San Francisco, California, United States – It’s 8:45 a.m. and Sakhone Lasaphangthong is walking through Oakland’s Chinatown, greeting business owners who are opening their shops and welcoming locals on their way to work.
Five days a week, Sakhone drives more than 80 miles from his home in Sacramento for a 6-9 hour shift as a community ambassador. Before even starting his day job as a housing manager for a local non-profit organization, Sakhone registers with traders, accompanies older residents on errands and sweeps the streets.
The Chinatown Community Ambassador program is not new; it was created in 2017 by local groups to provide the community with additional security resources and services that are culturally sensitive.
But Sakhone, a refugee from Laos, says he has become increasingly important to Asian-American residents of Oakland after a year of attacks and racist graffiti on store windows and walls.
“My job, especially at the moment, is to be hyper-vigilant, to be aware of people who come here to try to do harm or looking for an easy victim,” said the 45-year-old. .
Even before recent attacks on three separate North Georgia massage companies by a white gunman killed eight, including six Asian women, Asian Americans in the Bay Area, which encompasses Oakland and San Francisco, were feel threatened.
Over 1.7 million Asian Americans live in the Bay Area, representing about a quarter of the region’s total population and making it one of the largest Asian-American communities in the United States. United.
Among the incidents so far this year in Oakland Chinatown, a 16-square-block area that is home to around 3,000 people, a 91-year-old man was thrown to the ground last month and hospitalized with serious injuries and a 52-year-old woman was seriously injured after being shot in the head with a flare in January.
Charges of assault and battery and elder abuse were laid in the first case, and assault with a lethal weapon in the second.
Some activists and politicians attribute anti-asian violence to the rhetoric used by former US President Trump and others, accusing China of the COVID-19 pandemic and referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”
Since the pandemic began last year, thousands of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans (AAPIs) have has been the victim of racist verbal abuse, physical attacks or microaggressions. According to a new report from a Bay Area-based watchdog group Stop AAPI Hate, 3,795 incidents occurred across the country between March 2020 and February 2021.
California accounted for nearly half of the reported cases described in the report, and 700 were in the bay area alone. Businesses were by far the most common site of discrimination, followed by streets and public parks, while online incidents made up about 10% of reported incidents, according to the report.
More than two thirds of people have been victims of verbal harassment; one in five had experienced avoidance – deliberate avoidance based on race. Women were also more than twice as likely to report hate incidents as men, and many reported experiencing sexual harassment.
The Oakland People’s Ambassador Program stems from a program for former incarcerated people like Sakhone, but lacks long-term funding. He is currently the only ambassador.
The Oakland Chinatown Coalition hopes to fix this by next year by including it in a Community Benefits District, which levies additional taxes on local homeowners to fund improvements in their neighborhood.
Meanwhile, several voluntary efforts have sprung up over the past year in response to hate attacks, particularly by young Asian Americans. These include Compassion in Oakland, which currently has hundreds of volunteers who will accompany anyone in Chinatown who requests help, as well as free translation or interpretation services. The group also offers assistance to other cities interested in setting up a similar project.
Building trust is essential to the success of these programs, but challenges exist.
“I think there are a lot of challenges with the language barriers between the people who are trying to help and the people they are trying to serve,” said Alvina Wong, campaign and organization director at the network. Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Oakland.
“I think the challenge is that no one really knows who to trust. Everyone lives in fear and anxiety, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Wong said COVID-19 restrictions had limited opportunities to build trust through community meetings and public meetings, for example. “The digital divide is very real,” she says. “It’s so limiting because a lot of people can’t even use Zoom, let alone be in a Zoom space with interpretation.”
One solution is to work with community health partners to directly reach families who have survived violence and crime, she said.
Beyond the police
After the Atlanta attacksSan Francisco Police last week stepped up patrols in neighborhoods with large numbers of residents, businesses and visitors of Asian-American descent, including Chinatown and the Sunset and Richmond districts.
But Lai Wa Wu, director of policy and alliance with the Chinese Progressive Alliance (CPA) which held a hate crime vigil in San Francisco on Saturday, warned against relying on the police to resolve the problem.
“We understand that in times of stress, people will naturally come back to solutions or systems that they feel they are familiar with,” she said.
“We also believe that policing cannot and is not the only solution to creating real security for our communities. We need to understand what is the real culprit of inequalities and prejudices. We need culturally appropriate victim services. We need to have trained witness intervention programs. We need to strengthen our communities. “
Asian American advocacy group Advancing Justice-Atlanta echoed the APC’s position in a recent statement, rejecting an increased police presence or prison solutions as responses to hate crimes.
Instead, the group said assessing and meeting the immediate needs of communities should be the priority, which could include language support for mental health, legal, employment and immigration services. .
In the meantime, various levels of government have sought to resolve the problem.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, home to Oakland, has set up a special response unit focused on anti-Asian crimes, particularly against seniors. The unit includes prosecutors and members of the Oakland Asian community who can speak to victims in their native language; all are fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin.
California State Lawmaker David Chiu introduced a bill last month that would require the California Department of Justice (DOJ) to set up a toll-free phone line, as well as a reporting system. online, to report hate crimes and hate incidents. Similar hotlines have been established in other states and parts of California, including San Francisco and Alameda County.
“Having a centralized, state-wide approach to tracking hate crimes within a law enforcement agency will make all of our communities in California safer,” Chiu said in a statement.
The first Congressional hearing since 1987 on anti-Asian hate began last week, in which Asian-American lawmakers said the United States had reached “a point of crisis that cannot be ignored,” the community “crying out for help”.
Back in Oakland, Sakhone’s work with the Family Bridges nonprofit housing helps connect Chinatown’s homeless population with local merchants by involving them in graffiti removal work. He says it’s a small step towards building community by building trust and fostering a more caring attitude.
“It’s not fair that many refugees and immigrants have fled a war-torn country, come to America to build a better life for themselves and their families, and just be brutally murdered for no reason whatsoever. Asians, this is insane, ”Sakhone said.
“We must stop this senseless violence here in America.”