Michigan activists Ceena Vang and Zora Bowens protesting anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence and hate after ...

How violence against Asian Americans has grown and how to stop it, according to activists

DETROIT – When Rebeka Islam watched news break about a series of shootings at Atlanta area spas last year, she felt as if someone had punched her in the gut. “I was simply devastated,” Islam said. However, she was not surprised.

Prosecutors would go on to argue that the 22-year-old white man suspected of killing eight people that day, including six Asian American women, was motivated by race and gender. The suspect has claimed he was motivated by sex addiction. The victims included Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, and Paul Andre Michels.

WATCH MORE: Remembering the lives lost in Atlanta shootings

But “prior to the Atlanta shootings, there was already a rise in racist, violent acts against Asian Americans all across the country. It was horrifying to watch this happen,” said Islam, the executive director of APIAVote-Michigan, a grassroots nonpartisan organization working to increase Asian American and Pacific Islander civic engagement. “This is where it hit even closer to home for me. I’m sure many women like myself were thinking, ‘that could have been me.’”

A year after the shootings, many additional attacks on Asian Americans have continued across the country, something activists view as part of the long tradition of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders woven through the nation’s history.

“Part of American culture has been minimizing and pretending discrimination against Asian Americans can’t and does not exist,” said Ayesha Ghazi Edwin, chair of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission (MAPAAC).

Ceena Vang leading march she organized as WWN Detroit protesting anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence and hate in Troy, Michigan, after Atlanta spa shootings in 2021. Photograph by Marc Klockow

Ceena Vang leading march and rally she organized as WWN Detroit protesting anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence and hate in Troy, Michigan, after Atlanta spa shootings in 2021. Photograph by Marc Klockow

There are 22.9 million Asian Americans and 1.6 million Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders across the U.S., according to 2019 Census data. American history is pockmarked with anti-Asian exclusion, discrimination and prejudice, particularly when economic times are tough or during other times of great unrest. Following 9/11, there was a 1,600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2001 as compared to 2000. The 1982 killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit came at the end of the 1980-1982 recession. The examples stretch further: the Page Act of 1875, America’s first immigration law, which effectively banned almost all Chinese women after the Great Panic of 1873; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned almost all Chinese people from the country during the Long Depression of 1873 to 1896; the 1907 Bellingham riots, in which a mob of 500 white working men attacked and forced out several hundred mostly Sikh men over fears of labor competition at lumber mills; and the 1942 incarceration of about 120,000 Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to name a few.

The most recent report from Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks hate incidents and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., shows that from March 2020 to December 2021, almost 11,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were self-reported to the organization. Nearly 62 percent of those incidents were reported by women. About 120 occurred in Michigan, where Islam’s group works.

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These numbers are likely undercounted. In a survey between AAPI Data, a demographic and policy research group focused on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Survey Monkey in late March of 2021, one in eight Asian Americans surveyed said they had experienced a hate crime or hate incident in 2020 and the first three months of 2021.

AAPI Data’s most recent 2022 American Experiences with Discrimination Survey in partnership with Momentive conducted in early March of this year showed that number had risen to 1 in 6 Asian American adults in the past year. In the first three months of 2022 the figure is already at 1 in 12, or 8 percent, with the number likely to increase as the year continues and COVID-19 restrictions lift.

The survey also found that Asian American men are as likely to experience hate crimes and hate incidents, but are less likely to report them, and that 83 percent of Asian American parents are concerned that their children may be bullied because of their race or ethnicity.

READ MORE: ‘You don’t teach prejudice by discussing its existence.’ How to talk to children about race and discrimination.

Asian Americans were not alone in experiencing hate incidents. From January 2021 through early March 2022, the latest survey showed, 19 percent of multiracial adults, 17 percent of Black adults, 16 percent of Asian American adults, 15 percent of Native American adults, 14 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander adults, and 13 percent of Latino American adults experienced hate incidents or hate crimes, in comparison to only 6 percent of white adults.

“The horrific violence we saw in Atlanta in March 2021 made some people pay attention to this problem in a new way,” said Melissa Borja, an assistant professor of American culture focused on Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at the University of Michigan. “I only wish they had paid attention to it earlier.”

READ MORE: Sikh Americans push for greater visibility, awareness against years of hate crimes, misunderstanding

In the days and months after the Atlanta shootings, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta and met the families of victims and Asian American community advocates on March 19, 2021; Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in May 2021; Biden established the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI) and the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (PACAANHPI). Many states, counties, cities, and organizations passed resolutions condemning anti-Asian American violence. A bipartisan group of 26 governors issued a joint statement in solidarity. Illinois and New Jersey passed laws requiring the teaching of Asian American studies in K-12 schools, and other states are considering similar mandates, including Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Connecticut. Nationally, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., introduced H.R.2283 Teaching Asian Pacific American History Act, which has been referred to committee.

