The videos are horrifying to watch.
Asian American elders — the very people we are taught to most respect and protect — shoved to the ground, with cavalier cruelty.
Over the past few weeks, a spate of attacks on Asian American elders across the country led to desperate calls for the wider public to pay attention. One San Francisco man, 84, was violently pushed to the ground and later died. Another man, 91, was brutally attacked in Oakland, California. On Feb. 17 in New York City alone, three Asian American women over 50 were attacked in three separate incidents.
Feeling that there was “very little being done” to address the violence, actors Daniel Wu and Daniel Dae Kim put up a $25,000 reward to find the suspect who was believed to have attacked three Asian Americans in Oakland’s Chinatown.
This latest string of assaults comes a year after the coronavirus hit the U.S. and Asian Americans were targeted by xenophobic and racist attacks fueled by political rhetoric from people like our former president who called COVID-19 the “China virus” and “kung flu.”
In just an eight-week period between March and May 2020, the United Nations reported more than 1,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans.
It’s hard to watch the attacks on the most vulnerable members of our community and not be filled with a visceral feeling of rage and a desire for retribution.
In response, many have called for a get-tough approach, including demanding an increased police presence in U.S. Chinatowns and advocating for enhanced hate crimes sentencing.
I can understand the desire to reach for seemingly simple, law-and-order solutions to punish those who cause such harm and trauma to an entire community. Hate and bias crimes are often underreported and for a group that often feels invisible, harsh sentences and recognition of racial targeting seem like important validation.
But as tempting as it is to see these attacks as clear-cut examples of anti-Asian xenophobia, the messy truth requires us to complicate the narrative.
As journalists Momo Chang and Darwin BondGraham illustrated in their excellent two-part series in The Oaklandside, the Bay Area cases defy easy definition.
The suspect arrested in the three Oakland attacks, Yahya Muslim, 28, had numerous prior arrests for assault with no apparent pattern of targeting Asian Americans. Muslim, who is African American, was described by a judge six years ago as having “significant mental health issues” and was placed on a psychiatric hold after the attacks.
In the killing of the 84-year-old San Francisco man, Vicha Ratanapakdee, the suspect arrested in his death was also African American, and Ratanapakdee’s family said the attack was “driven by hate.” But so far, it’s unclear what motivated the killing.
There’s a long and ugly history of Asian Americans being used as a wedge to reinforce white supremacist beliefs and drive anti-Black racism, and we must be careful and vigilant to ensure we don’t again fall victim to assumptions and knee-jerk reactions. Attacks like these force us to put to the test the summer’s racial justice rhetoric around Black-Asian solidarity and our actual commitment to moving away from a reliance on policing as an easy solution to entrenched social problems.
A growing Asian American-led, nationwide multiracial coalition released a statement last week to push back against the drive for more criminalization and incarceration as solutions to these complex issues. Local organizations Asian Counseling and Referral Service and InterIm CDA were two of the signatories.
The organizations called for a deeper examination of what actually creates community safety.
“True justice must go beyond repairing the hurt. It must address the root cause of what caused the violence to begin with, and address what’s needed to bring healing and build relationships within communities,” said Aarti Kohli, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus in a statement. “As organizations committed to advancing this bigger vision of justice and dismantling racism, we saw a clear need to reject calls for more law enforcement and punitive measures that only serve to deepen inequities and perpetuate more violence.”
We can’t achieve true public safety when economic opportunity, housing, education, health care and mental health support are not available to all. We can’t achieve public safety when huge swaths of people are trying to survive our destructive system of mass incarceration and struggling under the weight of racial oppression themselves.
Until we address foundational issues and continue to invest in cross-racial community building, we can’t be surprised when the byproducts of our unjust systems emerge in the worst ways, as we are seeing now.
Slow, systemic change doesn’t lend itself well to a celebrity endorsement or a trending hashtag, but it’s where those who are closest to the communities themselves know the work needs to be done for true change to be made.