It was the sound of a car door slamming that caught Stella Hwang’s attention as she waited in the ride-share pickup area of Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday.
“You Asian piece of s—,” she heard the man yell at his Uber driver, she said. “You probably don’t have papers to even be here.”
The driver, she said, appeared to be in a state of shock. Hwang sprang into action.
“Obviously there was a language barrier with the Uber driver, so I came to his defense,” she said. “Because that's what I’m supposed to do as a human being.”
Hwang caught the tail end of the encounter on video, which she posted on Twitter. “I hope this is not your f— example because the world doesn’t operate like this!” she can be heard yelling at the passenger, who is wearing a cap advertising a baseball scouting service and carrying a large sports trophy.
“Let me guess,” he responds. “You’re not married.”
The man then approaches her and jabs his finger in her face, telling her the dispute is none of her business. She addresses two children accompanying him who appear to be his sons, saying, “Boys, I hope you don’t turn out like him.”
“Hey, go get a husband,” the man retorts before walking away.
“What does me having a husband have to do with anything?” Hwang said Saturday. “Does he think a woman needs to be accompanied by a man to speak up for what’s right?”
The incident was apparently touched off when the man, whom other media outlets have identified but whose name Uber has not publicly confirmed, attempted to sit in the front seat of the Uber vehicle and became irate when the driver told him to get in the back. Uber confirmed that sitting in the front seat violates policies put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus and said it has reached out to the driver to offer support.
The man and one of his sons, whose account he's believed to have used to book the ride, have been banned from the Uber app.
“We are shocked and saddened by the recent increase in anti-Asian hate, particularly when it affects a driver or rider,” Uber said in a statement.
An airport police officer responded to the dispute, Hwang said, but spoke with the man first. She didn’t hear their conversation, but she did hear the officer tell the Uber driver to leave, she said.
“When he approached me, he didn’t bother asking for my name or if I wanted to file a report,” she said. The officer told her not to engage with the man and then departed, she said.
The Los Angeles Airport Police Department confirmed an officer was flagged down about 6:30 p.m. for “two individuals speaking in raised tones” but said neither person wanted to pursue a citizen's arrest.
“In accordance with the law involving misdemeanor incidents not in the presence of an officer, no further action was required by APD,” the department said in a statement. “Both parties continued with their plans separately.”
Most disappointing, Hwang said, was that there were plenty of other people around but she was the only one who came to the driver’s aid.
“As a society, my expectation is for people to be better than that,” she said.
She also noted that the man's social media pages listed him as co-founder of an organization that teaches baseball to children. Neither the individual nor the organization, a sports academy in San Diego, returned messages seeking comment Saturday.
“If he feels comfortable displaying this type of behavior in front of his two sons, I can’t imagine for him to be around the number of kids that play baseball and are in the program,” Hwang said. “Hate is taught. And if somebody with that type of power is in that type of space, we’re not moving anywhere.”
The attack comes amid a sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and other members of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities in Los Angeles, which mirrors a national trend.
Police on Tuesday arrested one of several women who they said assaulted a San Francisco Uber driver, tearing off his mask, coughing on him and dousing him with pepper spray. The driver, a Nepali immigrant, has said he believes he was targeted because of his race.
A woman accused of spitting on an Asian American man and yelling an ethnic slur as he dined outdoors in Silicon Valley was charged earlier this week with a misdemeanor hate crime and battery.
In Southern California, a 51-year-old elementary school teacher’s aide was beaten with his own cane at a Rosemead bus stop last month, causing him to lose part of a finger. And in Orange County, neighbors in a Ladera Ranch subdivision have been taking turns watching over the home of an Asian family after repeated harassment.
The continued attacks prompted more than 100 people to gather at Irvine City Hall on Saturday for a noontime rally. The event, organized by an ad hoc committee called Stand for Asians Solidarity and featuring speeches by politicians and advocates, was intended to both raise awareness and inspire action, said organizer Jerry Raburn.
"I immigrated to this country at 9 years old for the American dream, only to lose that dream because of the structural racism we faced when I was growing up," Raburn said. "I want to end the racism and stop the scapegoating of our community."
He said that in order to address systemic racism, it's crucial to dismantle the harmful "model minority" myth, which he described as "the stereotypes that Asians are successful, that they don’t face racism, that they’re good Americans."
"Our community is not a monolith," he said. "We have needs."
Experts say the recent hate has been fueled in part by misguided notions of blame for the COVID-19 pandemic and at times encouraged by national figures such as former President Trump, who insisted on using terms including "China virus."
Before she started filming her encounter with the man at the airport, Hwang said, he made his political views clear. “He said, ‘You probably voted for Biden,’ which I felt as though had nothing to do with anything,” she said.
“So my response was, you obviously voted for Trump. His response was, ‘You’re damn right.’”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.