But there is more work to do, activists say. “We have a responsibility to keep this activism alive and to speak out against racism whenever it rears its head,” Islam said.

When a gunman killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, last year in the Atlanta spa shooting, Zora Bowens and Ceena Vang created the activist organization Whenever We’re Needed and began holding rallies around southeast Michigan.

A history of violence and discrimination, in the U.S and beyond

Borja, at the University of Michigan, has been tracking and mapping the rise in anti-Asian American violence with a team of nearly 20 researchers through her Virulent Hate Project. She and other scholars and community activists had been warning for more than a year that something like the shootings in Atlanta could happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased tensions between the U.S. and China, and rhetoric from prominent leaders that scapegoated China for the pandemic, “causing Asian Americans to become increasingly vulnerable to acts of violence, racism, discrimination, and harassment,” Borja said.

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Anti-Asian American attacks and boycotts of Asian American owned businesses began to rise in January 2020 alongside early reports of COVID-19 in China. In March 2020, Bawi Cung and his 6-year-old son were attacked by a man armed with a knife at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas. The man, who later pleaded guilty to hate-crime charges, thought the Burmese American family was Chinese and blamed them for COVID-19. In January and February 2021, several attacks against elderly Asian Americans attracted media attention, including 84-year-old Thai American grandfather Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco, who was shoved to the ground and died of his injuries; 65-year-old Filipina American Vilma Kari in New York, who was kicked and stomped as security guards looked on and failed to intervene, and 75-year-old grandmother Xiao Zhen Xie in San Francisco, who fought back against her attacker, beating the man with a board and putting him into the hospital.

Not all violent crimes and incidents against Asian Americans are hate crimes — only the first and third of those mentioned above were classified that way. Virulent Hate Project’s work shows that anti-Asian American racism takes many forms, and not all rise to the level of prosecutable crimes.

“Hate crimes have been the focus of a lot of public discussion, advocacy, and research. However, to focus only on hate crimes is to miss the bigger story of racism,” Borja said. “While some forms of racism involve violent hate crimes, the vast majority of expressions of anti-Asian racism do not. Racism is expressed in many forms, all of which harm Asian Americans.”

These forms of anti-Asian American racism include physical harassment, verbal harassment, avoidance, spitting and coughing, business downturn, vandalism and graffiti, online and social media harassment, and barring from business. Borja also found that anti-Asian racism is both global and local. She found stories of anti-Asian racism, violence, and discrimination in cities across the United States, but also in Australia, the U.K., Canada, and other countries.

“Our vision of understanding the problem of anti-Asian racism needs to be global in scope. The pandemic scapegoating affecting people of Asian descent has been experienced all around the world,” Borja said. “For local organizers, I think it’s important to see how anti-Asian racism has been experienced in our own communities by our own neighbors, classmates, and coworkers.”

In addition, scholars and activists point to the stereotyped perception of Asian Americans as smaller and less likely to fight back. And at the intersection of race and gender, the proliferation of hypersexualized stereotypes make Asian American and Pacific Islander women extra vulnerable to racism, sexism, and violence. Borja points to how the alleged Atlanta shooter claimed that his crimes were not racially or sexually motivated, which was initially accepted unquestioningly by law enforcement.

“It enraged me that … the public accepted it, in part because hyper-sexualization of East Asian women stereotypes is so pervasive and normalized in our society that people can’t see it when it’s in front of their face,” Borja said.

One year after the Atlanta spa shooting, One Detroit and WDET sit down with activists Ceena Vang and Zora Bowens as they reflect on the first rally they held and the impact they’ve had on the community.

Speaking out and taking action

In Michigan, the continued anti-Asian American violence also coincides with the approaching 40th anniversary of the death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man killed in a Detroit suburb by two white autoworkers following years of recession and unemployment anxieties as more fuel efficient Japanese automobiles became more popular in the U.S. following the 1973 and 1979 oil crises, cutting into the profits of American automobile manufacturers. The men who killed him were fined $3,780 and did not serve any jail time. The killing galvanized the Asian American community across ethnic lines to form multiethnic and multiracial alliances, to organize for civil rights, and to advocate for change in the Mitten State and across the country.

READ MORE: How the Sikh community’s experiences with hate crimes shows why data collection is so important

“Not many people know the historic role Detroit has in Asian American activism,” Islam said. “His death in the early 1980s shocked so many Asian Americans nationwide, and [Asian Americans] mobilized and called this tragedy what it was: a hate crime. His death represents a critical turning point in that it mobilized Asian Americans and it became a rallying cry for stronger federal hate crime laws.”

