Does Oakland Chinatown Need More Police? After Assaults, a Generational Divide

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Younger volunteer chats with Chinatown merchant
Compassion in Oakland volunteer Tiffany Lin speaks with a merchant in Oakland's Chinatown on Feb. 26, 2021. Compassion in Oakland is one of several groups offering to assist seniors to their destinations in the wake of recent attacks against Asian elders. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The recent spate of violent attacks against elderly Asian Americans and robberies of Asian-owned businesses in the Bay Area have reawakened conversations around racism towards Asians and the best ways of keeping them safe. And in those conversations, the topic of policing has pointed to divisions within the Asian American community, mostly along generational lines.

After attacks against seniors and robberies in Oakland’s Chinatown, a local organizer started a GoFundMe to hire armed private security guards from the Richmond-based Goliath Protection Group. So far, the GoFundMe has exceeded its goal of $80,000 by raising more than $87,000 from about 1,000 donors. Armed guards working for Goliath have already begun patrols.

In addition to private security guards, volunteer-led patrol groups have been walking around Chinatown, assisting seniors by walking them to the store or providing translation services. Several of these volunteer groups have popped up since early February.

The Oakland Police Department also added a new Mandarin-speaking liaison officer in Chinatown in mid-February. OPD said the position was created in response to the string of assaults and robberies in Chinatown.

A volunteer-led patrol team walks through Oakland's Chinatown on Feb. 26, 2021. Several of these types of community-led patrol groups have popped up in Chinatown in the wake of recent robberies and attacks against Asian seniors. The groups offer to accompany seniors to their destinations and offer translation services. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Weng Kee Fu, who has operated Ruby King Bakery in Chinatown for more than 30 years, said he wants more police in the area – but since that’s not happening, he welcomes the armed security guards and says they help community members feel safe.

While he understands recent calls for defunding police and reinvesting that money into community programs, Fu said officials need to focus on removing bad officers instead of defunding the police force at large. And he thinks police presence is still needed to deter crime in the area.

And he's not the only one who feels like this.

Bakery owner Weng Kee Fu makes the shop's signature egg tart at Ruby King Bakery in Chinatown in Oakland on Feb. 26, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I ask all of our seniors in Chinatown and basically all of our businesses: Do you want to see police in this community?" said Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 150 members.

"So far, I haven't heard anybody say no," he said.

That sentiment is a stark contrast to what some Asian American activists have been calling for.

Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, holds an air horn similar to ones he has given out to businesses and residents of Chinatown in Oakland in the wake of recent attacks and robberies. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

'Prison Is Not the Only Solution for Public Safety'

On Feb. 13, hundreds of people attended a rally in Oakland Chinatown’s Madison Square Park to show solidarity with the Asian American community.

Many of the merchants and seniors in Chinatown are first-generation immigrants, but the Asian Americans attending the rally tended to be younger and born in the U.S. And many of them were mindful of the ongoing national and local movements calling for racial justice and police accountability in the wake of police killings of Black people last year, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.

Many of the activists were concerned that viral videos of some of the recent Bay Area attacks – which show Black people hurting Asian American seniors – are unfairly stereotyping Black and African Americans as criminals.

Speakers, including Ener Chiu with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, denounced more police as the solution, arguing it pits minorities against one another and risks further endangering Black lives.

"Racial profiling is lazy," Chiu told the crowd. “It escalates the tension that makes violence against people and property more likely. And it makes all of us less safe.”

Ener Chiu with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation speaks at a vigil and rally in Oakland's Madison Square Park on Feb. 13, 2021. Chiu denounced more police as the solution to the recent attacks, arguing increased law enforcement pits minorities against one another and risks further endangering Black lives. (Julie Chang/KQED)

Claire Jean Kim, a racial studies expert and professor at UC Irvine, says cases of Black violence against Asian Americans are few, and "even in those cases, it is not clear that there is racial motivation. On the other hand, there is a long history in the U.S. of white Americans attacking Asian Americans in times of crisis – World War II, U.S.-Japan trade tensions in the 1980s, etc."

At the Feb. 13 rally, Chiu and others called for solutions that address the root causes of crime, like poverty, gentrification and lack of mental health services.

Eddy Zheng is the founder of the New Breath Foundation, a group that supports formerly incarcerated individuals like himself. Zheng said the Chinatown community gave him a second chance.

“People in the community still show me love because they believe in the power of transformation," Zheng said. "Because people believe that prison is not the only solution for public safety."

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Zheng thanked the crowd for their support but called for unity across racial lines.

“The support that we're looking for is not about dividing our community. The support and love is for all of us who are suffering under the white supremacy and the structural racism," he said.

"I don't see the need to increase police protection. And instead of investing more in them, why don't we reinvest in mental health resources? Why don't we reinvest in ethnic studies so that we increase the masses' fluency to talk about these matters?" said Ysrael Quezon, who attended the rally. Quezon lives in Alameda but works at Filipino Advocates for Justice in Oakland.

Also on Feb. 13, city leaders and organizers held a press conference outside Oakland City Hall to call for unity between the Black and Asian American communities.

Chaney Turner, an Oakland business owner and Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission at-large commissioner, who spoke at the press conference, told KQED that the generational divide around the policing issue doesn't exist only within the Asian community.

“It's the same with the Black community, right?" Turner said. "Our older community have been conditioned that police keep them safe.”

Turner was not upset at those in Chinatown who are calling for more police.

“We need to have conversations with our loved ones and, you know, in communities to really explain why the police isn't and has not kept us safe," Turner said.

Those conversations are beginning to happen, but Chan, from the Chamber of Commerce, is still skeptical.

“Many people are talking about all the alternatives and they are talking about the future — 'we don’t need the police.' And let me say this, when there are no crimes, we don't need the police. When there are actually working solutions, we don't need the police. And we wouldn't mind to explore the option," Chan said.

Chan supports addressing the root causes of crime but he said until those services are in place and have made impact, “They are talking about the future, and I'm talking about today, tonight and tomorrow.”

Later this month, the Oakland City Council will examine the city’s police budget for the next two years. Included in the talks: bringing a second liaison officer into Chinatown in addition to moving some police funds to pay for public safety measures that address the root causes of crime.

The Finance and Management Committee will meet March 8 and the Public Safety Committee will meet on March 9.

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