The criminal justice system can’t fix what’s wrong in our community

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My 87-year-old mother walks gingerly, slowly, deliberately, one step in front of the other, with the help of a walker. I’m always hyper-alert to pitfalls in her walking path — people, objects, open doors, running dogs — especially after she fell down and sustained multiple pelvic fractures and took more than three months to recover. That’s why watching a young man deliberately charge at 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was particularly traumatic. Sadly, Ratanapakdee, originally from Thailand, did not survive the force of his fall. And that one senselessly horrific incident has destroyed two lives and become the face of anti-Asian bias in the nation.

Daly City resident, 19-year-old Antoine Watson, has been charged in the deadly assault that took place on the morning of Jan. 28, when Ratanapakdee was violently pushed onto the pavement. The incident was captured on surveillance video and has been widely shared, leading to increased anxiety in the Asian American community, particularly for vulnerable Asian seniors.

Almost every description of the incident by the media has described it as hate motivated. KQED’s Michelle Wiley dubbed it as an example of “a disturbing trend of violence and hate toward Asian and Asian American people” and The New York Times’ Jill Cowan connected it to “a wave of anti-Asian violence and harassment that community leaders say was spurred earlier in the pandemic by the rhetoric of former President Donald J. Trump …”

“I understand there is a strong emotional reaction to this tragedy,” commented Sliman Nawabi, a deputy public defender representing Watson. But he believes that “there is absolutely zero evidence that Mr. Ratanapakdee’s ethnicity and age was a motivating factor in being assaulted.” Watson has not been charged with a hate crime.

It is true, we must be careful about the labels we use, but labels are merely a way to assign an object, event, or person to a sorting bin, to simplify how we deal with each.

On the one hand, not all crimes against Asians are hate crimes. And the lens we use to consider this, albeit heartbreakingly tragic, incident could adversely affect other communities of color. On the other hand, how could Ratanapakdee’s age and or ethnicity not have factored in? Would the teen have assaulted a younger, robust white man with the same ferocity?

There is no denying that there is a rise in anti-Asian sentiment in the country, and across the globe. Stop AAPI-Hate, a hate reporting platform — started by Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies — has been collating self-reported instances of bias against the Asian community.

There have been 2,808 hate-motivated reports filed in 41 weeks with over half them taking place in either California or New York. Of the 1,226 incidents reported in California, more than half —708 — were in the Bay Area, with 292 cases reported in San Francisco, alone.

But at a media briefing Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, stated that the vast majority of reported instances “are hate incidents and not hate crimes.”

This is an important distinction. In California, a hate crime is a crime motivated by hate, and a hate crime charge can add an additional three years in prison on top of any other sentence the perpetrator receives for the underlying charge. A hate incident, on the other hand, as defined by California’s Office of the Attorney General, “is an action or behavior motivated by hate but legally protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.” A hate crime carries penalties that hate incidents don’t.

For a hate crime charge, a prosecutor must prove that the motivation of the perpetrator was bias. John C. Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, explained that when a person is pushed onto a sidewalk intentionally, that can indeed be considered a crime. But “if that person who did the pushing didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything except come up and push … then under the law there is nothing to suggest that it was necessarily race-motivated.”

There’s a danger in conflating all incidents against a particular community as racially charged.

According to Yang, it won’t do the Asian community any good to over-criminalize the process. He elaborated that criminal statutes could be used against other communities of color. “We cannot allow the law enforcement system to use that same bias against other communities of color that way. I know that it is hard to hear that,” he said, emphasizing that we are not minimizing our 84-year-old elders by saying that the perpetrator should not be charged with a hate crime .

Careful consideration of the crime is important to avoid pitting communities against each other and fueling fears. As Yang said, “This virus of racism is a virus that is very contagious and affects all of our communities,” including the African American community, the Latinx community, the Native American community, the LGBTQ community. “In order to defeat this virus, we also need to disinfect it together,” Yang said.

Ratanapakdee’s death is a tragedy to be mourned by every one of us. His beloved face is one I will not forget easily. But while it happened at a time when the nation was reeling from an uptick in racist incidents against the Asian community, this particular incident may not have the burden of proof necessary to label it a hate crime or even a hate incident. That does not diminish the severity of the assault.

Ultimately, we cannot rely on the criminal justice system to fix what’s wrong in our inter-community relationships. Research has shown that this has failed, time and time again. Preventing further attacks requires an on-the-ground effort building cross-ethnic communication and consciousness to address the prejudices we carry against each other.

“This rise in anti-Asian sentiment implicates us all in how we live together in a multi-racial society,” remarked Sandy Close, founder of Ethnic Media Services. And Ratanpakdee’s senseless death is a call to action for all of us to change the way we respond and recognize each other. In the face of this enormous challenge, Rodney King’s words continue to reverberate, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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