For Ghazi Edwin, the rising violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across ethnicities brought her back to the time after 9/11, when there was a sudden increase in hate crimes, hate incidents, surveillance, harassment, and violence against Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, Sikh Americans, South Asian Americans, and others mistakenly associated with stereotypes of terrorists.

“Being a brown person who went through 9/11, I know what it feels like to go outside and have people look at you a little longer, wondering if you’re ‘to blame’ for some international conflict, or a pandemic, that has nothing to do with you. I mourned for our Asian American community that day,” and after the shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx facility that killed eight people, including four Sikh Americans, one month later.

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While activists had been watching the number of reported anti-Asian American hate incidents and hate crimes rise steadily during the pandemic, the shootings in Atlanta brought much wider attention to the problem, and many more people and organizations began to act.

Rallies, vigils, and town hall meetings were held virtually and in dozens of cities across the country. In Michigan, after the shootings, Ceena Vang and her best friend, Zora Bowens, created a community group to support Asian American, Black, and marginalized communities whenever and wherever they are needed, plainly calling the group Whenever We’re Needed (WWN). They organized a protest and march against anti-Asian American violence in downtown Detroit outside of the McNamara Federal Building and a second larger rally 25 miles north in Troy outside of Troy City Hall.

“I felt very called to host a protest in Troy because I was born and raised there,” Vang said. “Growing up in the suburbs and Troy being predominately Asian and white populated, you still felt like an outsider and faced stereotypes and discrimination as a [person of color]. It was gratifying to see citizens of Troy of all races and ages come out to show love and support, especially the youth.”

WATCH MORE: After Atlanta shooting, protesters call for action, protection for Asian Americans

Through the commission, Ghazi Edwin has helped many cities, counties, and the state write resolutions to condemn anti-Asian American sentiment. She also helped organize a virtual town hall meeting with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Attorney General Dana Nessel, which was attended by more than 4,000 people statewide. Ghazi Edwin is now running for Ann Arbor city council.

“It is so important to first discover and learn how to tell your story, over and over again,” Ghazi Edwin said. “When I began to explore my Asian American identity, learn the story of Vincent Chin, and get involved in Asian American organizing, I found a whole world of Asian American history, civil rights, and important social issues that helped me understand and process my own story as an Asian American immigrant woman.”

“Stories help to share your experiences, and hearing the stories of others helps you to connect with them. … We must share our stories as Asian Americans, as immigrants, as individuals and as a group, so people can understand the necessity of the Asian American civil rights movement,” she added.

Ceena Vang and Zora Bowens at march and rally organized by WWN Detroit protesting anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence and hate in Troy, Michigan, after Atlanta spa shootings in 2021. Photograph by Marc Klockow

Ceena Vang and Zora Bowens at march and rally organized by WWN Detroit protesting anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence and hate in Detroit, Michigan, after Atlanta spa shootings in 2021. Photograph by Marc Klockow

Changes over the past year

In the year since the shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis, Vang has noticed more Asian Americans becoming more active and vocal speaking out against anti-Asian American violence. She hopes to see more unity and solidarity going forward.

“It is important for us to all band together and realize that we are more similar than we are different,” Vang said. “The movement towards building a better future of unity happens when we acknowledge each other and the strength we have in numbers. The fight for equality and justice is lifelong and I encourage everyone to continue to be present.”

WATCH MORE: ‘Hate is learned’: Tracing the history of anti-Asian violence in America

Other activists have also noticed an awakening within the community. “Those of us who have known that white supremacy is the issue, are finally being heard,” said Jungsoo Ahn, interim executive director of Rising Voices, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote the civic participation of Asian American women and families in Michigan. “Those who have ascribed to, hidden under, and/or been forced into the model minority myth are beginning to resist. In Michigan, we are a group who has historically not been talked to and ignored in terms of the value of our voices and the resources attached to making our voices heard.”

This awakening has also come with a greater investment of resources in Asian American communities. The National Science Foundation, for instance, is investing in research to help “understand, address, and end bias, discrimination and xenophobia, including against AA and NHPI communities.” The Department of Justice announced $21 million in grants for state and local law enforcement to support them in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, as well as assisting victims of those crimes.

As funders come to better understand the disparate challenges in Asian American communities and better understand that anti-Asian American hate has been an issue all along, advocates have been able to put forth more nuanced race and class narrative analyses, build power among Asian Americans, and develop multi-racial coalitions, Ahn said.

The federal COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, passed in May 2021, provides resources and training for state and local law enforcement to accurately identify and report hate crimes to the FBI, to create specialized hate crimes units, and to create hate crimes hotlines that are accessible to people with limited English proficiency.

Borja noticed that as more people pay attention to the issue of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander racism, more individuals and organizations and other communities of color are speaking out in support of each other in solidarity. “I’ve seen allies speak up and show support for Asian Americans in new ways, and it’s truly exciting,” she said.

