A group of demonstrators hold signs that say 'Stop Asian Hate' during a vigil and rally in San Francisco’s Chinatown on March 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok, Stella Kim stood among hundreds in San Francisco's Chinatown to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Kim sees the shooting of eight people in Atlanta, including six Asian women, as a backlash against progress and an assertion of white supremacy.
That can't stand, she said, and people who want progress need to keep showing up.
"I wore a hanbok as a sign of resistance," she said.
The Bay Area at large joined in that resistance. Hundreds gathered, marched and even skated on Saturday, to mourn the lives of those killed or hurt by the recent rise of anti-AAPI violence.
From a vigil in San Francisco's Chinatown to a solidarity glide on roller skates in Oakland, with actions also planned soon in San Jose and elsewhere, people across the region are showing their support for the AAPI community.
That community has grappled with rising racism and violence, including in the Bay Area.
Between March 19, 2020 and Feb. 28, 2021, there were at least 3,795 incidents of anti-Asian hate across the nation, ranging from physical assault and verbal harassment to various civil rights violations, according to a report released Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate. The project, based out of San Francisco State University, asks members of AAPI communities to self-report acts of hate and discrimination.
More than 700 of those incidents occurred in the Bay Area, according to a report from the same organization released last month.
'These Are Our Community Members'
In San Francisco, people hung love letters to friends, family or the AAPI community at large on a clothesline, which was strung across a bridge connecting Portsmouth Square to the Chinese Culture Center.
One sign simply read "grandma," written in Korean.
Many AAPI people attacked in the Bay Area have been seniors, including a Thai man killed in North Beach, a neighborhood adjacent to the peaceful vigil.
“Whether it’s San Francisco or Oakland, I think a lot of people are facing similar things," said Hyejin Shim, who works at Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, Oakland.
She says the public discussions of whether or not the Atlanta women were engaging in sex work is a distraction — and dehumanizes people who lost their lives.
“The reality is that sex workers have always been a part of the community," Shim said. "And so I think the question of whether these massage parlor workers were or were not is irrelevant. But the fact is that massage parlor workers who are Asian are often hypersexualized without their consent or their workplaces become a site of sexual harassment from clients. And that is both about race and gender.”
Also at the San Francisco vigil was Esther Leong, who works at the nonprofit Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. A San Franciscan with roots in Chinatown, Leong brought enlarged photos from books and family photos to the event to show the historic racism AAPI San Franciscans have faced, and to highlight AAPI's contributions to the city.
She says she’s upset law enforcement in Atlanta hasn't called the shootings a hate crime. Leong said she wants government to figure out a way to determine that an incident is a hate crime without having the assailant utter words of hate.
Leong says the way the law is written is too high a burden because people have to show that the attacker said hateful words as evidence. “I mean, how often does someone say, 'I’m going to hit you because you’re Chinese?' ”
The San Francisco vigil was organized by a wide breadth of AAPI groups, including the Chinese Progressive Association, the API Council, Filipina Women's Network, Manilatown Heritage Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, Rose Pak Democratic Club and at least a dozen other organizations.
“All of us, including women and low-wage workers, deserve to be safe," said Shaw San Liu, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, in a statement.
"Our members — many of whom are women, mothers living in the [single room occupancy hotels], and young women — are already risking their safety to go to work, providing childcare and caring for family members, navigating distance learning, and trying their best to preserve their mental health during these trying times."
In Oakland, dozens came out in rollerskates to garner more attention for their support for the AAPI community.
One of those skaters, Ashley Silva, said she fears for her community.
“I’m also a Filipino and Hawaiian. I’m hapa," Silva said. "I have my grandmother who goes out and my grandpa used to walk every single day. These could be our family members. These are our community members. And we have to keep each other safe. It’s really dangerous out there. And there are so many attacks. We really need to address the racism and take care of it.”
Also in Oakland, Lani Lee Marsden said the Atlanta shooting was a culmination of varying forms of hate.
“I’m here because I’m half Chinese and I am really devastated and upset and I feel helpless, hurt and really mad about what happened in Atlanta as well as sexism, racism and classism combined," she said.
City of Brisbane 'With you in Solidarity'
The city of Brisbane in northern San Mateo County, where Asian Americans make up nearly 30% of the total population, held an afternoon rally in a park and made similar pleas.
The crowd heard speeches from local government and law enforcement officials calling for an end to hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific islanders.
“On behalf of the Brisbane police officers and myself, we stand here with you in solidarity to denounce violence and racism and promote peace, respect and safety for everyone,” Police Chief Elizabeth Macias said.
“In San Mateo County, we stand united against hate. Unprovoked attacks against our neighbors for simply being Asian cannot and will not be tolerated,” said San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President David J. Canepa in a statement in February. “We need to celebrate who we are and not let racist behavior divide us.”
Asian American parents and business owners are fearful of their children or places of work being targeted, and many community members are afraid to go out in public, activists have said.
Taking Action Against Hate
Even before the deadly shootings at spas in the Atlanta area killed six women of Asian descent, President Biden had taken steps to address the recent surge of violence against Asians and Asian Americans by making forceful statements against hate and harassment, banning the federal government from employing the sort of "inflammatory and xenophobic" language used by his predecessor and tasking senior administration leaders to hold "listening sessions" with community leaders and advocates.
Now, with a sharp focus on the disturbing trend, Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders are calling for concrete, measurable responses from Biden and his Justice Department.
"Right now, people are afraid to leave their homes," said Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. "I think that basic denial of your sense of safety, it is a violation of our human rights. And I think that this does need to be taken seriously and urgently."
This week, Biden and Vice President Harris, the first Asian American elected to that position, refocused a trip planned to tout the benefits of the coronavirus relief package to instead meet with Asian American lawmakers and other community leaders in Georgia.
"Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying, waking up each morning the past year feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are stake," Biden said after the meeting. "They've been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed."
There are a wide variety of proposed solutions aimed at curbing violence, many of which are focused on the role that the Justice Department could play. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other Justice Department officials have been meeting with leaders of Asian and Pacific Islander groups, including several meetings this week, according to multiple sources familiar with the meetings.
Gregg Orton, the national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said that when Biden releases his budget, it should significantly increase funding for programs at the Department of Justice that are designed to engage communities.
"We can have as many listening sessions as we'd like, and I think it's great that a department makes themselves available to that kind of engagement," Orton said. "But truly, until we reach the people on the ground and support not just the community organizers, but the communities themselves, it's difficult to see a lot of progress being made."
KQED's Julie Chang, Lakshmi Sarah, Beth LaBerge and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.
NPR reporter Juana Summers contributed to this report.