A virtual summit hosted by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin featuring several speakers sought to flesh out the causes of Anti-Asian violence and talked about the difficulties in prosecuting hate crimes.
(CN) — San Francisco, like many other major cities in America, has been beset by a wave of anti-Asian hate crime, ranging from street assaults to outright murder.
Anni Chung, president of a nonprofit called Self Help for the Elderly, described the fear that many elderly Asian men and women living in the Bay Area retain due to the wave of violence directed at them.
“It seems like the elderly are being targeted in these hateful and cruel attacks,” Chung said.
She described a recent incident over Mother’s Day weekend when a 55-year-old Asian woman who was riding a bus in San Francisco was suddenly punched in the face by a man exiting the bus.
“Most of our seniors are feeling the fear right now,” Chung said. “Many of them are staying home.”
Chung provided those comments during the Anit-AAPI Violence and Hate Crimes Virtual Summit hosted by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The summit was long on discussions about possible causation of the violence against Asian Americans in San Francisco, including blame directed towards white supremacist groups and former President Donald Trump, but did not proffer much in the way of actionable items to confront the problem.
Ash Karla, a California assembly member, did bring up his bill — Assembly Bill 655, also known as the California Law Enforcement Accountability Reform, or CLEAR Act — that seeks to require police departments to consider former ties to extremist groups before making hires to their department.
“It’s about rooting out white supremacy from police departments,” Karla said.
But his bill, and others like it, have received pushback from First Amendment advocates who say police officers, like all Americans, have First Amendment rights, and that you can’t prevent people from gainful employment on the basis of their personal beliefs.
Karla said he is amending his bill to make sure it only relates to groups with known violent propensities. In Fresno, for instance, a police officer was recently fired when it was revealed he was a member of the Proud Boys organization.
The concern is driven, in part, by a notable presence of police officers at the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, which many consider an example of right-wing violent extremism run amok in America.
Karla also blamed former President Donald Trump.
“The former president’s rhetoric is that Asians are the other,” Karla said.
Trump came under fierce criticism for his attempts to deflect from his own widely-criticized handling of the coronavirus onto to China by calling it the China virus, among other epithets.
However, Trump supporters say the former president never called for violence against Asian-Americans and continue to note the virus did originate in China and there are persistent questions about whether the Chinese government is covering up the origin of the disease.
But critics note that Trump seemed to engage in inappropriate levels of racially divisive rhetoric that may have contributed to the wave of violence against Asian Americans.
Concerns about violence against Asian Americans crescendoed with the Asian spa shootings in March, where a lone gunman killed 8 people, including six Asian-American women. While police were quick to say the crime was more about sexual morality than racism, some who participated in Friday’s panel were not so sure.
“It got picked up as an Asian issue,” said Orchid Pusey, who runs the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco. “It is an Asian issue, but also a women’s issue. It’s mainly an Asian women’s issue.”
Michael German noted that prosecutors in the case are not charging the main suspect with a hate crime, likely because hate crimes require prosecutors to prove intent.
“I think it’s reasonable for a prosecutor to say ‘Let’s prosecute the crime without the additional burden of proving the motive,’” he said.
Boudin said sometimes prosecuting certain crimes as hate crimes, even if the sentencing enhancements are largely irrelevant, carries symbolic importance for community members.
“There’s an expressive value there,” he said. “The community wants to be heard.”
Many of the members cautioned the panel not to overreact to the wave of violence against Asians by pouring more resources into the police department or other punitive aspects of the criminal justice system.
“When law enforcement is your only tool, problems never get solved,” Karla said.
Anand Subramanian, director of Policy Link, said police officers have implicit racial bias and cannot be trusted to carry out investigations into hate crimes.
“Trusting police officers to investigate whether there is racial bias involved in certain crimes is deeply troubling,” he said.
Boudin said his office would look at prosecuting more hate crimes when they appeared to be racially motivated but also said his prosecutors would hew to the facts of a given case and were dependent on the investigative prowess of the police.
“There are ways we can improve how we investigate hate crimes in San Francisco,” Boudin said, without delving into specifics.
Boudin, who became DA on a platform of reforming the office amid a national reckoning over whether the criminal justice system is significantly biased against people of color, has come into criticism over his handling of the prosecution of crimes against Asians in the community.
Boudin described Antone Watson, a black man accused of killing Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American man, in San Francisco in an unprovoked assault caught on video, as experiencing “some sort of temper tantrum,” in the moments leading up to the attack.
The family of the slain man accused Boudin of downplaying the motivation for the attack and using phrases typically associated with misbehaving children rather than some standing accused of murder.
On Friday, Boudin did not address the criticism directly but pledged that his office would collaborate with the police and community leaders to address the problem of violence against Asians in the city.
“Interpersonal and systemic racism continue to plague our cities,” Boudin said. “We will continue to work to combat hate, to prevent crime, to protect and to heal.”