(From left) Robert Lowe, Michelle Wong, Forrest Chang and Allene Jue hold signs at a rally to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin at Portsmouth Square on Friday, May 28, 2021, in San Francisco. (Courtesy Paul Kuroda/SF Standard)
Warning: This story contains photos, links to videos, embedded videos and textual descriptions depicting hateful violence against members of San Francisco's Asian communities.
month before the pandemic hit California, a video went viral on social media showing an older Asian man crying. A crowd surrounded him to watch.
The man, identified in Chinese media as “Mr. Zhou” and in court documents as “Ximing Z.,” was walking his usual route through San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood on Feb. 22, 2020, collecting recyclables to trade in for cash.
But on that particular Saturday, as Zhou, then 68, made his way to the small, one-block stretch of Osceola Lane, he was attacked and robbed.
A 20-year-old, Dwayne Grayson, stood nearby, capturing the incident on his cellphone in footage that later would be viewed by millions as it made the rounds online and on television.
It was a time of rising hate against Asian communities. Just two days before the attack on Zhou, 84-year-old Rong Xin Liao was assaulted. Liao still isn’t sure why someone knocked him to the concrete.
“I think it’s possible because I am Asian, or I am disabled, so I got picked on,” Liao told The San Francisco Standard in mid-May. He was waiting at a bus stop in the Tenderloin neighborhood, when 22-year-old Eric Ramos-Hernandez was recorded on camera jump-kicking Liao to the ground.
In early 2021, Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, was killed after being forcefully shoved to the ground during his morning walk in San Francisco. The violent incident was caught on video and shocked the world. Ratanapakdee later became the public face of the movement demanding justice and safety for Asian Americans.
Ratanapakdee’s daughter, Monthanus Ratanapakdee, told The SF Standard that she believed the fatal violence was “racially motivated” because the pandemic has flared up the hate.
All these cases, which attracted a huge wave of media coverage, were among many across the country igniting the national Stop Asian Hate movement. But that hate is rarely reflected in criminal charges, in part because it can be hard to prove an attacker was motivated by race.
KQED and The SF Standard partnered to review a dozen high-profile criminal cases in San Francisco involving Asian and Asian American victims during 2020 and 2021 to unpack the essence of the fear from Asian communities — that the crimes are racially motivated — while shining a light on the aftermath of incidents that quickly enter the public consciousness and then fade.
Among the 12 cases, many were initially investigated as hate crimes, but only two were eventually charged as such.
And, importantly, five of the 12 defendants have entered mental health diversion programs, meaning the criminal prosecution may be suspended based on the treatment results.
All 12 are pending, languishing in a court system still reeling from the pandemic. In recent weeks, Black and Asian community leaders have called on law enforcement to push for hate crime enhancements to stem the tide of anti-Asian hate.
And in the dozen reviewed cases, even where alternatives to incarceration were pursued, the promises of that process were ultimately unfulfilled.
During 2020 and 2021, anger over these crimes helped fuel an effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. According to a poll conducted by Embold Research for The SF Standard in May, a greater percentage of Asian American voters support the recall against Boudin than any other ethnic group.
While community discussion between Black and Asian leaders has sometimes centered on increasing hate crime charges in San Francisco, other Black leaders say that locking people up only harms communities in the long run, perpetuating a cycle of mass incarceration.
Instead, more data collection about hate incidents may lead to better community protection. A new state bill may make that information gathering mandatory if it is ultimately signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
A crime victim looks for healing instead of prosecution
Zhou, the man assaulted while collecting recyclables, lives on the edge — like so many other Asian immigrants in San Francisco who can’t or won’t get government aid, whose limited English makes job-hunting difficult, and who lift blue lids in neighborhoods across the city to sustain themselves.
News reports said Zhou’s experience before the attack in the Hunters Point neighborhood was largely warm and welcoming. In a historically Black neighborhood all-too-familiar with living on the margins, residents would often go out of their way to ensure Zhou’s plastic garbage bag was filled to bursting with discarded cans.
But it’s also a neighborhood with a growing Asian population, leading to some animus between the communities. Those raw feelings have become all too public of late.
At a recent San Francisco redistricting meeting in City Hall, anger exploded between Asian and Black residents of southeast San Francisco, debating which communities should be granted more representation in a new map of voters.
“You don’t have the guts to speak up for our people, when your people say something,” he said.
People in the audience yelled in anger. “He says there’s going to be a new [District 10], that’s what he said. There’s going to be a new D10,” cried out one woman, speaking to the idea of one community being replaced by another.
