Photo Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock
At the time, it was a shocking, unusual event at a middle school in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles.
A group of students bullied a classmate, taunting the child by telling him he had COVID-19 because he was Asian American before violently attacking
the boy. The victim, who had tried to resist the attack and told them he had nothing to do with the virus, ended up in a hospital emergency room.
It took place in February 2020, just weeks before cities across the country would shut down as the pandemic took grip of the nation.
Anti-Asian racism was nothing new in American history, yet the #StopAAPIHate movement barely existed back then. Asian American advocacy groups hoped violence such as the school attack would be a rarity. Instead, stories of racist hatred against Americans have become part of the regular drumbeat of news. According to data from police departments of several major cities across the country, the last year was one of the worst
for anti-Asian hate crimes — a nearly 150% year-to-year increase — even as overall hate crimes declined.
It was after that middle school incident that Manjusha Kulkarni joined with community organizers, scholars and activists to co-found what soon became Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate
, a tracking group that has in a just over a year documented more than 4,000 incidents of harassment, assault and shunning targeting Asian Americans.
"Last year was one of the worst for anti-Asian hate crimes — a nearly 150% year-to-year increase — even as overall hate crimes declined"
An Indian American who is based in the Los Angeles area and is the executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Kulkarni is among several Asian American women at the forefront of what’s become a national movement to highlight and combat the growth of anti-Asian hatred in the U.S.
The activism has only grown after the deaths of eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent — during a mass shooting on March 16 at Atlanta-area spas. (A hate crime charge has not been filed in the case despite calls from activists
Another high-profile incident in San Francisco
, where a 75-year-old Asian American woman beat her attacker
with a stick, came within days of the Georgia deaths. Later in March, security footage showed a man who police said made anti-Asian remarks while stomping on a 65-year-old Filipina woman
as bystanders watched.
The violence echoed other moments of hatred over the last few months. Not long after the middle school attack in California last February, there was another high-profile instance where a man kicked and punched
an Asian American woman wearing a face mask on a New York subway train, whom he called “diseased.” Last April, an Asian American woman in New York was riding a bus when teens hit her
with an umbrella as they told her the pandemic was her fault.
“You can’t police our way out of racism, and not every attack against an Asian American can be legally proven to be motivated by hatred based on race. But hate-crime laws can help, and they are unevenly applied when it comes to which groups you look at,” Kulkarni says. “This is not the first time over the generations that Asian Americans have risen up to organize around oppression and hatred. Yet, we’re in the middle of the latest interaction of activism.”
Since last year, monthly and at times weekly rallies in places with large Asian American populations — Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and New York among them — have taken place as ways to support those who have experienced anti-Asian crimes and harassment and to bring attention to the matter. The demonstrations have grown to cover nearly every American city after the Atlanta deaths, with many Asian Americans taking cues from the Black Lives Matter movement as they organize. It’s been common for the gatherings to bring out people for whom street activism is new.
“The night of the Georgia shootings, I wept. The next day, I had a resolve,” says Lauren Lisa Ng, of Novato, California, who organized a demonstration recently in San Rafael, a seat of Marin County. A longtime pastor in the American Baptist Churches USA who is the church’s director of leadership programs, Ng had long felt called toward social justice, though she largely expressed that call through poetry and work in the church.
Now, she’s also become an organizer.
“We are having this moment of awakening,” says Ng, who is Chinese American and whose daughter took part in the protest. “It’s an awakening for both Asian Americans about how we can use our voices and for, I hope, the nation as a whole to see the problems in our country.”
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