implement policy and provide opportunities so people don’t end up becoming violent in the first place, and that “there are different ways to hold people accountable, not just imprisonment.”

Chan said he’s seen the community come together after the attacks, and he wants to look ahead to solutions rather than focusing on the problems. Young people in Oakland’s Chinatown have offered to walk older residents to their cars or homes after shopping, and national support has grown in the wake of the viral videos.

He wants to emphasize the unity that Chinatown should have with other minority communities in the city.

“I keep emphasizing one thing: Chinatown is not a community by itself,” Chan said. “We are one with this entire big community, and I just want to make sure we’re here working together to build a better city for all of us.”

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