Updated: Mar 17, 2021
While the coronavirus pandemic and political upheaval rages on in the US, another critical tragedy demands our attention: the explosion in racially charged assault, violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans. An 84-year-old man was shoved to the ground near his San Francisco home and died. A 91-year-old and two others were systematically assaulted and hospitalized in Oakland. A Navy veteran lay unconscious before dying at the hands of the police. From Trump’s campaigning on the issue of the “China virus” to everyday racist depictions of the spread of COVID-19 substantiated by stereotypes, anti-Asian sentiment has once again reached the point of violence.
Within the three-month span from March to June 2020, Asian Americans reported over 2,100 hate incidents or crimes related to COVID-19, according to a recent report conducted by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) and Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA). As a wealthy Western nation and global economic leader, other nations are watching us closely—and they’re learning from us.
COVID-19 and Anti-Asian Violence
Anti-Asian rhetoric endorsed by government officials in response to the outbreak has caused the appalling, systematic increase in violence against Asian Americans that we’re currently facing. According to official data from the New York Police Department, anti-Asian hate crimes have exploded by 1,900 percent just last year.
As early as April 2020, hardly a month into lockdown, the National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed a memo to GOP candidates advising on strategically and “aggressively attacking China” on all related concerns. Donald Trump’s public scapegoating of the crisis onto the “Wuhan virus” or “Kung-flu” in campaign rallies was further substantiated with propaganda demonizing President Biden for prioritizing “China’s feelings” over American lives by refusing to issue a blanket travel ban. Frankly, a ban targeting an entire ethnicity would parallel the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the only explicitly race-based entry restriction in our country’s history.
Trump’s incendiary campaign video also promotes a headline reporting China’s “hoarding” of masks, representative of an all too violent misunderstanding that widespread mask use in many parts of Asia has long since been a popular preventative measure, not the badge of a sick person.
Republicans’ call to action for alienation (at best) toward a highly racialized “other” has led to a tremendous spike in Asian Americans’ experiences of hostility, harassment and even violence in public spaces. Public transit has been a particular hot-spot for racist verbal harassment.
Violence in 2021: Crimes Against Our Most Vulnerable
Anti-Asian hate crimes have not only followed us into the new year, but have spiked yet again in recent weeks. The case of domestic terrorism that was the capital insurrection on January 6 is a tragic symbol of the consequences reaped when government institutions fail to penalize, or at worst endorse, racist rhetoric as a legitimate response to political chaos. Trump’s legacy of vitriol grouped in with unbridled economic disaster, pandemic fatigue and the recent discovery of new COVID-19 variants leaves little left to the imagination in determining the causes for the continued violence against our Asian American communities.
Especially vulnerable populations like the elderly have borne the brunt of this misplaced violence. On January 31, suspect Yahya Muslim was caught on video shoving a 91-year-old man to the ground in Oakland, California’s Chinatown. Muslim was arrested the following week and faces two additional assault and battery charges for similar hate crimes allegedly committed on the same block that day. All three victims required hospitalization.
In a similar incident, 84-year-old Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee was assaulted in San Francisco’s Anza Vista neighborhood in February. Footage shows the suspect Antoine Watson, currently facing allegations of elderly abuse and murder, charging and attacking Ratanapakdee. The victim’s daughter, Kim Ratanapakdee, a victim of verbal racial abuse herself, insists the incident was a racially charged attack against her elderly father. Ratanapakdee was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died several days later.
In countless cases, the victims of these assaults are not Chinese but Asian Americans from a wide range of ethnic groups. Conflating the over 40 unique ethnic groups that comprise today’s Asian Americans has been public practice for decades, particularly since politicians and popular media outlets constructed the model minority myth as a comforting repudiation of contemporary racism.
Victims of racial harassment and abuse hail from just about all Asian ethnic groups.
At the start of the 2020 lockdown, Kao Lor and Lee Lor, relatives of Hmong descent, were turned away from not one but two hotels in Indiana. An employee at the Super 8 Motel in Plymouth, IN, refused them service immediately, saying, “If you’re from China, I need to know.” The nearby Days Inn was also refusing to admit Asian guests, according to Kao Lor.
A quick history lesson: The Hmong, an ethnic minority, originally resided in northern China before migrating south in the 18th century to escape persecution by the Chinese government and pressure to assimilate. The Hmong were largely concentrated in the highland mountain regions of Laos by the 1980s before migrating to the US by the thousands. After the CIA’s recruitment of Hmong soldiers into America’s Vietnam War efforts, the victory of the communist Pathet Lao once again rendered the Hmong political refugees. Now the Hmong, who have strove for centuries to preserve their ethnicity, are ironically mistaken as Chinese in the midst of rampant racial fearmongering and discrimination.
