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As the U.S. continues its battle against COVID-19, it is also battling a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. A recent report found that hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities surged by nearly 150 percent in 2020 —even as the number of overall hate crimes fell. Stephanie Sy looks at how the violence has marred one community, and how they are coming together in its wake.
Now to the rise in attacks against Asian Americans across the country.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities surged by nearly 150 percent in 2020, even as overall hate crimes fell.
Stephanie Sy has the story.
Fresh produce, hot pastries, curbside conversations, the familiar sights and sounds of a bustling morning in Oakland's Chinatown, now pierced by a palpable tension.
Volunteers in bright orange vests dot the streets, fanning out on day-long patrols, after a spate of attacks rattled the community.
Longtime Oakland resident Kazuko Hishida said the patrols help.
And, of course, I feel a little safer myself. It's all about keeping an eye out for each other. I had a major meltdown on February 17, when I heard the latest incident. And I just — I couldn't deal anymore.
The most high-profile attack happened in January in the heart of Chinatown. A 91-year-old man was captured on video being shoved to the ground.
The violence got worse around the lunar new year in February, when elders are known to carry envelopes of cash. It's another elder, 75-year-old Joe Ma, who started the safety patrols.
Joe Ma (through translator):
There are a lot of different ethnicities in Oakland Chinatown, and, usually, it's very harmonious. But with coronavirus and the economic situation, people are getting desperate.
Ma started walking the streets last March.
I can name kung-flu.
Then-President Trump repeatedly highlighted the origins of the pandemic.
Our war against the Chinese virus. It's got all different names. Wuhan.
Kim Tran researches issues of race and social justice movements. She remembers when she noticed a national trend.
There was a Burmese family in Texas who was stabbed inside of a Sam's Club. And that really changed how I engaged with being in public.
So, we started changing whether or not I would walk the dog alone. My mom has stopped going to the ATM by herself. And there is a very palpable climate of fear.
I was walking on the sidewalk down that street, and it just happened just right over there.
That fear hadn't yet hit Iona Cheng in late December of last year. She was running errands near her apartment in downtown Oakland.
We were just walking along the sidewalk. And as soon as they got close to me, they grabbed me and pulled me to the ground.
She was left bruised and badly shaken. The police officer who responded to Cheng saw race as a factor right away.
She told me that I was the first Asian American woman attacked that evening, and that they were attacking multiple Asian American women.
We were being pegged as a vulnerable group for an easy target. I think, because of various cultural reasons, there's reluctance to speak out and to be stoic, right, to not try to cause trouble.
The racial motivations behind many of these attacks are unclear, but the group Stop AAPI Hate has logged nearly 4,000 anti-Asian incidents since the start of the pandemic, an assault in San Francisco that killed 84-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee, another in Oakland just last week that left 75-year-old Pak Ho dead.
But most of the incidents are verbal assaults, which Cheng says she's been through as well.
I was running here in Oakland. A car had come up. And the man in the car yelled "coronavirus" at me.
Later, I was really upset. It was hurtful. I was angry.
Back in Chinatown, Sakhone Lasaphangthong begins making the rounds at 6:00 every morning, greeting elders on their morning walks.
And scrubbing the graffiti that's been scrawled on the walls of businesses overnight. Now, more than ever, he stays vigilant while he works.
There's a store across the street with all the boxes. Somebody tried to run her over before, and I was just across the street, and I chased them away.
He's a community ambassador, a position funded by the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and one that put Lasaphangthong on a new path when he was released from prison.
Seeing the grandmas and grandpas doing their tai chi and walking and minding their business, and just trying to live out the rest of their life in peace, that's what makes me want to, like, protect them.
Shop owners say they welcome the volunteer patrols, but they're no substitute for law enforcement. And they say police have often taken too long to respond to incidents. During our time here, we saw very little police presence in Chinatown.
LeRonne Armstrong is Oakland's police chief.
I believe that these are crimes of opportunity.
He says the rise in anti-Asian violence mirrors a drastic spike in violent crime and homicides throughout the city. He points to poverty, which the pandemic has only worsened.
But that doesn't take away the fact that there are people that have been victimized. And so while we might talk about numbers, numbers, at the end of the day, are human beings. These are people.
Armstrong says the department has taken steps to increase security for Asian Americans, like placing a Chinese-speaking liaison in Chinatown.
But others say the issue has deeper roots that can't be addressed with more policing. The rise in anti-Asian sentiment has highlighted racial tensions that existed long before the pandemic.
There is a nasty American impulse to pit us against each other. And it goes at — one of the most obvious moments is the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles.
Korean businesses vs. African Americans oppressed by police.
Yes. And there has been real harm. But there's also been these really cool moments of solidarity that have happened.
If you look at the way that Asians for Black lives showed up in 2014, 2015, we can turn also to Black folks running campaigns to fund-raise in Chinatown.
That solidarity was on display on the streets of Chinatown. But Tran says this moment reveals a deeper truth, that Asian Americans have long been left out of the conversation around racism in America.
There's white folks, there's Black folks, and we really have failed to talk about anyone who is not in one of those two groups.
What we're seeing now is, Asian Americans are a surprise in terms of the racial discourse of this country. And it's because of that failure. It's because we have really only had the conversation in this one way, where it's a racial binary.
I'm really hopeful that this moment means that we will have a continued conversation about what it's like to be an Asian American, as a racialized community in America.
It's been months since Iona Cheng was mugged near her home in Oakland.
How are you feeling these days? What's your sense of safety?
I still would prefer not to go out by myself. And that makes me angry at some point, because I feel like I'm an independent person. I feel like I'm strong. And I hope at some point I will not have to feel that way where I don't feel safe in my neighborhood.
Fear's grip on Cheng and other Asian Americans holds tight for now, even as hopes rise that, with the recent violence, Asian Americans will be embraced by a wider racial reckoning.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Oakland, California.
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Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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