Asian Americans grapple with hate crimes during pandemic

More than 2,800 incidents against members of the Asian community have occurred around the country

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Yunhan Zhang will never forget the day he became the victim of a hate crime. Mr Zhang was behind the counter of his tea cafe off Dupont Circle in Washington when it happened.

“A man just walked in saying, ‘Chinese tea, Chinese people, Covid-19’,” Mr Zhang recounted.

The man, who was caught on security footage but remains at large, pulled out a can of pepper spray and squirted Mr Zhang in the face.

Mr Zhang’s eyes burned for hours after the November 10 incident and yet he considers himself lucky. “I was happy it was only pepper spray because it could have been a lot worse,” he said.

Yunhan Zhang poses for a picture in his tea shop off Dupont Circle in Washington. Willy Lowry / The National

Since the coronavirus pandemic swept the world, there has been an alarming spike in violence against Asian Americans. According to Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate, a group formed in 2020 to monitor the increasing number of reported attacks, there have been more than 2,800 incidents against members of the Asian community around the country.

“We know this is taking place across the country. It’s in rural areas as well as urban areas,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and one of the founders of the group.

In the San Francisco Bay area, there have been a string of shocking incidents, many caught on camera, of brutal acts of violence against elderly Asians.

The most horrific incident occurred on January 28. Eighty-four-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was out for a morning walk when a man ran across the street and bowled him over. Mr Ratanapakdee, a grandfather who had just received his Covid-19 vaccine, died from his injuries two days later.

San Francisco police have charged 19-year-old Antoine Watson with murder and elder abuse. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In New York City, a 71-year-old woman was punched in the face while waiting for the subway. It was one of four potentially race-related attacks against Asian Americans in New York last week. The attacks prompted hundreds of New Yorkers to attend an anti-violence rally in Manhattan on Saturday.

The recent spate of attacks have echoed across the country. In Washington on Friday, the Congressional Asian-Pacific American Caucus held a press conference to denounce the violence.

“It breaks my heart that today’s press conference is even necessary. But the Asian-American community has reached a crisis point that cannot be ignored,” said Judy Chu, a representative from California.

At the press conference, which was attended by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Ms Chu called for better legislation to protect the Asian Americans. “We need legislation that helps us respond to the increase in hate crimes and violence. That’s why we’re calling for a hearing on and the passage of the no-hate act which would improve hate crime reporting and provide victims with more support to address these crimes,” she said.

In some cases, local law enforcement have been slow or reluctant to classify incidents as hate crimes. Ms Kulkarni said there have been several cases where incidents appeared to be obviously motivated by hate, but police chose not to pursue such charges.

She referred to two incidents in particular, including a 2015 incident where a man killed three young Muslim Americans in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Police there refused to charge the man with a hate crime.

Many blame the recent wave of anti-Asian violence in the US on former president Donald Trump. While in office, Mr Trump repeatedly referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus”, “Wuhan Virus” or “Kung Flu” — language that many say not only contributed but emboldened many to act out.

“Sadly, president Trump was active in fomenting hate against our community and really put people in harm's way. We know that from our data,” said Ms Kulkarni.

A sign for Chinatown in Washington dangles from lamp post. Willy Lowry / The National

One of those people was Mr Zhang. The 29-year-old has lived in the US for twelve years. He says he noticed an increase in hate towards his community during the Trump administration particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. “Starting in late May, we had seen this type of escalation, verbal attacks, physical attacks, property damage. So, for months, I’ve seen things escalate, but nothing as bad as November and it was definitely the worst.”

Mr Zhang fears it won’t be the last. “I wouldn’t be surprised if something else happens,” he said from behind the very counter he was attacked at.

Mr Zhang and his wife have worked hard to achieve their own slice of the American dream, to be small business owners, and yet that dream has been tarnished by the recent attacks.

Instead of celebrating their success in managing to keep their cafe open during the pandemic, they have been busy devising safety plans in case of another attack.

“We came up with one or two plans for emergency situations. For example, the first one would be, what if somebody comes back, or he comes back with a gun? Where can we run, which door to lock, which number to call what to do in that type of situation.”