Those sentiments have long simmered in San Francisco. For years, community institutions like the Cameron House in Chinatown and Third Baptist Church in the Western Addition have tried to bridge the gaps between Asian and Black people in their respective neighborhoods.
But with rising attacks against the AAPI community leading up to and during the pandemic, those tensions came to the fore again in public discussions of hateful incidents. That brings us back to 2020, as an Asian man is thrust into the spotlight as he collects cans in Hunters Point.
Zhou’s attacker, Jonathan Amerson, 56, was recorded standing by a pile of Zhou’s trash bags. He swung at Zhou with what on video looks like a garbage picker, as a crowd looked on. Amerson then allegedly took Zhou’s cart of recycling bags, according to court records.
San Francisco police later arrested both Amerson and Grayson.
But for Grayson — the young man who filmed the incident, mocked Zhou, and expressed his hatred in clear terms — the handling of prosecution was more complex since he wasn’t directly involved in the attack; he only recorded it.
When the DA’s office dropped charges against Grayson to pursue a more rehabilitation-oriented alternative to traditional prosecution — at Zhou’s request — the media followed closely, framing the story in a way that suggested Boudin was letting Grayson off too easily, even though he was not one of the attackers. Some headlines were misleading, often claiming “charges dropped” against a suspect in the attack, leading many to think charges were dropped against Amerson, the attacker, not Grayson.
Speaking to KQED’s Political Breakdown hosts Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos on stage at KQED in May, Boudin defended his decision on Grayson, saying recording the attack against Zhou without intervening was “not a good thing,” and his behavior was "offensive, horrific, racist, disrespectful" — but “not criminal.”
Brooke Jenkins, a former assistant district attorney who is now a spokesperson for the recall effort against Boudin, is also a former hate crimes prosecutor in the DA’s office. She said hate crime charges could have been pursued in Zhou’s case using the hateful slur captured on video.
“In my view, in that case, it did meet the bar,” Jenkins said. “There were statements that made the intentions very clear, and [made] the motivations very clear.”
Grayson and Zhou ultimately did not participate in a restorative justice process together, as they initially intended. That process would’ve seen the two men reconcile their differences, sitting together and talking out what happened. In their description of the goal of the San Francisco Restorative Justice Collaborative, the DA’s office specifically points to the method as a practice to encourage multiracial consensus, and global racial solidarity, particularly aiming to repair the relationship between Asian American and African American communities in San Francisco.
In short, it was a process designed to address moments of hate just like this one.
Instead, authorities steered Grayson into another restorative justice path: neighborhood courts. It’s known as a “diversion” program that focuses on rehabilitation and urges participants to take accountability.
Zhou and Grayson couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.
Amerson, who was charged with second-degree robbery and inflicting injury on an elder, was released on his own recognizance with a GPS-tracked ankle monitor. His case is ongoing.
Notably, Amerson lacked a permanent home when he was arrested for attacking Zhou. He was “mostly transient,” his attorney wrote in a 2020 declaration to the court. Only after his arrest was he able to secure housing, his lawyer wrote, and has been “doing well.”
Boudin touts hate-crime charges, even when he's dropped them
The question of when to charge hate crimes has become a source of contention in the recall election against Boudin. In his own defense, Boudin’s current pinned Tweet highlights a video quoting The San Francisco Chronicle, “ ... beating of Asian father was a hate crime, Boudin decides.”
But a review of court records by The SF Standard and KQED shows the hate crime he charged against suspect Sidney Hammond, who allegedly assaulted an Asian American father with a baby stroller on April 30, 2021, were eventually dropped.
The DA’s office verified as much and explained that, after charging, they received additional evidence that did not support hate crime charges, including a San Francisco police officer stating in a report that the incidents were not hate motivated. As such, the office was “ethically obligated” to dismiss the hate crime enhancement.
And no hate-related charges were pursued against the suspect who kicked Liao out of his walker in the Tenderloin. According to the latest court documents, Ramos-Hernandez has been referred to mental health treatment and was released with a GPS tracking monitor.
The suspect pushing Ratanapakdee to death, Antoine Watson, remains in custody and is charged with murder. No hate crime-related charges were filed.
Jenkins, who is one of Boudin’s toughest critics, pointed out the importance of charging hate crimes but also acknowledged that hate crimes are notoriously difficult to charge because they hinge on proving intent.
