SAN FRANCISCO — A surge in brutal attacks against Asian American seniors in the Bay Area, including one that resulted in the death of an 84-year-old Thai man, has left residents fearful and angry and activists — including Hollywood celebrities — demanding justice.
San Francisco’s mayor and police chief have promised to address concerns, and on Tuesday, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced the creation of a special response unit to investigate crimes against Asian Americans, especially the elderly. “We will help victims heal from their trauma and help the businesses be strong again, here in Chinatown. We will all be vigilant in protecting the Asian community,” O’Malley said at a news conference in Oakland.
There have been several attacks on elderly members of the Asian American community recently, but the brutal Jan. 28 assault of Vicha Ratanapakdee, which was captured on video, sparked particular outrage. In the video, which was widely shared around the world, Ratanapakdee is seen being violently shoved to the ground during his morning walk in San Francisco. He died days later.
San Francisco police arrested 19-year-old Antoine Watson on charges of murder and elder abuse in Ratanapakdee’s death. Watson has pleaded not guilty, and a judge Monday ordered him held without bond while awaiting trial, the San Francisco Examiner reported.
Asian Americans have increasingly been targeted since the start of the pandemic. Former president Donald Trump inaccurately called the coronavirus the “China virus” and blamed the country for the pandemic. The first known coronavirus outbreak was in Wuhan, China, but scientists are still trying to discover the virus’s origin.
In one of his first acts, President Joe Biden signed an executive order aimed at combating xenophobia against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Asked about the recent increase in attacks against Asian Americans, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “I’m not aware if the president had seen any of the videos, but he is concerned about the discrimination, the actions against the Asian American community.”
Civil rights activist Amanda Nguyen condemned the increase in anti-Asian crime and asked for more media coverage. The issue had received little attention outside of California until video of Ratanapakdee’s attack went viral. It was widely shared by celebrities including Gemma Chan, Paris Hilton, Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu.
His death sparked international outrage, prompting messages on social media, including hashtags #JusticeForVicha and #AsiansAreHumans.
Kim and Wu also turned to social media to raise awareness of the issue, posting a video of an attack on a 91-year-old man who was shoved to the pavement in Oakland’s Chinatown. Kim and Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in that attack.
Oakland police recently arrested a suspect in connection with the case.
Jonathan Chang, a Los Angeles-based designer and illustrator, paid tribute to Ratanapakdee with a portrait that he designed and published on Instagram. Many people have used the image as their profile picture on social media to mourn Ratanapakdee’s death and draw attention to what they say is an ignored spike in hate crimes in the Asian American community.
“Art can express things in a way that you can’t, and I wanted to commemorate him,” Chang said. “He could have been any one of our grandparents. These crimes have been happening for a long time now. [Social media] has been helping us get the exposure for these cases.”
With the Lunar New Year approaching, many in the Asian American community are worried for their safety.
“My grandma is turning 90 this year, and I’m spending time with her this week in Chinatown while she makes the traditional Chinese New Year dishes,” New York resident Tiffany Hui said. “She goes out for walks to get groceries or fresh air and never in a million years could I imagine those activities to be life ending.”
Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said the city is working to ensure residents are safe during the Lunar New Year, including organizing safety walks.
“Lunar New Year is an incredible time of celebration. We’re out shopping, connecting with family and out in our own neighborhoods. The community is organizing safety walks or neighborhood strolls,” Bas said. “The Oakland Chinatown Coalition has been responding to the recent incidents and organized the community to participate in these neighborhood strolls.”
Ben Suarato, communications director for the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said members are working to educate their colleagues and the public.
“Since the beginning of last year, we’ve been calling attention to what was fueling the rising hate crimes. We set up guidance to every member of Congress to not use things like ‘Chinese flu’ or ‘Chinese virus.’ We felt a lot of pressure from the president [Trump],” Suarato said. “President Biden is paying attention to that now.”
Caucus Executive Director Krystal Ka’ai said the group is shifting its focus to legislation. The proposed No Hate Act aims to improve the tracking and reporting of data for hate crimes. Ka’ai added, “We are also working with the administration because thankfully we have an ally now.”