Wearing their masks, Donalene Ferrer and two other generations of family members were walking along an Oceanside neighborhood in April when a car pulled up and a woman yelled: "You started the corona!"
The accuser, with a baby and a toddler in tow, turned out to be her mother's neighbor, Ferrer said. Still in shock, the victim said she stepped near the woman to ask, "Why are you targeting us? I'm a nurse and my father fought for this country. You shouldn't be teaching your children racism."
Ferrer, 41, a Filipina, remembered the unmasked woman taunting them back: "Come over here. Say it to my face." But worried that the person might be carrying a hidden weapon, Ferrer said she left.
Hate incidents directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are exploding this year, according to advocates pushing for California Gov. Gavin Newsom to boost funding for programs fighting bias and add a cultural representative to his new COVID-19 task force.
Supporters and organizers of Stop AAPI Hate have documented 832 incidents across the Golden State in the last three months, with assaults and verbal tirades "becoming the norm" since the pandemic started, instigated by people following the inflammatory rhetoric of the nation's highest-profile leader, they say.
The escalating number of incidents has triggered outrage among the public and elected officials.
"We seem to have a president that has given the green light to the racists to come out of the woodwork and start attacking Asians," said state Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Rolling Hills Estates), who represents Torrance, the scene of some the most widely viewed hate episodes recorded on video.
These include a stranger, later identified by police as Lena Hernandez of Long Beach, accosting an Asian woman who was exercising at Wilson Park, telling her to “go back to whatever ... Asian country you belong in.” On June 10, the same day at the same location, Hernandez also allegedly berated an Asian man who had parked close to her Honda, calling him "Chinaman" and adding: "You know what, you need to go home."
Officials in Torrance — whose population of over 145,000 is more than one-third Asian — arrested Hernandez on Friday, charging her with battery from a separate confrontation with a female bystander at Del Amo Fashion Center last October. Authorities have been flooded with hundreds of calls about the harassment in June, along with another in which a racist letter posted on the front door of a cookware shop warned the owner: "Go back to Japan.... We are going to bomb your store if you don't listen and we know where you live."
Muratsuchi joined state Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, and founders of Stop AAPI Hate, the most prominent aggregator of incidents, at a news conference last week to denounce structural racism.
Advocates had asked Newsom for $1.4 million to fund research on how the coronavirus is affecting AAPI health in connection to racism and to establish a racial bias strike team to investigate the mounting problem of COVID-19-related hate incidents against Asian Americans. But the state budget, voted on last month, excluded money for initiatives supported by the Asian America community.
“Asian Americans need to see concrete actions and we’re here to work with the state to ensure that we can live free from racial discrimination and enjoy equal rights and access,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and a founder of Stop AAPI Hate.
Early in the global health crisis, when residents were learning about the coronavirus, business activity in the San Francisco Chinatown area that Chiu represents started dropping by half, he said. He also highlighted the case of an older man beaten while collecting cans in the city's Bayview district. An attacker swung a metal bar at the victim while others, shouting racial slurs, continued to mock him.
"It's incredibly disturbing. There's not just a pandemic of health — there's a pandemic of hate," Chiu said. He points a finger at President Trump's casual use of terms such as "kung flu" and "China virus" at rallies and press briefings, behavior mirrored by citizens imitating him in everyday speech and inciting hate.
Participants at the news conference cited a new report of multiple examples across 34 counties, including an Asian American family in Los Angeles who said they were harassed inside the elevator at their apartment building. A couple not wearing face coverings told them "this f— virus came from your mother— country" and "you nasty as roaches."
Another Asian American in Los Angeles reported that "our Zoom feed was hacked by white supremacists who verbally attacked our members and viewers with racial slurs and anti-immigrant remarks. They also hacked into our Zoom chat, typing the Nazi salute and pro-Trump messages.”
Counted in the 800-plus incidents taking place at retail stores, work, school and online are 81 incidents of assault and 64 potential civil rights violations, according to Stop AAPI Hate.
In Rosemead, an Asian American reported that "three Hispanic and two white individuals entered the store and cut in front of me. I spoke up and said, 'Hey, I've been in line and I'm next.'" The strangers allegedly turned and yelled out names, spitting at the individual and telling him to keep waiting. A cashier said they should stop and asked whether the shopper wanted to alert police. "I declined and left the store immediately, not wanting any more confrontation."
In San Francisco, an Asian American reported that someone threw a glass bottle at her friend while she was putting her baby in the car and yelled a racist epithet. In Santa Clara, an Asian American reported that a man kicked his dog and ordered him to shut the canine up. Then the man spat on him, adding: "Take your disease that's ruining our country. Go home."
The scapegoating of China and people of Chinese descent happens again and again, said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a group that co-founded Stop AAPI Hate. “Racist demagoguery matched with anti-immigrant policies have always been used to deny Asian Americans full social and political rights,” she added.
Said Russell Jeung, chair and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University: “Without government accountability, we risk COVID-related racism against Asian Americans becoming deeply entrenched, ultimately impacting the lives of millions of people in California and around the country."
Ferrer, a birth unit nurse who lives in Riverside County and whose mother is from Oceanside, said her parents find it difficult to be near their confrontational neighbors. She reported the family's attack to Stop AAPI Hate when a friend introduced her to the group, after reading her racism posts on Instagram and Facebook. "We were lucky to have someone listen to us, but what about all the others who stay silent?" she asked.
Her daughter, Charlie Ferrer, 17, said that before family members stepped outside that day, she and her mother had just watched a news segment on Asian teenagers being blamed for the coronavirus and attacked in Australia.
"I felt anger boiling inside of me," she recalled. "It was so surreal. Now I'm telling my friends to be careful because this could easily happen again in the future."