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“Nobody Wants to Be Identified as a Victim”

Oakland activist Carl Chan reveals how fear of retaliation, mistrust of police, language barriers and technology gaps fuel underreporting of anti-Asian violence.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been nearly 4,000 attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide, according to the Stop AAPI Hate coalition. In Oakland, California, residents have raised funds for private security services in Chinatown, and volunteers have patrolled the neighborhood in groups. This is not the first time this has happened in Oakland — residents put together ad hoc foot patrols following a similar spate of violence in 2012.

Carl Chan is known to many as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown. He founded the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, serves on the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and has become a spokesperson for a community caught in a surge of racist violence. He said the violence, along with elderly Asians’ people’s mistrust of the police, is nothing new.

As a kid growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s, I knew many people who were used to following orders. It was a British colony at the time, and the Chinese residents were treated as second-class citizens. When I was 14 or 15, right before I moved to the United States, I saw five British kids picking on this young Chinese kid. I always thought that if I spoke out when people were being picked on, people would also be there for me. So I stood up and said, “Hey, don’t do that to this kid!” They turned away from him and beat me up instead. Although my white school uniform was turning red from all the blood, I kept getting up.

It didn’t end with anyone helping me; the bullies just lost interest after a while. The next day, an administrator called me in and asked me to explain why I was fighting. He was supposed to expel me, but to my surprise, he said, “Next time you pick a fight, I want you to win.”

I’ve never shared that story with anyone, but it seems particularly relevant now. Usually, racial violence in our Asian communities is treated as just another story. But we are saying, “No, this is so much larger.” Oakland has received a lot of media coverage, but we know it’s happening nationwide in big cities like New York and Atlanta, and small towns like Stevens Point, Wisconsin and Edison, New Jersey.

I believe the reported incidents make up only a fraction of what we experience. I would say at least 80% of incidents go unreported. People in our community worry that even if the police catch someone, that person will be released one day and then retaliate. And culturally, we’re taught to keep our heads down and not make a big deal out of this sort of thing. Nobody wants to be identified as a victim — there’s a lot of shame in it. They don’t want the whole world to know.

To address underreported violence, I created the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council in Oakland about 15 years ago. Someone was committing a string of robberies in Chinatown and many of our seniors were being victimized. The police and the district attorney approached me ahead of one of the court dates and asked if I could help them get the victims to come forward. Around 20 people had been victimized, but none showed up to the hearing. The next day, an 80-year-old woman was robbed. Eventually, with the help of local reporters, this became a front-page story. Finally, we were able to seek justice for many of our seniors, but only after it took so many incidents.

The way our seniors felt back then is how many of them still feel today: frustrated and confused by the justice system. They don’t trust that the police can solve crimes against them. I recently got a call from a business owner who said there was a man in the shop disturbing customers. He said he had called the police but had gotten no traction. Unless it’s a murder or something extremely serious, I believe the Oakland police just don’t have enough resources to respond to everything.

Language and culture barriers also play a huge role in the low reporting rate. Police often tell people to file complaints online, but many elderly residents don’t trust that process. They want to tell their story to someone face-to-face. Even then, they may not be able to find the words to describe their attacker’s appearance or respond to an officer’s questions.

The private security companies and volunteers coming to our community are helpful, but we have to remember that these are short-term solutions. We can’t focus on volunteers alone. We need police who know the area and understand the people coming in to support us when incidents happen.

The Oakland Police Department created a new position for an officer to be a liaison to the Asian community in February. Since she can help us talk to crime victims in their own language, I expect that we’ll get more reports coming in.

We need everyone’s help to solve this problem. But there are three things I think we need to emphasize:

No. 1: No political agendas. People, especially politicians, take moments like these and call for unity, but what they really want is control. We need to focus on our communities right now, not politics.

No. 2: We don’t want people to come into our community and incite violence against anyone. We’re talking about public safety, but we can’t fight violence with violence. Some people use war to fight for peace, but that’s not what we want.

No. 3: We have to make sure we don’t develop any racist bias against anyone in these situations. To address hate against the AAPI community, we have to look at hatred toward any community. The former president singled out ethnic and racial groups to try to incite violence between them. He started with Mexicans, Black people, people from Middle Eastern countries and landed on Asians because of the coronavirus. We have to be smart enough not to fall into the trap of racial profiling.

Despite everything going on, I am hopeful. I’ve seen the rallies and the young people coming out to speak out against hate, and it’s heartwarming. ‘Hopeful’ is really the word to describe it.