San Diego's Spike In Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans Mirrors National Trend
San Diego County has not been spared from the nationwide spike in racist attacks against members of Asian and Pacific Islander communities during the pandemic, records reviewed by KPBS show.
In 2020, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office filed charges in three cases of hate crimes against Asian Americans and has documented several other racist incidents. Also in 2020, the California-based advocacy organization Stop AAPI Hate collected 42 reports of racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in San Diego County.
The three alleged hate crimes in 2020 is “three more than we’ve had in the last couple years,” said District Attorney Summer Stephan. “That’s what’s disturbing, is we weren’t seeing that type of hate crime directed toward our Asian community until COVID in 2020.”
In May 2020, Stephan’s office set up a hotline where people could call or make online reports of hate crimes and racist incidents. She said they received 110 reports to the hotline, and 10 were reports about incidents directed toward people of Asian descent.
However, Stephan did not file hate crime charges in one high-profile incident in February in which a man allegedly punched an elderly Filipino woman on the trolley. Instead, her office charged the man with elder abuse, which drew the ire of community advocates.
Stephan defended the decision, saying there wasn’t enough evidence for a hate crime charge.
“What happened is atrocious, but for it to be a hate crime, you have to show motivated bias against a protected group, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability,” she said. “We pursued looking for hate crime intent, and it doesn't mean it was not there, but we have to look for provable evidence.”
Stephan said most of the 2020 reports don’t meet the strict legal definition of hate crimes, but they help her office prosecute other crimes.
“There’s at least one incident where someone reported something that’s less than a crime, but as we were able to do open source intelligence investigations, cyber investigations, we were able to see that this person was preparing for violence, they were amassing weapons and we were able to work with law enforcement to interrupt that cycle of violence,” she said.
The 42 San Diego County incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate mirror a national trend toward more hate crimes and racist incidents against Asian Americans. The group’s records show 2,808 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate from 47 states and the District of Columbia between the middle of March 2020, when the pandemic set in, and the end of December.
“The trends are horrific,” said Russel Jeung, a professor in San Francisco State University’s Asian-American Studies Department who co-founded the Stop AAPI Hate group. “The attacks were pretty traumatizing, because it’s unexpected that adults would bully others, that they would use such racial slurs and epithets.”
He said attacks seem to only be escalating.
“Where they actually push and shove the elderly and actually kill them,” he said. “It’s scary for me to see how hateful America has become or maybe has always been.”
However, Jeung said, the group did not collect the reports because they want increased criminal prosecutions. Instead, they are collecting evidence in the hopes that it will lead to changing civil rights policies to better protect Asian Americans and restorative justice programs.
“Restorative justice doesn’t criminalize the perpetrator, but tries to educate him or her and tries to restore the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim,” he said.
Among the group’s efforts have been what they call “Chinatown strolls” in San Francisco and Oakland, where people go visit businesses, which are meant to create a sense of community safety.
“We don’t need more patrols or more policing or more surveillance, we need more people to create a welcoming and safe environment,” Jeung said.
San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate did something similar in the Convoy area during the start of the pandemic.
“We wanted to showcase the AAPI community, and to show support that it was OK, you can continue to visit your favorite restaurants and businesses,” Cate said.
Cate’s office has also received reports of racist incidents. They include “instances where someone was at a restaurant or gas station and was told go back to your country, go home, you don’t belong here,” he said.
Stephan said hate crimes must be pursued vigorously because they tear the fabric of communities in all corners of the county.
“It doesn’t just affect that person, but when there are reports of a hate incident, it affects the whole community,” she said. “My husband and kids are Asian American, and every time we hear about an incident, it’s as if it happened to our own family.”