Violent attacks on elderly Asian Americans in Bay Area leaves community members 'traumatized'

A community leader say there have been at least 20 attacks.

ByKiara Brantley-Jones and Stacy Chen
February 11, 2021, 4:44 PM

A reported string of nearly two dozen violent, unprovoked attacks against Asians and Asian Americans in the Bay Area in recent weeks has left the community on edge, advocates say.

While police say the motive for the attacks -- which include robberies and people being assaulted -- is unclear, it comes amid continued concern about anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and its origins in Wuhan, China.

Since the beginning of the pandemic Asian American communities have been the target of and on guard for hate.

Critics say former President Donald Trump helped fuel hate towards China and Chinese Americans over this issue since the beginning of the pandemic, often derisively referring to the coronavirus as the "China virus" or "Kung flu," and continuously blaming China for the pandemic. President Joe Biden has since signed an executive order directing federal agencies to combat coronavirus-fueled harassment and called the attacks on the Asian American community "unacceptable," but still, the violence has not stopped.

In a series of videos taken on Jan. 31, a man in Oakland's Chinatown neighborhood is seen violently shoving three unsuspecting people. The assault left a 91-year-old man, a 60-year-old man and a 55-year-old woman injured, according to police.

Another surveillance video released by the owner of an Oakland Chinatown shop captured the moment that a man walked up to an Asian customer trying to pay at the cashier, when he snatched their wallet and fled. It was unclear if this was a bias incident.

Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, told ABC News that in recent weeks there's been an uptick in violent attacks targeting Asian families, customers and store owners in Oakland's Chinatown neighborhood.

PHOTO: Carl Chan, president of Chinatown Chamber of Commerce speaks to ABC News.
Carl Chan, president of Chinatown Chamber of Commerce speaks to ABC News.
ABC News

Between March 19, 2020 and December 31, 2020, Stop AAPI Hate -- the nation’s leading coalition documenting and addressing anti-Asian hate and discrimination amid the COVID-19 pandemic -- received 126 accounts of anti-Asian hate involving Asian Americans over 60 years old, accounting for 7.3% of Stop AAPI Hate’s 2,808 self-reported incidents.

"There are way too many incidents that have been happening," Chan said. "Many of our seniors, even though they live in Chinatown, some of them are afraid to go out to walk their own streets."

Despite the fact that the motive is unclear, police say they are committed to supporting the community and helping prevent further incidents.

More than 20 attacks reported

Chan has collected more than 20 incident reports submitted by victims to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce in recent weeks as well as surveillance videos showing local stores being robbed and Asian business owners and customers being assaulted.

While some of the incidents have been reported to police, Chan said there are likely many more that have not.

"I think it would be even higher," said Chan referring to the number of assaults being reported. "But, victims are not willing to report incidents."

He said some are afraid of coming forward and others believe nothing will be done to stop the violent attacks. He said some shop owners even told him they did not report robberies out of fear of losing customers due to safety concerns.

On Monday, police arrested Yahya Muslim, 28, who faces charges of assault and elder abuse in three of the 20 incidents reported in a series of unprovoked attacks targeting Asians in Oakland's Chinatown including the assault on the 91-year-old man, according to Oakland authorities.

A motive behind the Oakland Chinatown attacks has not yet been released.

On Feb. 1, Muslim was booked at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, for charges unrelated to the Jan. 31 attacks. His bail is set at $155,000, according to online jail records. It is unclear at this time if Muslim has hired an attorney or will be appointed a public defender.

"I'm not sure if racism or bigotry is the motivation," Oakland's newly appointed police chief LeRonne Armstrong told ABC News. "I will say that we know that suspects have come to Chinatown specifically to target Asian victims, older Asian victims."

Armstrong said the police department is focused on "supporting our Chinatown community by having an immediate response, having a greater presence.""This violence impacts our entire community. It's had an impact across our city," added Armstrong. "And so we're trying to address violence, not only in the Asian community, but in all communities in Oakland."

'She's traumatized'

The granddaughter of a 71-year-old woman who was robbed on the sidewalk in Oakland, California, learned of the incident when she received a call from her grandmother.Other than a few bruises, the elderly woman did not sustain any major injuries but her granddaughter told ABC News, "She's traumatized."

"It was kind of hard for me to even watch it,” she said. "So it's traumatizing for me to even, you know, be outside ... to not look twice or the third time to see if I'm being followed or someone suspicious, just like come up to me, you know what I mean?"

Stop AAPI Hate, a partnership among three organizations dedicated to tracking the rise in attacks against Asian Americans, said it received 2,808 reports of incidents of racism and discrimination across the U.S. between March and December 2020.

Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, however, said she doesn't believe what happened in the Bay Area is part of a national spike.

"Obviously what's happened in the Bay Area is a concern with those recent attacks, both in San Francisco and in Oakland, so we're obviously going to monitor the situation," Kulkarni told ABC News, adding that there is usually an increase in crimes around Lunar New Year when more people are out and carrying more cash for shopping and red envelopes than usual.

Asian American activists, celebrities rally behind community

Despite Biden's recent efforts to combat violence against Asian Americans, many in the community believe there's been a lack of action from authorities on the matter and a lack of coverage from mainstream media.

Activist and founder of Rise, a non-profit civil rights organization, Amanda Ngyuen, posted a video of the recent attacks on Instagram that went viral. Within hours it was shared by high-profile celebrities like Amy Schumer, Quest Love, Gemma Chan, Olivia Munn and more.

"I did it because I was so tired of living in fear and terror of stepping out of the door and getting attacked by random strangers," Ngyuen said.

Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu also took action and partnered up to offer a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in the attack of the 91-year-old man in Oakland's Chinatown.

Wu, a Bay Area native, said that while Lunar New Year is traditionally a festive, jubilant holiday, the recent attacks have clouded the mood. "That's a sad thing for us, this is normally a time for us to rejoice and to be happy but right now everyone's in fear and anxiety," he said.

Concerned about the recent uptick of violence against Asians, "Crazy Rich Asians" star Chris Pang who’s currently in Las Vegas, offered to accompany anyone, particularly elderly Asian Americans who feel unsafe on their commute, or errand runs. While others like fashion influencer and designer, Aimee Song, and actress Olivia Munn joined Ngyuen in calling out the media for more coverage.

"Historically, anti-Asian attacks have not been covered with the same urgency afforded to white communities," read Song's message.

"I implore mainstream media to cover our stories to give credence to our existence, to witness our pain," Ngyuen told ABC News. "When people treat Asian Americans as 'other' and continually, perpetually foreign ... it makes scapegoating and violence happen."

As many in the community struggle to cope, Elaine Dang, who's on the board of Act To Change, a nonprofit organization working to address bullying in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth, said it's important to educate oneself on the current issues and listen to local organizations to see what the best way to move forward is.

On Tuesday, over 40 local organizations and businesses in the Bay Area joined together to release a formal statement demanding action against violence toward Asian Americans. In it, they ask that San Francisco and Oakland increase resources and support for the Asian American community and other minority communities, and "resource cross-community education and healing in Asian American and Black communities that humanizes all of us rather than demonizes or scapegoats any community of color."

"The most powerful tool we have is our voice," Ngyuen said of her continuous fight for visibility and justice for her community. "No one is invisible when we demand to be seen because we're dying to be heard."

ABC News' Kayna Whitworth contributed to this report.