We cannot conflate police and incarceration with justice or public safety
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Every day, I see the small bouquets of flowers in front of the apartment. Daisies, pink roses, sunflowers wrapped in beautiful blue fabric. Still there, a week and a half after Vicha Ratanapakdee passed away.
During an early morning stroll in a quiet neighborhood in San Francisco, the 84-year-old grandfather from Thailand was violently pushed to the ground. His head hit the concrete. Despite paramedics administering first aid to him on the sidewalk, he died two days later in the hospital.
Three days later in Oakland’s Chinatown, a 91-year-old senior was shoved to the ground. That same day, two other Asian Americans, a 60-year-old man and a 55-year-old woman, were similarly attacked by the same man.
“Have you watched the videos?” my mother asks. All of her friends have been sharing them in a frenzy. But it is hard to bear witness to these terrible acts of violence against our elders. I cannot bring myself to watch Ratanapakdee’s death. He reminds me too much of my own grandfather.
My heart hurts for our elders, for the family that has now lost their grandfather and father. Our community is grieving, outraged, scared. We ask: When will this happen again? And who will be next?
I wish this heartbreak could be just heartbreak, but I am scared about how those in power will capitalize on our pain.
Every time Asian Americans are attacked, robbed, or assaulted, I wonder how we will be used once again as pawns to advance a pro-police agenda, despite the fact that police have not kept our communities safe and have killed so many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous community members.
Already, politicians like Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf are bottling up our grief and rage and selling it back as a shiny promise to keep us safe with more police, more prisons, less crime. Some of those promises have already come to fruition: The week following the attacks, the City of Oakland created a special police unit to focus on crimes against Asians. There has been an increase in private security guards and a push to bolster networks of digital surveillance.
I am hearing many of us call for more police and more prisons to keep us safe. Asian American celebrities like Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu called for justice, offering a $25,000 reward to identify the man behind the Oakland Chinatown attack. Steeped in tough-on-crime rhetoric, we ask, “How can we catch these racists and punish them until we feel right again, until the hurt goes away, until we are no longer angry?”
But we cannot conflate police and incarceration with justice or public safety. They do not keep us or our elders safe, even as much as we wish they could. The justice, healing, and safety our communities deserve will never be realized by adding more police officers or putting more people in prison. It was police officers who brutally shoved 75-year-old Martin Gugino last year, leaving him bleeding on the ground with a fractured skull, nearly identical to the attacks we are seeing against our elders today.
In the past five years, Bay Area police have killed 110 residents, with Black people representing 27% of those murdered and Asian Americans 10%. Police do not prevent crime; they are the manufacturers of violent crime, of which Black residents are most often victims. As Vietnamese author and artist Thi Bui says, “Asian Americans cannot look for safety from the same agencies that terrorize Black Americans. We have to resist the us vs. them mentality.”
The attacks that have taken place over the last several weeks have been labeled as the product of anti-Asian racism; I was quick to think this, too. But I later learned that the young man behind the Chinatown attacks was unhoused and placed on a psychiatric hold. His history of assault demonstrated no correlation with race, but did include a judge noting he had “serious mental health issues” six years ago. I wonder what could have happened if he had received the support and housing he needed when he needed it, if this could have all been prevented.
Is there evidence that what Chinatown has experienced in recent weeks is racially motivated? Are we really seeing a unique uptick in crime there, unlike years past, and divorced from what’s happening elsewhere and to other communities in Oakland? Why have recent crimes in Chinatown attracted searing attention locally and even internationally, while gun violence has spiked dramatically in parts of East Oakland for months with less sustained concern and civic response? What do Chinatown residents want to see happen in terms of solutions, and whose voices aren’t being heard?
More so than race, Chinatown organizers and workers like Sakhone Lasaphangthong view the attacks as “crimes of opportunity” that target a neighborhood and demographic that is vulnerable to robberies.
While this does not justify behavior or minimize the violence or harm, it does beg the question: What do we view as anti-Asian racism and who do we think of as those who commit them? How does this further pit Asian and Black communities against each other and who benefits from fueling this narrative?
I hope, too, that we can see beyond the young men who assaulted our elders. Yes, they are individuals who caused great harm. But if we are going to talk about violence, let’s also talk about the violence of systemic racism we face every day as Asian Americans. Let’s speak up about the violence of family separation when loved ones are deported by ICE back to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. Let’s talk about how our communities suffer when 118,100 Asian Americans are locked up in federal prisons. We must broaden our understanding of all the violence that threatens our survival in order to eradicate it.
So what does this world without violence look like?
In the face of tragedy, many are working tirelessly to answer this question, from Asian Americans to Black and Brown folks who are speaking up against anti-Asian violence and demonstrating the cross-cultural, interracial solidarity we need to build true community safety. Many others have been doing community safety work for years. The Oakland Chinatown Coalition is organizing a volunteer foot patrol, whose aim is not just patrolling, but also “building relationships with community members and visitors, and cleaning up trash.” More than $150,000 has been raised for organizations already engaged in the everyday work of building community safety.
Burgeoning discussions with hundreds of people are taking place about what community safety can look like for all of us — without the police. I am inspired by organizers who are resisting fear-mongering and anti-Black narratives incited by politicians and instead shouting at the top of their lungs, We will not let you use us. We will call for accountability without turning to institutions that destroy Black and Brown communities.
In response to violence, these are acts of love. They are unabashed, bold proclamations of resistance, a commitment to ourselves and to each other that we will fight for collective joy and liberation. It is this love we have for each other that will keep us safe.
Share the demands of 40+ Bay Area Asian orgs calling on San Francisco & Oakland to:
- Ensure victims and survivors of all backgrounds and language abilities receive full supportive services so they can recover and heal.
- Expand intervention- and prevention-based programs and invest in basic needs and community-based infrastructure that we know will end the cycle of violence and keep all of us safer.
- Resource cross-community education and healing in Asian American and Black communities that humanizes all of us rather than demonizes or scapegoats any community of color.
We keep us safe
- Volunteer with the Oakland Chinatown Coalition’s safety team.
- Report hate crimes at Stop AAPI Hate and learn more about the history of anti-Asian racism.
- Learn about anti-Blackness in our communities, what racial justice looks like, and the histories of Asian/Black solidarity (1, 2)*.
- Anti-Blackness starts and ends at home: Have this conversation with your fam*.
- Donate and organize with AAPI community organizations doing community safety work like the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and the Chinese Progressive Association.
*These resources are drawn from Leena Yin’s insightful writing on #Asians4BlackLives in 2020.