US: Videos showing Asian Americans being attacked provoke outrage and fear

·6-min read

Videos of Asian Americans, mostly seniors, being shoved violently to the ground and robbed in unprovoked attacks in California and New York over the past few months have sparked fear and outrage among the Asian community in the United States. The videos coincide with a troubling spike in anti-Asian violence and racism since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with anti-Asian hate crimes increasing by nearly 150 percent in 2020, even as the overall hate crime rate declined in America’s major cities.

A surveillance video from Queens, New York City on February 16, 2021 shows a 52-year-old Asian woman being attacked by a man who threw a box at her and pushed her to the ground, knocking her unconscious.

'We’re getting pushed and shoved, coughed and spat on, having rocks and bottles thrown at us'

To understand the recent wave of anti-Asian attacks and hate crimes, the FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Russell Jeung, chair of San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department and a leader of Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative that tracks violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

We started collecting personal, first-hand accounts of anti-Asian racism in March 2020. To date we’ve received more than 3,000 incidents from all 50 states.

In these reports, we see four main categories of discrimination: mistreatment at the workplace, cyberbullying, verbal harassment and physical assault. We’re getting pushed and shoved, having rocks and bottles thrown at us, being coughed and spat upon. My family has also experienced this: my wife was out running when someone deliberately blocked her path and coughed in her face. This wouldn’t have happened before the pandemic.

A Twitter video filmed on a New York City subway train on March 4, 2020 – around the time the pandemic reached New York City – shows a man screaming at an Asian passenger to move away from him. The man then sprays the passenger with air freshener.

Our data also shows that vulnerable populations – youth and elderly – are disproportionately impacted, as well as women. The attacks on the elderly that we’ve seen are so painful, because Asian Americans really respect our elders.

A surveillance video from San Francisco on January 28, 2021 shows a man violently shoving Vichar Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, to the ground during his morning walk. He died from the attack.

Nearly a third of Asian Americans said they have been subject to racist slurs or jokes since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, while 26 percent said that they feared threats and physical attacks, according to a Pew research study conducted in June 2020.

'In times of war, economic downturn and epidemic, Asians are framed as outsiders to be excluded or detained'

Many activists and community leaders, including Dr Jeung, consider that former President Donald Trump’s racialised coronavirus rhetoric throughout last year contributed to the spike in anti-Asian violence and hate.

President Trump incited the hate more by using terms like 'Chinese virus' and 'kung flu' over and over, stigmatising Chinese people.

However, there’s another underlying factor to the hate: violence against Asian Americans has always been a part of American history. There was a 'yellow peril' fear that Asians would come and invade, bringing their diseases and taking away jobs, evidenced in the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. During World War II, Japanese Americans were put into concentration camps. After 9/11, South Asians were detained and deported. We know that historically, in times of war, economic downturn, and epidemic, Asians are framed as outsiders to be excluded or detained.

'Not all the crimes are necessarily racially motivated, some are more crimes of opportunity'

Although the numbers indicate that anti-Asian violence and hate have increased during the pandemic, many of the incidents captured on video, which include gratuitous violence but also robberies, provide no clear indication as to whether the violence was fuelled by bigotry or by other motivations related to petty crime or even mental illness.

According to Dr Jeung, to label all recent incidents of violence against Asians as “hate crimes” also misdiagnoses a more nuanced problem.

We’ve seen two distinct trends that are related: reports of anti-Asian hate that are clearly racially biased, as well as a spate of violence crimes against Asian Americans. The racism from last year has portrayed Asian Americans as foreigners who don’t belong, so that we’re more likely to be pushed and shoved. But some of the crimes are not necessarily racially motivated – rather, they’re crimes of opportunity, perpetrated perhaps by people with mental health issues.

Surveillance footage from January 31, 2021 shows Yahya Muslim, a 28-year old homeless man, shoving a 91-year-old senior in Oakland’s Chinatown neighbourhood, a city 13km from San Francisco. The Oaklandside, a local newspaper, reviewed Muslim’s court records and found that although he had a history of crime and assault, there was no clear indication that his attacks were motivated by racial bias.

A surveillance video from January 30 shows people trying to steal plants from an Asian-owned flower shop in Oakland’s Chinatown. After the employees confront the thieves, a car parked in front of the store zooms away, almost running over the employees.

'People can go into fight or flight mode. But when we’re feeling fear and anxiety, flocking is the most constructive thing to do'

Although these incidents have alarmed and outraged Asian Americans, Dr Jeung feels heartened by how people from all communities have responded to the attacks.

Despite the sadness, I’m encouraged by the people who are supporting the community, not just Asian Americans but our allies. People can go into fight or flight mode: patrolling, arming themselves, telling their families to stay indoors. But the other response is to flock. And I see the community flocking together, people standing up to resist racism and take care of our elders.

A TikTok video shows a February 20, 2021 protest in New York City denouncing recent violence and crimes against Asian Americans, and supporting the community.

A March 7, 2021 Twitter video shows a group of orange-vested volunteers calmly patrolling Oakland’s Chinatown, where hundreds of people have signed up to escort senior Asian Americans and lend a helping hand to community members.

Last October, following the increase in reported hate crimes, the New York Police Department formed an Asian Hate Crime Task Force. In Oakland, police have recently increased patrols and set up a mobile command post in the city’s Chinatown.

During a March 11, 2021 primetime address to the nation, President Joe Biden denounced the “vicious hate crimes” against Asian Americans during the pandemic and called for them to cease immediately.