The story made for click-y headlines: Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu swoop in to save the day with a handsome bounty. Last week, the two actors announced that they’d offer $25,000 for tips leading to the arrest of a suspect in the assault of a 91-year-old man in Oakland's Chinatown, amid a spate of attacks on Asian American seniors.
As an Asian American who sees her 71-year-old father in these elders, I’m hurting, and I want justice, too — but not from a white supremacist policing system that disproportionately targets and kills Black Americans. We should absolutely hold people accountable, but we shouldn’t do so at the cost of Black lives, or the benefit of white supremacy, which is invested in turning Black and Asian Americans against each other. Like the organizers already leading community-based safety efforts in Oakland's Chinatown, we can imagine a solution that keeps all of us safe.
For those unfamiliar with the spike in violence, Oakland's Chinatown has seen more than 20 attacks, often on seniors and women, in recent weeks. An assailant slashed Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipinx man, in New York City on February 3, while others assaulted and robbed a 64-year-old Asian woman in San Jose. Days earlier, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, died after a teenager tackled him in San Francisco. There have been assaults earlier this year, too, part of a rise in COVID-19-related anti-Asian racism, fueled by Trump’s hateful rhetoric. That multiple attackers have been Black illuminates a complicated relationship between the Black and Asian American communities.
“I think it’s a really amazing gesture… that these celebrities are using their platform to raise awareness of the situation,” Alvina Wong, Campaigns and Organizing Director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), says of Kim and Wu’s $25,000 reward, “and I think it’s slightly misguided to put in so many resources and funds into this bounty and trying to catch the perpetrators.” She wants to see that investment in the community resources that have direct relationships with those harmed by the violence.
Wong acknowledges that many Asian Americans are rightfully angry and grieving right now, bemoaning what they see as inaction with regards to these assaults. But she points out that APEN, as well as other Oakland-based organizations, like Asian Health Services and East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, have been hard at work for years trying to solve unemployment, lack of mental health resources, and other problems that create the conditions for violent crime. “We are here serving our communities every day — and we need more resources.”
Since the problems that engender crime stem from white supremacy, the solution isn’t to implement a white supremacist policing system — it’s to destroy the white supremacy that endangers all BIPOC. These problems also include the gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area that continues to further marginalize and displace BIPOC, as well as the model minority myth, or the belief that all Asian Americans are successful because we work hard and stay in line, wielded to deny the systemic oppression of other communities of color and pit us against each other, explains Kalaya’an Mendoza, a Filipinx American activist and co-founder of Across Frontlines.
“If we want to fight for justice, if we want to fight for true safety, then we need to start by addressing the problem at its root cause, which is white supremacy and capitalism,” he says. We need to redirect our blame from other marginalized people to the billionaires and corporations complicit in our oppression. “Do we get angry with a person from a displaced or marginalized community for inhabiting the violence that has been inflicted upon them, or do we get angry with those who have upheld the system of violence and oppression?”
Safe communities have access to the resources that allow them to thrive, including healthcare, housing, and food security, he says. The scarcity of these resources is a legacy of racist housing policies, Wong points out, which restricted investment in communities of color, including Asian American communities.
“That’s exactly why Chinatown was started," she says. In the U.S., Chinese and other Asian immigrants became concentrated in the only areas they could legally live. To this day, not enough services exist to help Asian immigrants and refugees in Oakland's Chinatown integrate into their communities and learn enough English to broaden their employment opportunities, Wong explains. Many experience environmental racism, too, their neighborhoods beside freeways and other polluting sources.
In response to the attacks on Asian American seniors, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced the establishment of a special unit for crimes against Asian Americans. Again, this only bolsters the white supremacy that undergirds the crime in our communities. And besides, policing hurts us, too. On December 30, Pennsylvania State Police fatally shot 19-year-old Christian Hall, who was Chinese American, while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. Southeast Asian Americans have also reported being racially profiled by police.
