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Public Safety Debate Continues Among Asian Americans

Written by Han LiPublished Jan. 02, 2023 • 6:00am
Greg Chew, a former city commissioner and a victim of an assault, reflects on his feeling about public safety with The Standard on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Downtown San Francisco. He was assaulted while walking home in the same neighborhood in August 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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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.”

Greg Chew talks about feeling lucky to be alive after the assault. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

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.

For Asian Americans—who showed the strongest support for the recall with the deepest concerns about crime—the debate on safety continues.

Still Unsafe?

“Asians, especially the elderly, feel unsafe in San Francisco,” Chew said.

Greg Chew fell victim to an attack on Aug. 2, 2022, that fractured his left clavicle and left his face cut, swelling and bruised. | Courtesy Greg Chew

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?”

Greg Chew shows his pepper spray. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

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.

Scapegoated Boudin?

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.

Concerns about safety in the Asian American community fueled the successful recall of DA Chesa Boudin in 2022. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

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.

Some supporters of DA Chesa Boudin blamed misleading messaging for turning so many Asian American voters against him. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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.

Protecting Elders

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.

Derek Chen poses for a portrait in San Francisco on Dec. 18, 2022. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

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.

Derek Chen escorts Ana Perla Arreoles and her service dogs from the grocery store to their home in the Lakeview neighborhood of San Francisco on Dec. 18, 2022. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

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.

Greg Chew revisits the place where he was assaulted months before. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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.

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Han Li can be reached at [email protected]


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