By SCOTT JACKSON
Hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen 150 percent nationwide amid the coronavirus pandemic, Grace Lee, a former Norfolk County prosecutor said Tuesday evening, likening the increase in hate crimes to a pandemic in its own right.
“We are in a pandemic of hate crimes and civil rights violations against Asian Americans,” Lee said.
Lee, the former chief civil rights prosecutor for the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office, was one of several speakers at Tuesday’s anti-racism forum, a 90-minute event that was held online via Zoom. She was joined by District Attorney Michael Morrisey, Rep. Tackey Chan, Quincy Asian Resources Inc. CEO Philip Chong and several county police chiefs, including Paul Keenan of the Quincy Police Department.
The district attorney, a Quincy Democrat, said he wanted members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community to know his office and local law enforcement are there to help them if needed.
“Some of my friends on this panel have made the point that sometimes Asian Americans may be hesitant to come to government and law enforcement with their concerns and problems. That is why tonight, we have come to you,” Morrissey said. “We want you to know we are here to help.”
The forum was held one week after a white gunman shot and killed eight people at Atlanta-area spas, including six women of Asian descent.
“We began planning this forum weeks before the unimaginable events and violence in Atlanta,” Morrissey said. “That news only serves to reinforce how important it to be having face-to-face discussions like this.”
Chong said that Asian Americans are often taught not to speak out for fear of being labeled a troublemaker.
“As an Asian-American and immigrant myself, I also know in our culture we are taught silence is golden and not to be a troublemaker by speaking out and voicing our opinions or feelings,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, Chong said he would frequently get emails complaining about an “Asian invasion” and accusing Asian immigrants of bringing diseases to the United States, stealing jobs and ruining the country.
“It got worse since the start of the pandemic,” Chong said. “The horrific violence in Atlanta last week confirms many of the fears that have been growing in the Asian community. We know there is anti-Asian racism in this country. We all here have faced racial harassment, bullying, and we know this is un-American and this is not why we came to this country.”
During her remarks, Lee recounted a number of hate crimes that have been directed at the AAPI community in recent months across the country. In San Francisco, an 84-year-old immigrant from Thailand was killed after he was tackled to the ground. In New York, a 61-year-old Filipino man was slashed across the face from ear to ear with a boxcutter while riding the subway. In Seattle, a Japanese high school teacher and her white boyfriend were attacked by a man wielding a rock inside a sock, causing extensive fractures to her face and teeth.
Lee said Asian Americans first came to the United States in the 1800s, when Chinese immigrants worked alongside Irish immigrants to build the transcontinental railroad. Despite that, Lee said Asian Americans are still seen as perpetual foreigners.
“We’ve had Asians in the United States since the 1800s and yet the stereotypes are still projected that it is the perpetual foreigner,” she said. “We have immigrants from all walks of life, but Asians are continually, continually demonized and kind of ostracized as being foreigners.”
Lee said the “complete absence of any Asian-American history within our educational system” is partially to blame for Asian Americans being seen as perpetual foreigners.
“When we talk about celebration of diversity, we are happy and we gloriously celebrate and embrace Lunar New Year, but nobody even knows about the Chinese Exclusionary Act. Nobody understands U.S. versus Korematsu,” she said, referring to the Supreme Court case that upheld the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Lee added that the history classes her children are taking are much more in-depth than those she took growing up but are still lacking lessons on Asian-American history.
“Even with the rich curriculum they have now, it still is drastically anemic when it comes to Asian-American history,” she said. “In order to actually include people in the dialogue, you have to actually attach to them the value and the contributions and the context of our collective history.
“It’s not just Asian-American history – this is our history.”
Chan, a Quincy Democrat, said he knew no other people of color when he was growing up in the city, aside from his own family.
“It’s pretty tough when you are isolated and you are alone and you don’t fit in and you are desperately trying to figure out how to do that while there is an expectation from your family to behave like a good Chinese family does,” he said. “I was never part of a larger Chinese community and it resulted in actually a fair degree of ‘I have to get through this myself.’”
Chan said his family would call the police when growing up and nobody would respond.
“When I was a child, we called 9-1-1 and no one ever came. The chief is probably shocked to hear that, but that was the norm. Your house was vandalized, no one came to help you,” Chan said. “If no one is here to help you…it is hard to go back and ask for help again, because why would you.”
To this day, Chan said he still is made to feel like an outsider.
“The continuous reminder that you are not from around here is something that happens over and over again,” Chan said, such as questions about where he was born or compliments on how well he speaks English.
Lee recounted similar experiences from her own time as a prosecutor inside courthouses. In one instance, a judge asked if she was related to Bruce Lee and in another a teenager knocked papers out of her arms and then shouted racial slurs at her.
Keenan, Quincy’s police chief, said his department was there to support the city’s Asian-American residents, a point several of his colleagues in law enforcement also made.
“We welcome our Asian residents, our Asian citizens. They are tremendous community partners, they are tremendous neighbors, and we support you 100 percent,” Keenan said. “I would just like you to know on behalf of the Quincy Police Department that, as some of my colleagues have said, we are there for you.”
“I can assure you that any time you need the police officers, Quincy police will be there for you,” he added. “You can feel comfortable coming to speak with us, to meet with us, to report any crime or anything that happens. We are there to listen. We are there to work with you. We will charge any kind of crime or criminal activity to the fullest extent of the law.”
Keenan said his department takes hate crimes seriously.
“Thankfully we don’t have a lot of hate crimes in Quincy, especially with our Asian residents, but when we do, we take it very, very seriously,” he said.
The department has had to limit community outreach because of the pandemic, Keenan said, but that will change once it is over.
“We will do an awful lot more outreach to our residents and our citizens in the form of community meetings,” he stated.
The department has a number of Asian-American officers on staff in a variety of roles, including patrol, community police, detectives and a K-9 officer, Keenan said in response to a resident who asked if the department has an Asian liaison. The department also has a lieutenant assigned as a civil rights officer within the detective’s bureau.
Keenan said the department would like to increase the number of Asian Americans it has on staff but is limited by the state’s Civil Service system. The department plans to make a concerted effort to encourage more people to take the next Civil Service exam, he said.
“I think this time around we are going to do an awful lot more as far as Facebook, encouraging people – not just of Asian descent, but other people – to try to and take the exam,” Keenan said. “We are going to do a little more outreach with social media and try and recruit…a little more than we have done in the past.”