READ MORE: How the Sikh community’s experiences with hate crimes shows why data collection is so important

She was surprised, however, with how differently people responded to the 2021 shootings at an Indianapolis FedEx facility, which killed eight people, four of them Sikh American: Amarjeet Kaur Johal, Karli Smith, Matthew R. Alexander, Samaria Blackwell, Jasvinder Kaur, Jaswinder Singh, Amarjit Sekhon, John Weisert.

“It shocked me to see how Sikh Americans and other South Asian Americans have often not been part of how people imagine and understand who counts as Asian Americans,” Borja said. “But Sikh Americans are Asian Americans, and they have also [been] victims of anti-Asian racism and violence. We need to do better about being more inclusive when we talk about Asian America.”

The FBI has determined that these were not hate crimes, though the Sikh American community has urged investigators to recognize how bias played a role in the attack.

“The shooter chose a place known for hiring people of color, specifically a Punjabi Sikh-majority, for his attack,” Amrith Kaur, Sikh Coalition legal director, said in a statement. “We are not dismissing that mental health issues nor the toxic masculinity discussed during the press conference played a role in this attack. But it is important to recognize that bias can be a factor in addition to these other issues.”

Diana (Woojung) Park of MinKwon Center, the New York affiliate of NAKASEC, speaks at a press conference with members of Congress, demanding a pathway to citizenship

Diana (Woojung) Park of MinKwon Center, the New York affiliate of NAKASEC, speaks at a press conference with members of Congress, demanding a pathway to citizenship

Moving forward and solutions

For these Michigan activists, the legacy of Chin’s murder is always in the back of their minds.

Borja emphasized the need to continue building relationships and working in coalition and solidarity with other communities that have experienced oppression and injustice at the local level and local contexts.

“We need to build on relationships at the local level, and we need to retain awareness of both the specificity of historical harm and the possibilities of working together with a shared vision of thriving and justice,” she said. “So much of our national conversation about Asian America tends to focus on Asian Americans in California and New York, but the solutions that work there don’t necessarily work elsewhere.”

“The needs, populations, and political circumstances really differ when you look at the issue of anti-Asian racism in Indiana, Michigan, Texas, and Georgia. Each locale has its own history of racism and violence, and that sets up different opportunities for the future,” Borja added.

WATCH MORE: What you can do to fight violence and racism against Asian Americans

In the Michigan legislature, Democratic State Sen. Stephanie Chang and Democratic State Rep. Ranjeev Puri successfully helped adopt resolutions condemning hate violence and rhetoric against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and encouraging Michiganders to report hate crimes and discrimination. Chang has also proposed a bill to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history to all K-12 students, and she has coordinated with other legislators of color to also propose bills to teach Arab and Chaldean American, Latino and Caribbean American, and Indigenous and Native American histories to all of Michigan’s K-12 students in addition to African American history, which is already in the curriculum.

A more comprehensive education including the histories of communities of color will help people better understand others’ intersectional identities, help disrupt the “model minority” myth stereotype, and pave the way for more complex solidarities.

“Acknowledging the diversity and complex intersectional identities among us, advocating for disaggregation of data so people understand the true nature of the inequities our community faces. Realizing how much more we have in common than different, continuing to advocate for representation in public school curriculum, not forgetting our history of achievements and of discrimination, and teaching it to others,” Ghazi Edwin said.

On a national level, the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) is lobbying to pass legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, advocating in particular for Asian Americans, women, and adoptees. It is also trying to build solidarity among oppressed and marginalized communities.

“The root causes of violence and oppression must be addressed,” said Rachel Koelzer, NAKASEC communications manager. “Half-baked solutions that punish, surveille, incarcerate, and target individuals or communities cannot be tolerated and will never offer our communities safety. We must continue building solidarity amongst oppressed and marginalized communities. Recognizing our shared struggles, we must move together toward collective liberation.”

Events to mark the anniversaries of tragedies are usually held so communities can come together after having had a chance to recover and reflect. But for Asian American communities, the violence has not yet ended, delaying the healing process. The recent deaths of Michelle Alyssa Go who was pushed to death in front of a subway, Christina Yuna Lee, who was followed and killed in her home, GuiYing Ma, who died after being bludgeoned by a rock, and the brutal beating of the as yet unnamed 67-year-old Filipino grandmother are still fresh in people’s minds.

“What’s critical is that we do not let up,” Islam said. “We’ve seen how often there is this immediate surge of interest in the aftermath of a tragedy, but then people begin to forget or they move on to the next news cycle. We simply can’t do that. And for communities of color, we need to keep working as partners and continue to keep showing up for each other. There is strength in numbers and despite our differences … and with a collective persistence, we can keep moving the needle on this issue. We cannot stop. We cannot lose momentum.”