“When you feel like you’re being targeted for that reason, they want to feel vindicated,” said Jenkins. She added that victims of the crime want to see charges that truly capture and reflect the “full scope of someone's conduct.”
But hate crimes are “one of the only charges that require the DA’s office to prove motive for the underlying crime,” she said. In other words, it requires that someone has made a verbal expression regarding the victim’s identity, or shows a clear pattern of targeting over time.
There are two cases with hate crime charges, among the dozen reviewed by KQED and The SF Standard, and both of them reflect those patterns.
A serial vandalism suspect, Derik Barreto, was charged by DA Boudin for nearly 30 counts of hate crimes as he allegedly targeted Asian-owned businesses, breaking their windows. Barreto provided a lengthy interview with the police explicitly saying he had some delusions “around the surveillance capabilities of Chinese,” court documents reveal. In this case, Barreto verbally admitted targeting Chinese-owned businesses.
But the judge in the case ordered Barreto to be released, even though the DA’s office opposed the decision. After missing his court date, he’s now facing a bench warrant arrest.
The other case where hate crime charges emerged involved a suspect robbing multiple Asian women. The suspect, O’Sean Garcia, allegedly showed a pattern of targeting victims with the same racial identity. Garcia was released, too, court records show.
Data from the DA’s office showed that a total of 20 cases included hate crime charges in 2021, both standalone misdemeanors and hate crime enhancements, which are tacked onto felonies.
It’s unclear how many of those 20 cases in 2021 are categorized as anti-Asian as opposed to hate directed toward other identities.
Of course, not every hateful incident is a crime, as the California Attorney General’s Office laid out in a memo explaining the difference between the two.
“The U.S. Constitution allows hate speech as long as it does not interfere with the civil rights of others,” the office wrote in the advisory. “While these acts are certainly hurtful, they do not rise to the level of criminal violations and thus may not be prosecuted.”
Solving hate through community — and data
In mid-May, leaders from San Francisco’s Asian and Black communities came together at a press conference at Third Baptist Church in the Western Addition to urge authorities to pursue more hate crime charges.
“Public safety is every human being’s birthright,” SFPD Capt. Yulanda Williams said. “Exploitation of our Asian-Pacific Islander community will no longer be tolerated.”
That joint press conference between Black and Asian leaders at Third Baptist Church was convened with the idea that the Black community needed to stand in solidarity with Asian people in calling for more hate crime enhancements, upping the charges suspects face. But Tinisch Hollins, head of Californians for Safety and Justice, said sometimes people react to crime with efforts that ultimately perpetuate racism, and racial injustice.
“There's a very real sentiment that there are populations of individuals who cause problems and make the city and community unsafe and less desirable,” Hollins said. “And Black people, specifically Black men and boys, are at the top of that list.”
Indeed, the high-profile cases reviewed by KQED and The SF Standard feature a mix of suspects, across ethnicities.
While public discussion around Asian communities frequently references the need for more safety — pushing that word, "safety," in particular — Hollins said that can be a societally palatable code for pushing out Black people.
“‘Public safety’ right now, I feel like it’s a very covert way of naming it,” she said. It also focuses solutions on incarceration instead of giving mental health help, housing and education to people who may need it in order to reduce incentives for crime.
And, importantly, research shows that steeper charges — which hate crime enhancements would bring — and longer sentencing don’t reduce crime.
Magnus Lofstrom, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said his research on Proposition 47, which reduced some felony thefts and drug offenses to misdemeanors, has shown that reducing prison populations doesn’t lead to a rise in violent crime.
Hollins was raised in the Bayview, near where Zhou was attacked, and said she wasn’t surprised that initial attempts to make peace between Zhou and Grayson bore no fruit.
“If we at all agreed that there are better ways to resolve the kind of social conflicts that come up in our communities, especially when racial tensions are involved,” she said, “you might have a lot more buy-in.”
Both hate crimes and hate incidents are significantly underreported, Lofstrom added. Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant communities face particular barriers to reporting due to insufficient language access.
Underreporting is a phenomenon state officials are trying to fix.
Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, authored AB 1947, which would require California law enforcement agencies to standardize data collection on hate crimes.
Ting frequently touts San Bernardino as an example of lax data collection. In 2021 the Southern California county didn’t report a single hate crime. “And in a population so large, given everything that’s going on, it’s really hard to believe,” Ting said.
Collecting that data is especially important, Ting said, so communities can be level-headed about real threats.
