Elderly Asian Americans in the Bay Area have been targets of violence in the past few weeks. In one video, a man sits at the base of an ATM with the back of his head bloodied after being attacked and robbed in San Leandro.
In another video, a suspect runs up to an 84-year-old San Francisco resident — who was originally from Thailand — and violently shoves him to the ground. That man died of his injuries.
In Oakland’s Chinatown, a 91-year-old man was approached from behind and sent flying to the pavement.
Oakland’s Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said on Monday, “Some in our community come specifically to Chinatown to target people. We know that. We know that they target our elderly. We also know that they come because they believe that our community won’t report it to police.”
The Alameda County district attorney announced this week she’s creating a special unit to investigate crimes against Asian Americans, especially the elderly.
Dion Lim, reporter for ABC 7 in San Francisco, has been covering this story, and she says there have been so many of these attacks that she can hardly keep count.
She says the president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce collected stories from merchants and customers over a two-week period, and at least 20 robberies or attacks were caught on camera or anecdotally recorded.
But this number is just a fraction of what’s out there.
“Many Asian Americans do not want to report the attack, whether it be because of cultural reasons, they are ashamed ... they don't want to bring attention to something negative happening to them and their communities. So unfortunately, while 20-plus incidents over a two-week period sounds like a lot, that's really just a drop in the bucket,” Lim says.
These incidents run the gamut from physical attacks to robberies.
“It's everything. We've seen random attacks where people are pushed to the ground senselessly in Oakland Chinatown. It was three senior citizens who were knocked to the ground, and I believe nothing was taken,” she says. “But then in other cases, we're seeing surveillance video from inside stores, where a suspect will come in, take someone's cash, and run away and push someone over. So it just depends. It's everything.”
Is this COVID-related anti-Asian bias?
Lim suggests not necessarily — this is violence she’s never seen before.
She makes the distinction: “Last year, when COVID truly began, I covered a whole host of incidents that were certainly hate crime-related because it was people who were pushing others down. There was a woman who was dragged through the Stockton tunnel in San Francisco, her purse stolen. Another incident … slurs were being used while someone was being attacked. Many saw an Asian American senior who was collecting cans as a way of making some extra money on the side, and he was belittled, he was called slurs, and he was assaulted on camera.
And that was really the first incident that got me thinking ‘Oh my goodness, this is COVID-related because we are at the same time being blamed for bringing coronavirus to the United States.’ So in those cases, I can certainly say they were COVID-related. But this is something different.”
These crimes are born out of what exactly?
Lim says she wishes she had a definitive answer. She’s hearing a few different hypotheses on the street.
“One, law enforcement tell [sic] me that they need more officers … on the streets to protect their elders. I'm hearing from various agencies that budgets have been cut in the wake of a lot of this talk of police defunding. I'm also hearing that because of the Lunar New Year, traditionally, many Asian Americans are wearing jewelry, they are celebrating by carrying cash, they put it in red envelopes to give to children and family members.”
However, she says many of them are savvy and know better than to go out together during COVID-19.
“So they're not celebrating, they're not going out to restaurants and giving jewelry out to others as gifts, anything like that. But yet, the stereotype remains that this is a group of people who have these assets and are easy targets because oftentimes they're frail. I mean, come on, 91 years old, 85 years old, it's really sickening.”
What are police doing — or not — about this?
Lim says, “The problem also stands that law enforcement sometimes have their hands tied. Because many tell me that it is a small group, in certain cases, of known offenders that they've dealt with. But unfortunately, because of certain decisions, they are led back out on the streets.”
This makes people reluctant to report what happened to them. “They say, ‘ Oh you know, the person who attacked me, nothing's going to be done. Let's just move on and not talk about it, not report it.’ But it's that reporting that gets it on the radar of others, that makes it a bigger issue and gets people to pay attention,” Lim says.
Hollywood steps up
Some actors are speaking out. Daniel Dae Kim appeared on MSNBC on Sunday, describing other assaults against Asian Americans around the country.
“A 61-year-old Filipino man was attacked in New York and had his face slashed just last week. A woman in Minnesota in her 90s was slapped and knocked to the ground and then kicked repeatedly in the face. And these are ways in which it just makes our community fearful to interact, to be outside, and it actually silences the community,” he said.
Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information on whoever attacked the 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown. The suspect was later arrested.
“What I love about what Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu are doing is that they're using their platforms to raise that awareness. They have told me that they're not activists. … Daniel and I had a long conversation just the other day about how he had moved from Hong Kong a number of years ago back to the Bay Area and was shocked he just couldn't sit there and do nothing,” says Lim.
“And while coronavirus has stopped shooting schedules for the time being, he's now just throwing his support, hoping that maybe his platform can get other people who may not realize this is happening in the Asian American community to pay attention and speak out.”