Asian Americans Fear for Their Safety Amid Increasing Racism, Hate Crimes Since Start of Pandemic

President Joe Biden signed an executive order condemning the surge of racism and violence toward the Asian American Pacific Islander community

Asian American Commission
Attacks against Asian Americans are on the rise. Photo: Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock

The vicious Jan. 28 attack in San Francisco on 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee sparked outrage around the world. The unprovoked assault, which was captured on surveillance video, showed a man, who police later identified as allegedly being 19-year-old Antoine Watson, run up and shove Ratanapakdee to the pavement, causing him to fall hard, before walking away. Ratanapakdee died a few days later.

Then, on Jan. 31, a 91-year-old Asian American man was shoved to the ground in Oakland's Chinatown where he was walking outside the Asian Resource Center. The attack on him caught the attention of actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu, who announced on social media that they would be offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the suspect, which preceded the arrest of Yahya Muslim, 28, who was charged with assault, battery and elder abuse.

Watson has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and it was not immediately clear if Muslim has entered a plea or retained an attorney.

The incidents were the latest in a troubling spate of attacks and discrimination against Asian Americans since the COVID-19 pandemic came to the United States last year. Some have blamed, in part, former president Donald Trump — who referred to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "Kung Flu" — for fueling the racism.

New York magazine, citing data from the New York Police Department, reported that there had been a 1,900 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the city in the past year. The outlet also cited an August 2020 UN report stating that from March to May 2020, and eight-week period, there were more than 1,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans in the United States.

A report released last September by the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign, which surveyed nearly 1,000 Asian American young adults, found that eight out of 10 respondents expressed anger over the current anti-Asian hate in the United States. An analysis by Stop AAPI Hate, the youth campaign's parent organization, found that one in ten tweets concerning Asian Americans in the months before the 2020 presidential election contained racist or disparaging language.

Vicha Ratanapakdee 
Vicha Ratanapakdee. GoFundMe

"These are hate crimes that are happening," civil rights activist Amanda Nguyen tells PEOPLE. "They're so gruesome and quite frankly, are a direct result of former leaders, former elected officials who have stoked this kind of violence. And that violence has consequences and literally lives being paid for it."

Last month, President Joe Biden signed an executive order condemning the surge of racism toward the Asian American Pacific Islander community because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The emphasis by some political leaders on the geographic origin of the pandemic has "stoked unfounded fears and perpetuated stigma about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and [has] contributed to increasing rates of bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against AAPI persons," the executive order stated.

Cities like Oakland have seen an increase in attacks recently. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley says in the last two weeks they have identified 19 incidents in Oakland's Chinatown.

"Some have been on video, but not all," she tells PEOPLE. "Some have been reported, but not all. They are violent and they're attacks by surprise, so the person doesn't have any opportunity to even defend themselves or cover their head or their hands or their body from attack."

Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, says those living in the area are fearful, especially the elderly.

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"The reason why they call me, they are saying that they have seen so many things happening," he says. "So many seniors actually living in Chinatown, they are afraid to come out to walk their streets. We also have many employees working — some of these are essential workers in a grocery store, and people working in the banks — and many of them working in the community clinics. And they have been telling me they are so afraid."

To help combat the increase in violence, the Alameda County DA's office has been providing outreach to the Asian American community, with the aim of making people feel more comfortable reporting crimes and educating people about the dangers of xenophobia and discrimination.

"We're putting the full resources of my office and working closely with law enforcement, first, to stop the crimes from happening, to apprehend those that are committing the crimes, and to bring them to justice in the courtroom," O'Malley says.

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