“Too often with law enforcement, with public safety, we’re driven by fear,” Ting said, “and we’re driven by anecdotal stories and anecdotal incidents and not really by trends.”
Those sorts of incidents are top of mind for Rita Sinha, a 67-year-old South Asian immigrant living in the SoMa neighborhood for 10 years, who said she already feels less safe in San Francisco.
She used to visit churches like Glide Memorial, libraries, parks, grocery stores and medical facilities, she said, “without fear of being robbed or assaulted.”
Now, however, “It’s very scary when you walk outside,” she said.
Ting’s bill passed the Assembly at the end of May. While data may one day drive solutions, for now fear remains persuasive.
High-profile assaults against the AAPI community, revisited
KQED and The SF Standard revisited these 12 high-profile assaults against Asian people in San Francisco in 2020 and 2021, checking the status of those cases in court, following AAPI community concern over the prosecution of hate crimes.
84-year-old man assaulted — suspect released after mental health program
On February 20, 2020, Rong Xin Liao, an immigrant and senior, was kicked to the ground while he was waiting at a bus stop, standing with his walker in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
The suspect, Eric Ramos-Hernandez, was arrested and charged with assault and inflicting injury on an elder. He was initially placed on mental health diversion and released, later switched to behavioral health court, and recently released, in early April 2022. His next court date is in mid-June.
In February 2020, right before the pandemic, a 68-year-old Asian man was robbed and assaulted in Hunters Point while collecting recycling cans to resell. The incident was recorded and posted on social media.
Police arrested Dwayne Grayson, who recorded the video and made anti-Asian statements in the recording, and Jonathan Amerson, who swung what appeared to be a garbage picker at the victim.
Grayson’s charges were dropped at the request of the victim, who asked for a restorative justice approach. Amerson was charged with second-degree robbery and inflicting injury on an elder, both felonies. He’s been released.
The killing of Kelvin Chew — pending trial
Kelvin Chew, 19, was gunned down while walking outside his home in the Portola District on May 7, 2020, in a robbery-turned-fatal-shooting. Police arrested two suspects, Fagamalama Pasene and Zion Young. Both are charged with murder.
The trial of the case is believed to start soon.
The killing of Grandpa Vicha — suspect in custody, pending trial
On January 28, 2021, 84-year-old Thai man Vicha Ratanapakdee was knocked to the pavement and killed in San Francisco's Anza Vista neighborhood. The incident was caught on camera, galvanizing the national Stop Asian Hate movement.
The suspect, Antoine Watson, was arrested and charged with murder and is pending trial. The next court date is June 14, 2022.
The grandma who fought back — suspect in mental health program
In March 2021, 74-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie's story became international news and raised more than $1 million after a video showed that she fought back against her alleged attacker, Steve Jenkins.
Jenkins remains in custody and was granted permission by a judge to enter a mental health diversion program.
Dad with baby stroller assaulted — hate crime charges dropped
The suspect, Patrick Thompson, was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He remains in custody and the case is pending trial. Thompson has a history of mental health issues, according to news reports, and previously went through mental health diversion programs.
Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital assaults
On May 24, 2021, Angelina Balenzuela allegedly assaulted two Asian American women staff members at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. According to court documents, Balenzuela spat on one victim and called her a “bitch,” then pulled the hair of another victim.
Balenzuela was arrested and the case was initially investigated as a hate crime, but hate crime charges were not brought. Balenzuela was released later and failed to show up at court. The court has revoked the release decision and issued a bench warrant.
Chinatown officer attacked — suspect in mental health treatment
On May 29, 2021, an SFPD officer was attacked on Kearny Street in Chinatown by the suspect she was trying to arrest, Gerardo Contreras. The incident was caught on video and went viral. It was initially investigated as a hate crime by police.
Contreras remains in custody since his arrest and was placed in a mental health treatment program.
94-year-old woman stabbed — suspect in custody, pending trial
On June 16, 2021, 94-year-old Asian immigrant woman Anh Peng Taylor was stabbed in broad daylight in San Francisco.
The suspect, Daniel Cauich, was on an ankle monitor and later arrested for the attempted murder charge. The case is pending trial.
Man accused of half of San Francisco's hate crime surge
After release, Barreto failed to show up in court. His release was revoked in January last year. The court has now changed his status to “fugitive."
Robberies targeting Asian women — suspect charged with hate crime, released while case is pending
In September, District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced multiple charges of robbery with hate crime enhancement against O’Sean Garcia, who is accused of targeting Asian women. He was released and the case is pending.