On January 30, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai grandfather who his family described as “nearly blind, gentle person, [and] beloved,” died as a result of injuries incurred when he was shoved to the pavement while taking a walk in San Francisco—a graphic video of which has since circulated on social media. Nineteen-year-old Antoine Watson pled not guilty last week to charges of murder and elder abuse. To Ratanapakdee’s family and Asian Americans across the country, the attack is proof of a mounting issue: the continued rise of anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our family has endured multiple verbal Anti-Asian attacks since the beginning of the pandemic...this time it was fatal,” Ratanapakdee’s family wrote in a Gofundme campaign. “Racism has once again proven deadly.” In recent weeks, elders in particular have been the target of racialized violence. On January 31, an assailant forcefully pushed a 91-year-old Asian man to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown, followed by two more victims. (There have been more than 20 robberies and assaults in Oakland’s Chinatown in recent weeks, often targeting women and senior citizens, according to ABC7.) On February 3, a still-unidentified attacker slashed Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino man, across the face during a subway ride in Manhattan. On the same day, assailants assaulted and robbed a 64-year-old Asian woman in San Jose as she left a bank.
Actions against Asian elders aren’t isolated to the past month: In April, a teenage girl hit a 51-year-old Asian woman on a bus in The Bronx while blaming her for the COVID-19 pandemic, and in July, two men in Brooklyn slapped an 89-year-old Asian woman in the face and then set her clothes on fire, leading to rallies and the creation of the #TheyCantBurnUsAll movement.
In light of recent events, the Asian American community is continuing calls for action that began with the surge of anti-Asian violence last year. With the COVID-19 pandemic came an increase in xenophobia, anti-Chinese rhetoric, discrimination, and violence. More than 2,100 hate incidents targeting Asian Americans and related to COVID-19 were reported nationwide between March and June of 2020, according to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center. A New York Times report from March recounted Chinese Americans’ experiences being spit on, yelled at, and attacked, though that racism has extended beyond the Chinese diaspora. President Trump’s contributions (calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and “Kung Flu” ) seemingly legitimized this growing racism, according to a United Nations report from August. (In response, President Biden signed an executive order condemning anti-Asian racism shortly after his inauguration.)
The conversation continues to build as a response to the recent attacks: Through hashtags like #JusticeForVicha and #AsiansAreHuman, people across the internet are asking for increased visibility of these stories—some of which haven’t yet been reported by national publications—and for people outside the Asian community to see the racialized nature of these attacks. This weekend, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu boosted awareness of the Oakland attack by offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. (A person of interest in the Oakland attack has since been taken into custody.)
In their social media posts, Kim and Wu pointed to the history of anti-Asian violence in the US. “The skyrocketing number of hate crimes against Asian Americans continues to grow, despite our repeated pleas for help,” they wrote. “The crimes ignored and even excused. Remember Vincent Chin.” A 27-year-old Chinese American immigrant, Vincent Chin was attacked and killed in Detroit in 1982 by two auto industry workers who were upset about layoffs linked to Japanese imports.
The first case involving an Asian American victim to use the Civil Rights Act, “the Vincent Chin case forced Asian Americans into the civil rights discourse,” Roland Hwang, co-founder and former president of American Citizens for Justice, previously told NBC News. And as a Stop AAPI Hate report from October suggests, the current moment constitutes the return of “yellow peril”: Rising with Chinese immigration to the United States in the 19th century, this refers to the idea that Asians pose a threat to Western values and culture.
Yesterday, Wu, Kim, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Amanda Nguyen went on MSNBC to discuss violence against the AAPI community and what needs to be done to combat it. As Nguyen explained, an essential step for allies and the country as a whole is to break the silence surrounding the current rise in racism and to end the apathy. “Silence erases our humanity,” Nguyen said. “There is a new Asian American movement emerging and we are not going to be silent anymore. We are not your model minority. We are human and we deserve equal dignity, so stop killing us.”