Oaklanders Combat Chinatown Attacks with Volunteering, Mutual Aid

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Recent attacks on Asian elders in Oakland and San Francisco have spurred volunteering, fundraising and other mutual aid efforts for public safety. (Eda Yu and Myles Thompson)

A disturbing video of a man shoving a 91-year-old elder to the ground in Oakland Chinatown made international headlines, and became a lightning rod in a heated debate about how to best combat anti-Asian racism and promote public safety.

Business leaders in Chinatown organized a press conference last Wednesday to put pressure on public officials to increase police foot patrols and surveillance cameras in the area. At the conference, Mayor Libby Schaaf pivoted from the tragedy to decry the movement to defund the police—a call that emanated from racial justice protests last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and police abuses against Black Americans and other people of color.

The racial dynamics of the situation are fraught. The Trump administration’s relentless scapegoating of Chinese people for the coronavirus has fueled hate and resentment, and anti-Asian hate crimes spiked across the country in 2020. Meanwhile, because the suspected attackers in the Oakland Chinatown incident—and another in San Francisco that left an 84-year-old Thai man dead—were Black, racists have flocked to social media to perpetuate a false narrative of Black criminality.

The Oakland Police Department’s available data doesn’t conclusively point to a crime spike in Chinatown (according to data obtained by Oaklandside, overall crime reports in OPD’s Patrol Area 1, which includes Chinatown, are down 60% from last January, and robberies are down 40%). But some Chinatown leaders say that a number of attacks and robberies in recent weeks have left the community reeling, and that they need more police presence.

Other leaders and activists in Oakland Chinatown have taken a different approach: over 40 Asian American organizations from Oakland, San Francisco and around the Bay Area banded together to issue a joint statement calling for non-police safety measures that address crime at the root, such as volunteer neighborhood patrols and more culturally competent and language-accessible support for victims.

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Many of the organizations represented in the statement serve working-class families, refugees, immigrants and monolingual elders—the very people who have borne the brunt of the economic fallout of the pandemic and the attendant discrimination. In a press conference yesterday, the organizers called for cross-racial unity and expressed skepticism of solutions that they say over-rely on law enforcement.

“In this current moment and historically—I’m just going to be explicit—policing has not meant safety for communities of color or young people,” said Stanley Pun, co-director of AYPAL, a youth nonprofit based in Oakland Chinatown that works with low-income Asian and Pacific Islander families. “We need to work together from a space of compassion, empathy and understanding to seek justice, not vengeance.”

Ener Chiu of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, an affordable housing nonprofit, highlighted the need for more community ambassador programs like the one his organization established two years ago. It deploys staff to clean trash and graffiti, connects merchants and residents to services and aims to foster a community atmosphere.

“It’s difficult to shove a senior citizen to the ground if you see yourself in them, if you have a relationship to them,” said Chiu. “It’s difficult to racially profile someone if you’re not afraid of them—if you’ve played together in our parks and recreation centers. But we need to invest in community safety and infrastructure and spaces and people who can bring those communities together and into relationship.”

Meanwhile, other activists and artists around the Bay Area have spoken out in solidarity and created mutual aid campaigns and fundraisers to support Oakland Chinatown’s elders. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network has started soliciting volunteers for a community foot patrol program they call Community Strolling. Volunteers will clean up trash, pass out red envelopes for Lunar New Year and build long-term relationships with residents, businesses and visitors in the hopes of strengthening community ties.

A group calling themselves Compassion in Oakland is also asking for volunteers to escort Chinatown’s elders on walks and errands. There are two “Love Our People” rallies planned to condemn the violence in Oakland on Feb. 13 and San Francisco on Feb. 14. And writer and artist Eda Yu (who occasionally contributes to KQED Arts & Culture) and her partner Myles Thompson have organized a GoFundMe that raised over $120,000 for eight Asian American social justice organizations, including Stop AAPI Hate (which supports hate crime victims and advocates for restorative justice) and the Vietnamese Community Center, which delivers 30,000 meals a month, mostly to elders. The center burned down last week in an accidental fire.

Joining these calls for justice, Oakland rapper and Dope Era Clothing owner Mistah F.A.B. used his platform to advocate for Black and Asian unity in the face of white supremacy. “I can feel the frustration, the rage, the hurt, the hate,” he said on Instagram. Addressing the Black and Asian communities, he continued, “Us as the minorities, man, there’s already a war against us. And if we go to war with each other, then it’s more war, and they sit back and they’re laughing at us.”

Asian American leaders have issued similar pleas. “I’ve seen the pitting of communities against each other,” said Lai Wa Wu of the Chinese Progressive Association, an organization that supports working-class immigrants, at yesterday’s press conference. “But I have also seen the strength and the hope that have been summoned through the difficult conversations we’ve held, the ways we’ve created space to name our communities’ grief, speak to our ignored needs, let others bear witness and also holding faith in everyone’s potential to heal.”

This story was updated to include information about the “Love Our People” rallies.