Regular walks around Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. Trips to the grocery store. Muni rides to see family or friends. Once commonplace, these activities are no longer part of the daily lives of many Asian residents who fear verbal attacks, hateful harassment or even violence when they step outside of their door.
Tragically, anti-Asian racism is nothing new in San Francisco. The community has been impacted deeply by dark chapters in this nation’s history such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. The pandemic added new layers of xenophobia, inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation around the COVID-19 virus — all at the same time.
“Thinking about the effects of racial trauma on our community is sobering,” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “The fact that it affects our daily routines and our mental health — the denial of your basic sense of safety is really inhumane.”
What’s equally unique to this moment is the emergence of a new generation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) that is demanding change while promoting cooperation among community-based organizations that many of them now lead.
“There’s awareness across generations, not just among AAPI immigrants but also those who were born here, and the young leaders are rising up to be part of the movement,” said Supervisor Connie Chan. “I think what we’re seeing is what the community has always known best — the greatest tools we have start with the community.”
Though a number of violent attacks against Asians have garnered widespread media attention in The City, traditional law enforcement data shows a decrease in documented crime between 2019 and 2020.
The number of assault and robbery crimes against Asian Americans reported to the San Francisco Police Department decreased. Meanwhile, the total number of hate crimes decreased during the same period by 21% across all groups, including 11% against Asian Americans.
A San Francisco Human Rights Commission report from August asserts this shouldn’t be used as a reliable proxy for crime or harassment against Asian Americans. Rather, it says the California Penal Code’s narrow definition of a hate crime — which requires a perpetrator commit a criminal act at least partly motivated by characteristics of the victim such as disability, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion — as cause for these trends.
By comparison, the term “hate incident” has emerged to include non-criminal acts, such as verbal attacks, based on bias.
Ask anyone who works closely with this community, especially seniors, and they’ll tell you that even hate incidents go vastly under-reported. Victims are often unfamiliar with how to navigate bureaucratic systems in the aftermath, distrust official city agencies or suffer from fear of retribution.
Many go to community-based organizations for help instead.
For example, Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition of grassroots groups, received over 350 reports of hate violence in San Francisco last year alone, including 71 reports of physical assault. Nationally, it received 4,548 hate incidents with nearly 14 percent involving physical assault.
These same groups are where many community members have found support and, in some cases, survival, over the course of the pandemic. Many people say it’s these same groups where the most effective prevention strategies to curb anti-Asian rhetoric and behavior will start.
The Examiner spoke to multiple advocates, service providers and policymakers about how The City can protect its Asian and Pacific Islander residents and support the healing of those who already have endured trauma.
“Our coalition came together because we were tired of organizing press conferences to condemn the violence,” said Choi, also a founding partner of Stop AAPI Hate. “We believe that our government, the City of San Francisco, has a duty and responsibility to ensure all of its residents are safe.”
What can The City do?
First, support for victims must be improved. That could look like funding for legal services, mental or physical health care and temporary housing as well as guidance in navigating the reporting and judicial process.
“A lot of people are very lost and confused and honestly don’t want to partake in it because it re-traumatizes them,” said Jennifer Chan from the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Second, city agencies must work to make spaces inhospitable to dangerous activity.
A report from Stop AAPI Hate found that 32% of incidents nationally took place outside the home in public spaces and another 30% occurred in businesses. Agencies that have a role to play in and around such spaces, including the San Francisco Police Department, Municipal Transportation Authority and Recreation and Parks Department, for example, should have strict safety protocols.
Agencies should have strict protocols if an incident occurs and make it accessible to people who speak a variety of languages. The City should also prioritize investment of dollars and resources in public safety prevention efforts.
“This work is long-term work. It requires sustained funding meaning we want this to be more than just a year-to-year commitment,” she said of the need to build on existing funding and make these efforts a permanent part of the mayor’s budget.
Finally, there should be a focus on building relationships within neighborhoods and between communities, especially those struggling to have even their basic needs met.
This could look like the CCDC block parties hosted at its residential facilities to encourage people from different backgrounds to mingle, and continued expansion of The City’s community ambassador program, or door-to-door outreach to introduce neighbors to one another, for example.
“We have to acknowledge that there are racial tensions and racial resentment,” Choi said. “And we also have to recognize that when you have communities really struggling to have their needs met, you are going to see people harming other people.”
Among all these conversations, though, was a consensus that San Francisco has an opportunity to serve as a national example for how to protect its Asian residents and, more broadly, for how to build a true movement that fights against hate.
“If one community is not safe, none of us are safe,” Chan said. “If one community does not have justice, none of us have justice. This is what it’s ultimately about when we are living together as a city.”