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Asian American communities grapple with whether police are the right answer to recent attacks

“The issue of policing is really complex, and in Chinatown, we are an ideologically diverse group of people.”

An Oakland, California shop owner speaks with Deputy Chief of Police Chris Bolton and Carl Chan, president of Oakland’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, on February 16. 
Stephen Lam/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

If one thing was made clear last year, it’s that American policing is a deeply flawed institution. Protests over racism and the police killings of Black Americans have fueled efforts to shift funding away from law enforcement and toward social services like mental health care and education. Cities across the country are now grappling with what the function of police should be as they consider the future of public safety. And many communities, including Asian American ones that have been targeted with violent attacks in recent weeks, are among those navigating tough questions about the role of law enforcement.

California’s Bay Area has seen a wave of violence toward Asian Americans this past winter. In Oakland, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce has documented at least 20 assaults. And in the Bay Area overall, there have been 32 reports of Asian Americans getting assaulted or robbed since the start of the year, according to a February analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle. The motivations behind many of these attacks are currently unclear, though they’ve taken place as anti-Asian incidents have surged during the pandemic. According to a study by Cal State San Bernardino, San Francisco was one of the cities that observed an increase in reports of hate crimes toward Asian Americans in the past year.

The community response to the recent attacks has been varied: Some in the Bay Area have called for more police presence, some have hired private security, and others have pushed for public safety interventions that don’t center law enforcement.

All parties, ultimately, share a similar goal: They want to prevent more violence from happening in their community, and to keep their most vulnerable populations safe. Where they differ, however, is on just how involved the police need to be in this response, and the concerns about relying on law enforcement as the main solution to this problem.

“The issue of policing is really complex, and in Chinatown, we are an ideologically diverse group of people,” says Ener Chiu, associate director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, a group that’s part of the Oakland Chinatown Coalition. “There are people who support defunding the police. And there are people who say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable saying we need less police.’”

Such discussions are taking place not just in the Bay Area but in a number of cities, including New York and Los Angeles, as they also deal with an uptick in anti-Asian incidents. Physical and verbal assaults have spiked as Asian Americans have been scapegoated for the spread of the coronavirus in the past year, and as former President Donald Trump has stoked xenophobic sentiments.

According to Stop AAPI Hate, a group that’s been tracking such issues, there have been more than 2,500 anti-Asian incidents ranging from verbal assaults to physical attacks reported since last March, with 1,100 of those occurring in California. The Cal State San Bernardino study, which examined police logs in 16 major cities, found a nearly 150 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide in 2020 as well.

Community members in both San Francisco and Oakland are now working to figure out what comes next. In the near term, there’s a debate about how to make people feel more secure, and in the long term, there’s a question of how the community can invest in efforts that help prevent these attacks from happening again.

A conversation about policing is a key piece of these talks. And a tension at the heart of it is the immediacy in security that some people see police providing versus the belief that increased police presence not only doesn’t address the root cause of the violence but also endangers members of the community, particularly Black Americans, who’ve disproportionately been the targets of police brutality.

Ultimately, many local organizers emphasize that relying solely on policing isn’t a tenable long-term solution or the best use of a limited set of city resources. There are efforts underway to bolster programs, like community ambassadors — who help build relationships with business owners and residents, increase traffic to the area, and beautify the neighborhood — that could serve as a potential alternative.

“We have to offer people an alternative. We can’t just say we don’t want more police and not offer other options,” says Chiu. “It’s not about denouncing; it’s about what’s the right balance for our community?”

The debate about policing among members of Asian American communities, briefly explained

The policing debate centers on a complicated series of questions, including whether increased law enforcement in Chinatown and other places can deter further harm toward seniors, while also not adding to harms against the community more broadly, and if there are other immediate responses that can provide the same sense of security.

The issue came up earlier this year when actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information about a suspect who pushed a 91-year-old man in Oakland: Few doubted the well-meaning intentions of both celebrities, whose actions played a key role in raising awareness about this violence, but some saw their offer as effectively placing a bounty on a person and looking to policing as the solution.

Some community members argue that ramping up police is necessary because it’s a resource that elders are familiar with — and able to trust — compared to some of the newer volunteer efforts that have emerged, which include escort programs to help people get from place to place.

