Thanks to the pandemic, this was always going to be a subdued Lunar New Year in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead of street fairs and packed crowds, mass gatherings are out of the question. Shops have been closing earlier and earlier in recent weeks, and police are being deployed to Chinatowns in the region in greater numbers. Everyone is on guard—not just against the coronavirus, but against violence.
A flurry of attacks against Asian Americans, primarily women and elderly people, has hit major U.S. cities over the last few weeks. In the most extreme case, an 84-year-old Thai man named Vicha Ratanapakdee died days after an assailant shoved him to the ground on Jan. 28 while he was taking a walk in San Francisco. Surveillance footage of the assault went viral, returning the national spotlight to the racism Asians have faced throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Another brutal attack occurred on Feb. 3 in Manhattan, when someone slashed a 61-year-old Filipino man named Noel Quintana across the face on the subway. Other incidents, many of which have also been caught on video, include assailants robbing Asian shopkeepers, customers, and pedestrians on the street.
Instances of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans were prevalent through 2020 as the coronavirus overtook the U.S. “What we saw is that there was a clear surge at the beginning of the pandemic when people were more fearful and didn’t know what was going on,” said Russell Jeung, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State University who helped start a website called Stop AAPI Hate where people can report anti-Asian attacks and harassment. Stop AAPI Hate received 2,808 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian discrimination from March 19, 2020, when the site began tracking incidents, through the end of the year. These accounts include cases of being hit and spat on, and being told to “go back to China.”
According to Stop AAPI Hate’s data, incidents would spike when then-President Donald Trump used racist terms like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” during speeches, Jeung said. He said that 7.3 percent of the incidents came from people ages 60 or over, which he guesses understates that part of the problem. “We don’t normally expect Asian elderly to go online and complain about the racism they experienced,” Jeung told me, explaining that they were more likely to face language and technology barriers. “So that leads us to conclude these numbers are higher than the proportions in the broader community.” A Pew Research study from July reported that 58 percent of Asians said it had become more common for people to express racist views against Asians since the onset of the pandemic, and 39 percent said that someone had personally acted uncomfortable around them because of their race during that time.
While it would be reasonable to guess the latest attacks against Asians are an extension of this xenophobia due to the sheer number of incidents, it’s probably too soon to say whether they were directly motivated by the coronavirus. A number of alleged perpetrators are in custody, but authorities are still investigating the incidents and have released little information about motives. Some experts have noted that crime in Chinatowns tends to rise around the Lunar New Year, which is Friday, as more people with cash visit shops to purchase goods for celebrations. “Leading up to Lunar New Year, there is a high level of crime targeting elders because they’re more vulnerable,” said Cynthia Choi, another founder of Stop AAPI Hate and co–executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a San Francisco–based civil rights group. Whatever the direct motivation behind these latest incidents, Jeung stressed that the prevailing xenophobia gripping the country has made such attacks more likely. “I think they’re related in that there has been an overall anti-Asian climate that has given people license to attack Asians,” he said. “People feel freer to perceive Asian Americans as outsiders and disease-carrying, so they’re more likely to threaten and attack us.”
The San Francisco Bay Area has been a hot spot of these attacks. Asian American advocacy groups in the region have been holding Facebook Live conferences and are planning gatherings during the Lunar New Year weekend that will partly provide community members with an outlet to process the events of the past few weeks. “There has always been crime and violence happening to our communities that just hasn’t been covered and hasn’t been talked about or swept under the rug,” said Alvina Wong, field director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, an organization based in Oakland. “We’re just seeing more visibility and compounded pressures of being blamed for the coronavirus.”
San Francisco is sending more officers to its Chinatown this weekend, and at least one owner of a robbed shop has called for more police presence, citing concerns that customers are now afraid to frequent businesses. The activists I spoke to say this reaction is understandable, but that heavy policing won’t address the root causes of the problem. “Having the police presence may make you feel safe immediately, but it’s not a long-term solution,” said Eddy Zheng, president of the New Breath Foundation, an Oakland group dedicated to aiding Asian Americans affected by violence. “Is there a solution that will support everybody without having to be anti-Black, without having to build more prisons and lock people up?” There are Asian American groups in the area that have encouraged people to simply be out and about in Chinatowns with an eye toward de-escalation. Chinatowns generally have been less busy as people are wary of venturing out during the pandemic, so there’s a higher chance that an elder going shopping will be isolated and vulnerable. But having more people on the streets, the groups think, can help discourage attacks. “What happens is when folks are walking by themselves alone and there’s no one around witnessing, that’s an opportunity,” said Wong of APEN, which has an initiative to send people into neighborhoods to help clean public spaces and generally increase the number of bystanders.
Can community mobilization hope to stem these attacks? The activists I spoke to said it won’t be easy, because they fear that the pandemic, and the xenophobia stoked by Trump, has deepened anti-Asian racism in a profound way. They want to see more initiatives that bring different communities together, like widely available cultural events and performances—currently difficult because of the pandemic—as well as investment in programs that address scarcities in housing, food, mental health counseling, and other resources in order to address the underlying drivers of crime. “This is long-term work,” said Choi. “These are not quick fixes and will take a generation really to start to turn the tide around.”