'We just want to be safe': Hate crimes, harassment of Asian Americans rise amid coronavirus pandemic

In California’s Alameda County, a Chinese American man was screamed at while mowing his lawn. The local prosecutor said the man was told to get out of America.

In neighboring Santa Clara County, a Vietnamese couple was threatened while in a grocery store. Officials said the man turned his hand into the shape of a gun.

In New York City, people of Asian descent were assaulted, kicked, pushed and accosted on subway trains.

The theme: This virus is your fault.

People of Asian descent have reported being shunned, verbally abused, name-called, coughed and spat on, even physically assaulted as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend American life. As the political rhetoric blaming China for the pandemic escalates, law enforcement officials and human rights advocates have seen an increasing number of hate crimes and incidents of harassment and discrimination against Asian Americans.

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New York City, for example, has seen 16 coronavirus-related hate crime incidents; many of which involved Asian victims. The city’s human rights commission has received hundreds of harassment and discrimination complaints since February, the majority of which involved anti-Asian sentiments.

Police and prosecutors are on high alert, releasing public service announcements, holding town hall meetings and opening hotlines to ask people to report hate crimes and hate speech that, while not criminal, could escalate to violence.

“We have a large Asian population, and we have a lot of elderly Asian population who are getting scared to death about being preyed upon by somebody who’s willing to resort to that behavior,” said Nancy O’Malley, the district attorney of Alameda County, where Asians are 32% of the population. “You have one ethnic group that’s targeted … and ignorant people who think they can just scream at somebody because of their ethnicity. ... We cannot tolerate that.”

O’Malley said there have been no hate crimes in her county, but there have been several incidents of verbal assaults and harassment that don’t rise to the level of a crime. Still, O’Malley’s office has encouraged people to report such incidents.

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“Speech is not a crime,” she said, “(but) we want to make sure we’re intervening before it becomes a crime, to educate somebody about cultures and diversity.”

In Seattle, schoolteacher Kert Lin was driving into a Home Depot parking lot when another driver screamed at him: "Open your eyes! Go back to China!"

Lin said the incident, which happened not far from Seattle's international district, rattled him. He told the Seattle Police Department what happened, but he said because no crime was committed, there's nothing police can do.

"This is also our city," he said. "We just want to be safe."

In Stevens Point, Wisconsin, about 2½ hours from Milwaukee, police arrested a man who they said harassed Asian customers for wearing a mask inside a grocery store. In Santa Clara County, the man who threatened the Vietnamese couple by turning his hand into the shape of a gun has been charged with a misdemeanor hate crime.

“I wish we didn’t have the one case, but the fact that we only had one case is a testament to the people that live here,” Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen said, although he added that hate crimes are historically underreported. Asians are about 38% of the county’s population.

Eddie Song, a Korean American entrepreneur, prepares to ride his motorcycle wearing a jacket over extra body padding while equipped with video cameras Sunday April 19, 2020, in East Village neighborhood of New York. The coronavirus first seen in China is now ravaging the U.S., and Asian Americans are continuing to wrestle with a second epidemic: hate.

Rosen’s office recently published a public service announcement calling on people to not assign places and nationalities to the pandemic. The World Health Organization has urged scientists, government officials and the media to avoid using geographic locations as names for public health crises.

“This isn’t the fault of Chinese Americans that are here. … Asian Americans are very well integrated into our society,” Rosen said. “If you’re turning on the TV news to hear about the latest research from Stanford about COVID-19, you might be looking at an Asian American epidemiologist.”

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The FBI usually collects hate crime data, but the agency does not have nationwide statistics on violence tied to COVID-19. In a statement, the bureau said:

"The FBI will use all authority granted to us by federal law to investigate and hold those who commit violent acts accountable for their actions. The FBI remains committed to our mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution

In New York City, Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison said last month that the police department has arrested 11 people for hate crimes against Asians.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights said it has received more than 300 harassment and discrimination complaints related to COVID-19 this year; 117 of which – nearly 40% – involved anti-Asian sentiments.

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“The numbers alone are quite astonishing,” said Carmelyn Malalis, head of the commission. Around the same time period last year, the commission received only five reports of anti-Asian harassment and discrimination, Malalis said.

Malalis is no stranger to racist taunts. The daughter of Filipino immigrants remembers being told she doesn’t belong in America. As a child, she said other children mocked her Asian ancestry by slanting their eyes at her. Malalis said she has not personally experienced similar verbal taunts because of COVID-19, but she has heard from friends who have.

“What people have to remember is that … just because I’m a Filipino, just because someone’s Chinese, Vietnamese, what have you, does not mean they’re not going through the same kinds of challenges,” Malalis said. “Having to telework while taking care of children, having to take care of their loved ones, worrying about people in the community, experiencing loss. … Everyone is going through these exact challenges. Asian Americans should not have to go through, on top of that, be discriminated against.”

Still, the political rhetoric that advocates say fuels hate against Asians living in America has continued.

In early May, a super PAC that supports President Donald Trump released an anti-China ad that attacks presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for being lenient on the country.

“China is killing our jobs,” a male voice says, “and now killing our people.”

People carry signs in support of Wuhan, China, at the center of the coronavirus outbreak, during the Lunar New Year parade, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Manhattan's Chinatown, in New York.
People carry signs in support of Wuhan, China, at the center of the coronavirus outbreak, during the Lunar New Year parade, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Manhattan's Chinatown, in New York.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Hate crimes against Asian Americans continue to rise