On his daily stroll in The City’s Anza Vista neighborhood, 84-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee was shoved to the ground, sustaining fatal injuries in late January. In Oakland in mid-March, a 75-year-old Asian man was attacked and robbed on his routine morning walk, and he later died. In June, a 94-year-old Chinese Vietnamese woman and San Francisco resident of 45 years was stabbed on a walk in her Tenderloin.
Meanwhile, repeated acts of vandalism during the pandemic have left San Francisco’s Chinatown businesses burdened with the weight of costly repairs on top of lost revenue from the shutdown.
These incidents exposed the prevalence of anti-Asian violence and prejudice during the pandemic. It is a phenomenon that leaders of San Francisco’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities say is both terrorizing and tragic, and is compelling them to do more to protect residents.
Simon Timony, co-founder of Ingleside Senior Safety Advocates, believes that widespread attention to anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic has been an important wakeup call, a means to bring attention to a problem previously underreported or ignored. Yet he underscores that local and national attention has not reduced the rate of reported incidents in San Francisco and throughout the U.S.
Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition documenting and addressing anti-Asian hate, received 9,081 incident reports from across the U.S. between March 19, 2020 and June 30, 2021, with approximately 4,500 occurring each year. Another study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino documented a continuing surge in San Francisco — finding a 164% increase in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period last year.
Spurred by these incidents, Timony and his fiance created Ingleside Senior Safety Advocates, a group whose members routinely walk in the Ingleside neighborhood, passing out safety packets that include whistles, anonymous tip cards and masks to seniors.
Timony said the pandemic unveiled a disturbing reality for Asian Americans in San Francisco, who make up 36% of the population. “There are some things you can’t unlearn, and this is one of those things,” he said. “The sensationalism might fade, but the sentiment is forever here.”
The incidents hit literally close to home for Timony, as several of the reported attacks were just a few blocks from where he lives. “I grew up in The City, and I feel like a frog in boiling water,” he said. “You just turn the heat up a little bit by a little bit and then all of a sudden, the skin’s melting.”
Yet Timony said the spirit of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities has been activated by the incidents. “There is a newfound sense of fighting back … push come to shove.”
Some community leaders are collaborating with the San Francisco Police Department. Dennis Wu and Drew Min created a tip line in March for those who have witnessed or experienced a hate incident in The City. The line has since expanded to accommodate nine languages.
In addition, Wu and Min have launched a tutoring program for middle school students of any race from underprivileged backgrounds. They are paired with students who excel academically, particularly Asian tutors. At the end of each session, all the students focus on learning about different cultures, “building bridges between different people” and engaging in cultural competency at a young age, Min said.
Diane Matsuda, staff attorney with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, said “fear clearly lingers” among The City’s Asian American and Pacific Islander populations. The elderly in these groups now face “COVID No. 2.”
“They are again confined to their homes because they’re scared,” said Matsuda. “They were scared of the pandemic and now they’re scared of being accosted, and unfortunately I’m not seeing an end to that.”
Matsuda noted that organizations like Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach have leapt into action, installing cameras, improving lighting and implementing more security as well as partnering with other communities of color to cease racial profiling.
The attorney sees a silver lining for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities post-pandemic: unity in leadership.
Violence prompted outrage and fear, but also strengthened ties across communities and backgrounds. Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, for example, is one organization in the San Francisco Nihonmachi Community Coalition, composed of San Francisco’s Japantown organizations, which have been expressing solidarity with victims, vigilance against attacks and advocacy for the well being of all racial and ethnic groups.
“(These organizations are) understanding and really realizing this is a serious issue, and we didn’t have that before,” Matsuda said. “Public comment about it will hopefully not let this issue be erased from mainstream conversations.”
Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media, views COVID-era hate incidents through an historical lens. “(This hate) is a kind of racism and fear of others that’s been manipulated for political gain throughout American history and was reflected in something as sweeping as the Chinese Exclusion Act in the early 20th century,” he said.
Gong believes recent hate incidents have forced a reevaluation of stereotypes surrounding the Asian American experience, particularly the model minority myth. “I think a much larger and new percentage of the Asian American population believed the myth that we were a model minority and that we enjoyed the complete fruits of America,” he said. “Now we have to reckon with this terrible period, when this kind of racism was unleashed again.”
Although CAAM’s work focuses on the Asian American experience, Gong said what has been happening during the pandemic “really connected (us) to the deconstruction of institutional racism overall, and part of that is reckoning with our history. It’s also suggesting a way forward that is more equitable.”