In light of the recent, indiscriminate violence against Asians, activists remember the tragic murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Detroit in 1982. During this time, many American auto workers blamed the economic insecurity and job loss in their industry on the ostensibly infringing success of its Japanese counterpart. Two men patronizing the same bar as Chin, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, began hurling highly charged racial slurs at Chin, who was not Japanese but Chinese American. When Chin fought back, the two men chased him out of the bar and beat him to death.
The case of Vincent Chin ignited nationwide protest when the perpetrators’ sentencing for the murder (even after a retrial) resulted in no prison time. Chinese American journalist Helen Zia likens the incident to 1800s “frontier justice,” when “a white man could kill an Asian person with impunity.” What’s just as astounding, if not more so, is when the perpetrators who get away with murder are not just civilians but official and legitimate members of our own police force.
Police Brutality: The Death of Angelo Quinto
On December 23, 2020, the 30-year-old Filipino American and Navy veteran lost consciousness during a mental health crisis in his California home, prompting his family to call for the assistance of responding officers. His family reports that Quinto had been suffering from bouts of anxiety and paranoia following a head injury caused by an apparent assault.
Officers arrived on the scene to a completely unconscious Quinto lying helpless on the ground of his own home—and decided to respond with force.
One officer flipped Quinto over on his stomach to restrain him. He suddenly began to plead for his life, repeating, “Please don’t kill me.” The officer then knelt on his neck for nearly five minutes while another officer restrained his legs. After Quinto stopped breathing and the officers finally realized he was unresponsive, they removed his handcuffs and transported him to a local hospital. He was pronounced dead three days later.
The Antioch Police Department failed to acknowledge Quinto’s death for an entire month following the incident, as well as its role in the tragedy. Considering the officers on the scene also failed to attempt any de-escalation strategies or turn on their body cameras, this is the kind of silence that screams culpability. The family has since filed a legal claim against the Antioch Police Department for wrongful death by asphyxiation—or what the Quintos’ attorney John Burris refers to as the “George Floyd technique.”
This case is one of many that is heralding the nationwide cries against police brutality against people of color, especially as it echoes the tragic death of George Floyd, who died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over eight minutes. It also parallels the murder of Breonna Taylor, who was shot while sleeping in her bed. There is undoubtedly a rampant disease running its course through the fibers of American law enforcement when our officers treat black and brown bodies as an inherently violent threat—even when completely unconscious.
The community action and collective response to this emergency reveals the organization, leadership and assertive ambition of citizens who are determined to foster a country of democracy and justice—even and especially when government action is lacking. In response to hate crimes linked to the COVID-19 spread, several coalitions, including the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), founded and launched Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting center that’s tracking incidents of violence and discrimination against our fellow Asian Americans. As of this month, a total of nearly 3,000 incidents have been reported.
Well-known figures from the Asian American community are also taking it upon themselves to publicly raise awareness of the crisis. Actors Daniel Wu and Daniel Dae Kim had announced a $25,000 reward for information on the perpetrator responsible for the elder abuse in Oakland, CA, prior to his arrest. Other celebrities like Gemma Chan and Chrissy Teigen have been using their platforms to spread awareness using the social media hashtag #StopAsianHate.
What about the government response? Earlier this month (albeit a little late), the Department of Justice held a session with over a dozen AAPI community members to strategize on how best to deter hate crimes against Asian Americans. According to its press release, the DoJ is working on reinvigorating its Hate Crimes Enforcement Prevention Initiative to build mutual trust with localities and “improve identifying, reporting, and preventing hate crimes.” In the latter half of 2020, the NYPD also formed an Asian Hate Crime Task Force to help guide victims through the criminal justice system, staffed by “25 detectives of Asian descent who speak a combined nine Asian languages.”
Now, the real question you’ve been waiting for—what can you do? The beautiful thing about community activism is the pressure it puts on federal and state governments to take institutionalized, legislative action to enact real change. Another invaluable asset of organized action is the community healing that empowers victims of racial trauma and other chronic mental health conditions that can result from discrimination. Here are four (free!) things you can do today to be a part of the movement.
1. Read and promote AAPI news.
Emmy award-winning news anchor Dion Lim is especially active in documenting and reporting discrimination and violence in the affected communities. Check out her page here.
Dion Lim and Daniel Dae Kim are just two among many AAPI public figures who have been openly and regularly discussing the movement on Clubhouse, a voice-based social media app.
2. Use your social media platform.
3. Report discrimination and hate crimes.
With new initiatives like Stop AAPI Hate, which makes tracking hate crimes easy and linguistically accessible, you can report cases of discrimination and violence right here (and encourage others to do the same).
4. Volunteer your time.
Communities are organizing at rapid speed to challenge and contest racially charged hate crimes in their neighborhoods. Within days of the tragic death of Ratanapakdee, hundreds of volunteers came together to form Compassion in Oakland, an organization that provides chaperones to escort elderly AAPI community members as needed.
To find organizations and resources near you, check out Movement Hub for even more ways to get involved.
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