“Unless the police step in, there’s very little protection they would be getting,” says Anni Chung, the executive director of a San Francisco nonprofit called Self-Help for the Elderly, which provides food aid and health care support for older adults. Chung is among those pushing the San Francisco Police Department to establish a larger presence in Chinatown, and to train more bilingual and bicultural officers who can better engage with residents who may be less comfortable with English.

“The merchants feel better and the residents feel better,” Chung said of additional law enforcement.

In Oakland, too, Carl Chan, the head of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, says that he and other store owners support more police presence. “I ask all of our seniors in Chinatown and basically all of our businesses: Do you want to see police in this community?” Chan told KQED. “So far, I haven’t heard anybody say no.”

In San Francisco, police have increased patrols in the Chinatown area, and in Oakland, the department has dispatched a specific liaison officer to the neighborhood. “The San Francisco Police Department stands for safety with respect for all,” the SFPD said in a statement. “These crimes impact all of us and SFPD officers will maintain high visibility vehicle and foot patrols to help deter crime and reassure our communities across our City.”

Because some community members still fear there isn’t enough of a security presence, Oakland Chinatown residents have also crowdfunded more than $80,000 to help cover costs for private armed guards, a security force that could well replicate the same issues of abuse that police have struggled with.

Local activists, meanwhile, note that everyone in these communities has the same goals, but stress that they don’t support relying on police as the main solution — and are actively working to bolster other options.

“There are members of our community that believe more police presence, that will lead to safety, that there should be more bilingual cops, that there should be more drive-bys. And the data just doesn’t show that,” says Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, who’s based in San Francisco. As law enforcement experts have found, having more police doesn’t necessarily result in less crime, and actual outcomes can be more dependent on the strategies law enforcement officers deploy.

In addition to concerns about the efficacy of police as a deterrent to crimes, organizers also note that increased police could harm Black community members in particular, given law enforcement’s disproportionate violence toward Black Americans. In the Bay Area, Black residents have had an outsize number of fatal encounters with the police in recent years: According to the San Jose Mercury News, Black residents comprise 7 percent of the region’s population but 27 percent of the people killed by police between 2015 and 2020.

“We recognize that policing leads to mass incarceration and racial profiling,” says Russell Jeung, a San Francisco State University professor and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, who emphasizes that a public safety response will likely include law enforcement but can’t be overreliant on it.

Jeung and Choi are among those who cited a community ambassadors program that’s active in both Oakland and San Francisco as part of the near-term response. Oakland’s ambassadors program, established in 2017 by the Asian Health Services group and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, includes formerly incarcerated people who go to Chinatown regularly and engage with merchants and residents, while cleaning up trash and graffiti. The program is intended to help boost traffic in these areas as well as help build a sense of community. And in San Francisco, a similar city-run program dedicated to promoting public safety in different neighborhoods has now been around for several years. Ambassadors are also trained in deescalation and aiding community members who may need help with their daily tasks.

“You have the immediacy of the community ambassadors, of volunteer programs, you have the immediacy of people willing to volunteer and stand in front of stores and walk people across the street,” says Cat Brooks, a co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland. “I understand the fear, I really do. But what we are doing [with policing] ultimately isn’t working.”

Margaret Huang, a 55-year-old Oakland resident who was mugged near Chinatown earlier this year, says she thinks the community ambassadors are a good idea that many people may simply not be aware of. “We have learned that it’s a very valuable resource to have a group that can act as an intermediary and deescalate things,” she said, noting she didn’t feel that police should be the only option.

Some residents, though, worry that the work of ambassador programs and other volunteer efforts simply aren’t enough to address the current problem. For now, the talks between pro-police and anti-police advocates, a divide that often falls along generational lines, are ongoing and nuanced. Community members say that policing may still be a necessary part of the current response, but that they’re working to ensure it is not the sole avenue for recourse.

“I think a comprehensive approach is what’s necessary. We are encouraging restorative justice models,” says Jeung.

There is a major focus on solidarity

Part of the talks around policing center on helping Asian American community members understand what more police presence means for Black residents who are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and on the need to ensure that diverse viewpoints are considered while charting a path forward.

