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New Surge Of Violent Attacks Against Asian Americans In Bay Area

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is an uneasiness in the Asian American community in San Francisco right now. Around the Bay Area, there's been a series of incidents that have left several older Asian Americans badly injured and at least one dead. Business and civil rights groups in California are now speaking out. NPR's Eric Westervelt has more.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Many of these brazen, mostly daylight attacks have been caught on surveillance cameras. They include a 91-year-old man in Oakland's Chinatown who was thrown to the ground and sent to hospital with serious injuries. In San Jose, a 64-year-old grandmother was assaulted and robbed of cash she'd just withdrawn from an ATM for Lunar New Year gifts. In San Francisco in late January, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, originally from Thailand, was going for a morning walk when surveillance cameras captured a man running at him full speed and smashing his frail body to the pavement. He died of his injuries two days later. A 19-year-old suspect has been charged with murder. Despite arrests in that and a few other attacks, the violence has prompted many Chinatown businesses to reduce hours during a normally bustling shopping period ahead of Friday's Lunar New Year holiday.

CARL CHAN: The fear is not only for the patrons, but it's also employees. They are so fearful, they'd prefer to close early.

WESTERVELT: That's Carl Chan with Oakland's Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. He says some community members are taking matters into their own hands. Half a dozen ad hoc volunteer groups have sprung up offering to protect older residents when they shop.

CHAN: Some of them are young people. They want to walk Chinatown and then also helping seniors pick up their grocery and want them home.

WESTERVELT: Hollywood actor Daniel Wu, an East Bay native, has rallied artists and donated money to help stop what he says is an epidemic of hate, fueled by bigoted language by former President Trump and others.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL WU: Racist rhetoric from, you know, the pandemic has targeted us as being, you know, the reason for coronavirus. And so Asians across the board have been targeted by racial slurs, being attacked, being pushed around, being spat on.

WESTERVELT: The more than two dozen recent assaults and robberies in the Bay Area mirror a national rise in hate crimes against older Asian Americans during the pandemic. Manju Kulkarni directs the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, a coalition of community-based groups. From last March through the end of 2020, her group has documented nearly 3,000 incidents of anti-Asian hate across 47 states and the District of Columbia.

MANJU KULKARNI: And roughly 7% to 8% of those, unfortunately, come from elders in our community who have experienced incidents not unlike the ones that have taken place in recent days.

WESTERVELT: In Oakland, police have added foot and car patrols and set up a mobile command post in Chinatown. LeRonne Armstrong is Oakland's new police chief. He says it's not clear if these attacks are race based or have more to do with the coronavirus upending economic, social and school norms. The pandemic, he says, has made it easier for criminals to mask up and often slip away unidentified.

LERONNE ARMSTRONG: That's why it's so important that businesses and others that have video, that they share it with us because the mask wearing, although it's required and I think very important for health reasons, it also is definitely a deterrence in identifying those that are responsible for this crime.

WESTERVELT: President Biden, meantime, recently signed a memorandum pledging to combat anti-Asian and Pacific Islander discrimination. It was part of a series of racial equity-focused executive orders. Manju Kulkarni and other civil rights activists would like to see that order backed up by swift action.

KULKARNI: We need so much work to be done to undo some of the harm of the prior administration. And what the incident in the Bay Area remind us of is that action is needed now, not a few months from now, not a few years from now.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA AND PHILANTHROPE'S "NAUTICAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.