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How is San Francisco responding to a wave of anti-Asian assaults?

Danny Yu Chang. Ngoc Pham. Xiao Zhen Xie. 

These are the names of three Asian elders who were brutally attacked just this past week along Market Street. Chang, 59, was struck from behind on his way back from Trader Joe’s. Pham, 83, suffered a fractured nose. Xie, 75, was punched in the face and fought off her attacker with a stick.

These unprovoked assaults happened the same week as a deadly shooting rampage across three Atlanta-area spas, which killed six women of Asian descent in Georgia and sent shockwaves across the country. The incidents are part of a disturbing trend of harassment against Asian Americans nationally and regionally since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. 

Between March 2020 and February of this year, the group Stop AAPI Hate recorded nearly 3,800 anti-Asian incidents in the U.S., including shunning, slurs and physical attacks. (AAPI stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.) An earlier version of the report noted that out of 1,226 instances reported in California between March and December 2020, 708 happened in the Bay Area and 292 took place in San Francisco alone—although that’s likely an underestimation. In 2020, almost 12% of hate crimes were directed at Asians, San Francisco police spokesperson Robert Rueca told the L.A. Times.

As the country grapples with its history of bias against the AAPI community and a resurgence of intolerance, we break down how San Francisco is driving the national conversation and reckoning with racial injustice. 

A Resurgence of Racism – Attacks in the Bay Area Gain National Attention

A rash of assaults on Asian Americans in the Bay Area over the last year has put a spotlight on renewed anti-Asian sentiment in America. In February 2020, a video of an elderly Asian man being attacked and robbed while collecting recyclables in Bayview-Hunters Point went viral and garnered millions of views on social media. In January of this year, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai San Franciscan, died from his injuries after being knocked to the ground in a sudden assault, which his family says was racially motivated.   

That attack drew the attention of prominent Asian American celebrities and sparked a national conversation on the rise of anti-Asian violence during the pandemic. The recent attacks against Chang, Pham and Xie, with the Atlanta spa shootings last week, continue to stir the discussion. 

Trump’s Anti-Asian Speech Fans Flames of Hatred Buried Deep in History 

Members of the AAPI community and experts agree that the wave of attacks against Asian Americans is directly related to the anti-Asian rhetoric of former U.S. President Donald Trump from early on in the pandemic.  

“President Trump’s rhetoric of the ‘Chinese virus,’ or the ‘kung flu,’ that automatically associated the virus with Chinese people,” Lok Siu, a UC Berkeley associate professor of Asian American studies, told Berkeley News. “By blaming the Chinese as the cause of the pandemic, he ignited anti-Chinese sentiments and channeled popular fear and rage against East Asian-appearing persons.” 

“The rhetoric of ‘Wuhan virus’ came directly from Donald Trump, and his administration enabled a whole wave of far-right white supremacists,” echoed local activist and Entertainment Commission representative Cyn Wang, who also told Here/Say that her family’s business in the Sunset District has been graffitied with the ethnic slur “Chink” in recent months. “I think he emboldened a group of radicalized people that are going to continue to be in our community and in public discourse.” 

For San Francisco State University Asian American history professor Russell Jeung, this current wave of violence against Asians is part of a long legacy of anti-Asian hate in the U.S. 

“Whenever an epidemic comes from Asia, Asians are scapegoated and are met with interpersonal violence and racist policies,” Jeung told High Country News

In the U.S., anti-Asian rhetoric and discrimination date back at least to the 19th century with the 1875 Page Act and Chinese Exclusion Act. The former effectively barred Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S., and the latter stopped Chinese laborers from entering the country. In the 20th century, Japanese Americans were forced from their homes across the West Coast into internment camps during World War II. San Francisco’s dense Asian populations were deeply impacted by such policies as well as discriminatory city and state edicts, which did everything from bar Japanese students from attending SF public schools to prevent people of Chinese descent from testifying in court. 

Demonstrators gather at a stop AAPI hate rally in Chinatown's Portsmouth Square

San Francisco’s Response 

At the direction of Mayor London Breed, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) has responded to the increase in anti-Asian attacks by stepping up patrols in predominantly Asian neighborhoods. The United Peace Collaborative, a grassroots citizen patrol based out of Chinatown, has also sprung up to bolster public safety, while some San Franciscans on Nextdoor have offered to be walking buddies for their Asian American neighbors at night. 

On Wednesday, the mayor’s office announced that the city would expand the Street Violence Intervention Program to enhance neighborhood public safety in a “culturally-competent” way and the senior escort program, which provides companions to seniors walking or taking transit to medical or personal appointments. 

“We have seen a rise of hate crimes against our elderly Asian community, and I want to make it clear that we won’t tolerate it,” said Mayor Breed in a public response to the Atlanta spa shootings and uptick in anti-Asian violence last week. “San Francisco will continue to support and uplift our Asian community.” 

“No one should have to live in fear that their race or ethnicity could make them a victim,” she added in a tweet

In contrast, District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s office has been criticized for not charging the attacks against Xie, Pham and Ratanapakdee as hate crimes. (Boudin’s chief of staff told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Pham and Xie cases are still under investigation and that the DA has not ruled out additional charges. Boudin has charged the alleged assailant in the Ratanapakdee case with murder and inflicting injury on an elder, but no hate crimes.) 

Other San Francisco leaders have come out strongly against the spate of attacks in the Bay Area and across the country. 

San Francisco’s female AAPI elected officials, including District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan, BART Board Director Janice Li and Board of Education Commissioner Jenny Lam, issued a joint statement denouncing the violent targeting of Asian women in last week’s Atlanta spa shootings. State Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) has also introduced legislation that would create a statewide system for reporting hate crimes. 

Amid this political environment, Board of Education Vice President Alison Collins has come under fire for a series of resurfaced 2016 tweets deemed by some public officials as “racist” and “anti-Asian.” (Collins affirmed her solidarity with the Asian American community and said her remarks were taken out of context in a Medium post.) 

At the grassroots level, San Franciscans and Bay Area locals have come out in droves to show solidarity with the AAPI community. Over the weekend, anti-AAPI hate rallies were held across the Bay Area and more than 1,000 people marched from the Castro to Chinatown in a demonstration organized by the LGBTQ community to rebuke anti-Asian rhetoric and attacks.  

“This rally is a call to arms, a call to action, to stand up and say no more, ‘enough is enough,’” the Asian Pacific Alliance’s Michael Nguyen told ABC 7. 

As of Tuesday, GoFundMe campaigns set up for Chang, Pham and Xie to aid in their recoveries have raised over $1.2 million dollars in total. Xie’s family has said that their 75-year-old grandmother will donate the nearly $900,000 raised from her GoFundMe to the Asian American community to combat racism.  

Moving Forward – What Can Everyday San Franciscans Do? 

Activists like Wang are generally supportive of the actions city leaders and grassroots organizers have taken to support the AAPI community during this time, but emphasizes that fighting for racial justice is a constant effort that requires not only words of support but also actions of solidarity.  

Wang recommends speaking up when you hear anti-Asian rhetoric, educating oneself on the history of anti-Asian repression, participating in racial justice movements through local democratic clubs, teaching one’s children the importance of diversity and inclusion and patronizing AAPI businesses to show support for the community. 

“Anti-Asian violence and anti-Asian rhetoric isn’t a new thing. … It’s going to be a long-term fight for the future of our country and for our communities to dismantle some of those beliefs.” Wang said. “I hope we go forward in unity and solidarity. Our common enemy is white supremacy, and our communities need to come together to heal.”