Thus far, a major emphasis of organizers’ response has been on reaffirming solidarity between Black and Asian communities, and stressing the need to work together to improve public safety overall.

One of the rallies local organizers put together in February stressed a united front. The event, which took place in Madison Park following the death of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, who was brutally pushed in San Francisco, aimed to raise awareness about the assaults and dispel the use of any stereotypes about potential attackers.

“The suspects in some of these attacks were Black men, and some Asian Americans have responded with stereotypes of their own, blaming supposed anti-Asian sentiment from the Black community for the crimes,” the Guardian’s Vivian Ho and Abené Clayton reported. “This narrative, which has not been supported by evidence, has nevertheless shoved a new wedge into age-old cracks between Black and Asian immigrant communities in the US.”

In both San Francisco and Oakland, organizers say it’s important for groups to understand one another’s experiences in order to build a solution that factors in all perspectives.

“We want to work cross-racially to promote neighborhood safety,” Jeung says.

Leaders have also said it’s important to interrogate anti-Black and anti-Asian biases and push back on them, while ensuring that people don’t make generalizations about each respective group. “Supporting our Asian community is not about dividing us. This support is for all of us suffering under white supremacy. We need to understand that so we can triumph and have public and personal safety,” Eddy Zheng, an Oakland organizer and youth counselor, told the Guardian.

The Bay Area particularly has had historic models of solidarity, like the Third World Liberation Front effort in the 1960s, when Black, Asian, and Latino organizers worked together to push for an ethnic studies department at San Francisco State. In the past, however, there have also been moments when concerns about public safety have heightened tensions between the two groups, such as during the Los Angeles riots, which followed the police beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of multiple officers involved.

At the time, Korean American business owners and Black residents clashed after pressure had been building for months. “Socio-economic factors mattered in the creation of tensions in South Central Los Angeles that spring; in particular, the perception of Korean businesses displacing local owners in these predominantly black neighborhoods,” Andrew Cha writes for Harvard Kennedy School’s Asian American Policy Review.

Organizers stress that open communication is vital in order to move forward and ensure that the same problems aren’t repeated.

“Oakland is a really unique space. My neighborhood was one of the neighborhoods that was Black and Asian. My elementary school was Black and Asian. That sharing of space is not something we’ve seen a lot in this country; it’s unique in the Bay Area,” says Melina Abdullah, a founder of a Black Lives Matter chapter in Los Angeles. “One of the things that can bring solidarity is the understanding of each other and the sharing of space.”

Community safety alternatives to police need more funding

In addition to the more immediate conversations taking place, community leaders are weighing questions about what longer-term efforts for preventing crime look like, and the resources needed to really make them work.

“Do we put our limited dollars into policing? Or do we put it back into communities that are underresourced? We have crisis over crisis that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic,” says Choi. “Long-term, if you’re going to break generational violence, you have to invest in interventional measures.”

A key effort that’s shown strong results is violence interruption programs, notes professor Paul Butler, a criminal justice expert at Georgetown Law. These programs, used in European countries like the UK and Belgium, aim to prevent and mediate violence before it occurs. As part of these efforts, people are trained as “community safety professionals,” who help address conflicts. “They are unarmed, lack most formal policing powers, and perform responsibilities like youth outreach, conflict mediation, community patrol, and addressing low-level crime and disorder,” as Roge Karma previously explained for Vox.

“Divesting from the police, and not exclusively relying on police for public safety: It’s a recognition that the police don’t bring us the kind of safety we would hope,” says Butler.

Investing and shifting resources to such programs is a key push among some activists: Some Oakland Chinatown residents, for instance, are pushing for specific tax revenues to go toward hiring more community ambassadors who are trained in violence deescalation and broader engagement. They’re also calling for more investments in health care programs, housing access, and other neighborhood resources including parks and open spaces.

The conversation is unfolding as the cities of San Francisco and Oakland have a larger discussion about what public safety looks like overall. And in both cities, progressive officials have signaled support for adding more funding to efforts like the ambassadors program and other social services, an outcome that could be a direct result of constituent pressure.

“How can we focus on increasing the vibrancy and vitality of our neighborhoods and safety is going to be the byproduct?” says Alvina Wong, the campaign and organizing director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

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