It took two months for Greg Chew to gather the courage to walk down the street where he was violently assaulted. While his physical injuries had healed, the mental trauma lingered.
“It has haunted me at night and still does,” Chew said about the early August attack in SoMa that left him with a broken shoulder and bruised face. “I am so lucky that I'm alive.”
The brutal attack made the 70-year-old former city commissioner another high-profile Asian American victim in a city where public safety concerns play a vital role in local politics, including the successful recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
“Asians, especially the elderly, feel unsafe in San Francisco,” Chew said.
In the decades he lived in San Francisco, he never imagined falling victim to an assault. It changed his life in a moment, making him hypervigilant.
“I feel safe when I carry this thing,” Chew said, holding a palm-sized pepper spray canister he carries daily for self-defense. “I didn’t do that before, you know?”
Overall violent crime in 2022 remained lower than 2019, according to police data and an analysis by The Standard. But the number of aggravated assaults climbed above pre-Covid levels.
The most recent victim data categorized by ethnicity also showed different trends for Asian American and Pacific Islanders in violent crimes. In the first six months of 2022, the number of AAPI victims increased in the categories of aggravated assault, battery and other assault, but decreased in robbery and burglary.
When debating public safety in San Francisco, it’s hard to avoid the topic of Chesa Boudin.
Even six months after the recall election, retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing would describe the result as “unfortunate.”
Both polling and voting results show that Asian Americans were the strongest supporters of the recall, as the violence and hate against the community made headlines and fueled the movement.
Sing is the first Asian American female judge in Northern California and a civil rights activist since the 1970s. She said Chinese Americans, like all Americans, want a safe society, and the city’s longtime problems—crime, homelessness and addiction—should not be attributed to Boudin’s administration.
“Chinese Americans, I feel, were used politically to scapegoat Chesa Boudin,” said Sing, who blames the “big corporates” behind messaging designed to fool the Chinese American community.
However, Mary Jung, a longtime Asian American Democratic activist who chaired the recall, said public safety should not be a political issue, but a human rights issue.
“I don't think I was being used,” Jung said. “I was happy that there were people out there who think like I do.”
Jung emphasized that people really don’t understand the recall, and always try to associate the movement with an “insidious motive.” But she said it was really more of a “gut punch” because the crimes against Asians are real.
On a chilly December afternoon, Derek Chen, 23, was volunteering as part of a program that helps elderly people navigate the streets of San Francisco.
He walked with a 74-year-old woman from her home to a nearby Target and back to buy some groceries. And the reason is simple: accompanying seniors who might not feel safe going out alone right now.
Aside from shopping, volunteers also escort seniors to medical appointments, bank trips and senior center activities.
“Older people are more vulnerable,” Chen said. “I think it's important for younger individuals to be aware of these things.”
The program started at the beginning of the pandemic by a group called Self-Help for the Elderly, as reported hate, threats and attacks against Asian Americans increased. Its ranks have since grown to 26 volunteers who serve about 1,400 mostly Asian seniors.
Chen said there's more anti-Asian sentiment now and the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, and the program is critical for not only offering escorts to seniors to ensure safety, but also providing companionship for those who might be forgotten by the society.
“I do want to do more,” said Chen, as he’s walking with the senior client.
As for Chew, the assault changed his perception and sense of safety—now, he avoids going anywhere without his pepper spray and a heightened awareness of his surroundings.
Chew says what happened to him is just one of many such attacks in the past few years—and he fears just one of more to come.
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org