SAN FRANCISCO – Two grandmothers stabbed and a third punched in the face in broad daylight. An 84-year-old man was fatally knocked to the ground during his morning walk. In the past seven months, at least seven elderly Asian residents have been brutally attacked in San Francisco, a city with one of the largest Asian-American populations and the oldest Chinatown in the country.
“It’s a horrible feeling to be afraid in your own community,” said John Hamasaki, a member of the San Francisco Police Commission and of Japanese descent. “People are really afraid to go out, to walk alone in the street. “
The attacks initially shocked and angered Asian American residents in the city. But the question of what to do with the violence has now become a source of division.
Many residents of Chinese descent are calling for a significant increase in police patrols. The city’s Asian-American leaders, however, have said they would rather explore solutions that don’t involve law enforcement. One of the most proudly liberal cities in the country is torn between its commitment to criminal justice reforms following the murder of George Floyd and the brutal reality of the city’s most vulnerable residents being stabbed in the middle of the day in the busy streets of the city.
Connie Chan and Gordon Mar, the two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who are of Chinese descent, have come under pressure from Chinese activists to increase the number of police, a move elected officials have largely adopted. resisted. Chinese activists – many of whom also denounce Chesa Boudin, the city’s prosecutor, for not being tough enough on the crime and supporting a recall effort against him – have shown up at meetings to challenge officials, including Chan and M. Mar.
“I haven’t heard of anyone in the Chinese community who doesn’t want the police anymore,” said Leanna Louie, a former military intelligence officer who is Chinese-American and who founded a group last year. neighborhood watch called the United Peace Collaborative. “We are very unhappy with the Asian representatives. We will work hard to replace them.
How city leaders, police and prosecutors should respond to violence has been part of a bitter and emotional debate at a time when Asian Americans in California and across the country have come under attack verbal and physical during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hate crimes against all major ethnic groups in California rose sharply last year, and bias crimes against Asian Americans more than doubled from 43 in 2019 to 89 last year, according to a report released in June by the California attorney general’s office. The most targeted group for hate crimes in the state remained African Americans, with 875 prejudice crimes recorded last year.
In San Francisco, a city where 34% of the population is of Asian origin, the attacks shook the Chinese electorate, which has voted in increasing numbers in recent decades but still below its share of the population. The social fabric and history of the city is closely linked with Cantonese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese and many other Asian groups who have immigrated to the city since its earliest days. The city’s first Asian American mayor, Edwin M. Lee, died in office in 2017, a symbol of both ascending but not yet fully realized Asian political power.
The assaults themselves have become a subject of controversy. Asian American leaders and residents disagree that the attacks were random or motivated by racial animosity. None of those arrested in the seven most publicized attacks since January have been charged with hate crimes. The attacks came as San Francisco faced what many residents perceive to be a crime problem made worse by the pandemic.
Auto break-ins in San Francisco occur at some of the highest rates in the country. And mid-year crime statistics released on Monday show a sharp increase in the number of people injured or killed in shootings. And Asian residents aren’t the only ones to be assaulted: Crime data from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office shows that black, Latino, and white residents are more likely to be victims of crimes involving force and a trauma than those of Asian origin.
In the most recent attack on Asian Americans in mid-June, a 94-year-old Chinese grandmother who walked with a cane was stabbed outside her apartment building, blocks from one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in San Francisco.
The city’s immediate response to the attacks was to redeploy 20 officers on foot patrols. A multilingual hotline for reporting hate crimes has been set up. But city and community leaders acknowledged that these measures had not been enough.
“I personally take offense at what we see happening on the streets because I am very sensitive to the need for us to take care of our elderly population,” the Mayor of London Breed said in an interview. “I was raised by my grandmother and I can’t imagine if anyone did this to her.”
Mayor’s spokesperson Jeff Cretan said she has called for the hiring of 200 officers over the next two years, roughly enough to replace retiring officers. The city’s supervisory board reduced the request to 135 officers, a move the police department said will result in downsizing due to impending retirements.
Bill Scott, the Chief of Police, said he was disappointed with the Commission’s decision.
“The style of policing that I think San Franciscans want is labor intensive – community engagement, kicking, bike patrols,” said Chief Scott. “We are far from where we need to be. “
Ms Chan, one of the town’s two Chinese-born wardens, argues that the money can be better spent on other services in the town and that the police can do more with their current staff.
“It’s not really about the number of officers, but the quality of our officers,” said Chan, who immigrated to San Francisco from Hong Kong as a teenager.
Like Ms. Chan, Mr. Mar recognizes the fear in the community. His wife bought pepper spray for the first time for herself and her relatives. A wave of burglaries during the pandemic in Chinatowns added to the feeling of insecurity and of being targeted, he said. In her neighborhood, affected businesses include a boba tea room, shoe store, dim sum restaurant, donut shop, and Korean barbecue. In one case, a business was broken into twice in one night by different thieves, he said.
But Mr. Mar rejects the idea that San Francisco needs more police. He agrees with the need for more foot patrols and believes the police can provide them by redeploying officers, not adding more personnel.
Those arrested in the most high-profile attacks defy easy qualification. They have been white, black and Latino. Nothing was stolen from the victims. The common thread between the suspects is that most, but not all, have a history of homelessness or mental illness, and often both.
Among the victims were an 84-year-old Thai man, who was walking near his apartment one January morning when he was violently and fatally pushed around, and two older women stabbed at a bus stop during rush hour.
Eric McBurney, a public defender born in Taiwan and adopted by white parents in the United States, says he has seen very few instances where hatred was the motivation for the attacks.
“There is no doubt that there is a lot of racism in this country – I know that – but the story here of Asians being targeted is too simple,” said Mr McBurney, who represents the man accused of hitting a Chinese grandmother and assaulting a Vietnamese on the same day. “We get a constant stream of these cases – random attacks obviously related to mental illness.”
Jenny Chan, a San Francisco resident who immigrated from China as a child and grew up in social housing in Tenderloin, a drug-plagued neighborhood, is scathing at what she says is inaction leaders of San Francisco.
Ms. Chan cites a litany of recent encounters on the streets: a man who jumped up and down on the hood of his car; drug addicts with needles in their arms; two men who openly shoplifted during a recent visit to his local pharmacy.
“Right now it’s like a war zone,” she said of the net. “We want stability. This is why we came to America.