“I think what we know is that our Asian immigrant and refugee community is also targeted and distrusting of the police,” Wong says. She owes their cries for help partly to doubts in the police’s ability to respond to crimes, or interact with them appropriately due to language and cultural barriers. Many “don’t like calling the police, don’t like reporting, don’t feel like it’s useful.” They don’t care if the perpetrator gets booked — they just want their money and belongings back.
But for others, the repeated trauma of being targeted, and seeing the same happen to family members “turns into so much hate and so much anger, that people feel like the only answer is vengeance,” Wong says. And while those emotions are valid, that energy could go toward breaking this cycle and healing instead. If survivors and others harmed had the resources to stay home and not worry about financial obligations, they could re-emerge without feeling controlled by their trauma, as “a dignified human being that can walk out into the word without fear.”
So what could safety for Asian Americans that doesn’t come at the expense of Black Americans look like? APEN, along with other organizations in the Oakland Chinatown Coalition, formed the Chinatown Ambassador Program, which started as a way to allow those in the Asian Prisoner Support Committee’s reentry program to build their skills by welcoming visitors, developing strong relationships with business owners, as well as picking up trash, cleaning up graffiti, and other activities that make the community appear vibrant. “When the overall environment looks clean and feels calm, then people will feel safe walking around," Wong says.
They also engage in de-escalation. Wong tells Mic about one ambassador who stopped a theft, then asked if the person responsible needed food, and is now helping him access housing and employment resources. Whereas policing would have been merely punitive, community-based safety can be not only preventative, but transformative. Those interested in volunteering with the Chinatown Ambassador Program can sign up here. New York City’s Chinatown has a similar program, as does San Francisco's Chinatown, where Instagram user Amy Lee is also starting a grocery shopping buddy system.
In Oakland’s Chinatown, it's all about making residents feel like they can walk around at any time of day and know that familiar faces will welcome and look out for them, Wong says. But something like this can come only from our communities, because, as Mendoza notes, we know best how to keep ourselves safe. We’ve seen time and again that ramping up policing doesn’t mean safer streets. Instead, “what needs to happen is that communities are given the tools and resources that they need to be able to identify what safety can look like.”
Some Asian Americans have taken to social media decrying what they see as a lack of widespread attention to attacks on our elders, with some even comparing it to the focus Black Lives Matter has received. While increased visibility can certainly bring accountability — which, again, shouldn’t come in the form of policing — we don’t need it for validation of our struggles. And if we find ourselves engaging in this Oppression Olympics, then we need to interrogate the anti-Blackness that ultimately underlies it. “Anti-Blackness is seeing that there’s not enough room for all of our issues," Mendoza says. "Anti-Blackness is creating a hierarchy of oppression." But Black and Indigenous feminist thought tells us there’s room for all of our voices.
“We can’t rely on the white settler colonial state to validate us because it never will," he continues. And as Wong notes, yes, our stories need to be heard more, but we can say the same about many other communities, too.
“The only way for us to get through this is together,” Mendoza says. He invites those radicalized by these attacks to read up on the nuanced history of what Asian American solidarity with other communities has looked like, “especially how much we have benefited from the leadership of the Black community.” While Black and Asian Americans have accused each other of not showing up for their respective communities in social media posts about violence against Asian Americans, the truth is that we have a long history of working together, which continues today — Wong notes that APEN regularly shows up in Black Lives Matter spaces to work with the Anti Police-Terror Project and other organizations, which, in turn, have shown up to fight anti-Asian racism. These solidarity movements rarely make headlines, though, Mendoza points out, because the state doesn’t want us to know about our shared histories or our potential to build power together.
"We can’t rely on the state," he says. "We can only rely on each other.” We know what we need. We don’t need police, and we don’t need a cash reward. We don’t need to protect our community by oppressing another. Only when we dismantle white supremacy — the scourge of this Earth and the source of oppression common to all BIPOC — will we truly be safe.