Late last month, 84-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee was taking a morning stroll in his San Francisco neighborhood when 19-year-old Antoine Watson charged him, shoving the older man to the ground. Ratanapakdee never regained consciousness—police found him on the street, dead from a brain hemorrhage.
Ratanapakdee’s murder is just the most heinous instance of a recent spate of crimes against Asian-Americans in the Bay Area. In Oakland’s Chinatown, three Asian-American adults were attacked, including a 91-year-old man. Weeks later, an 83-year-old man was pushed to the ground in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, sustaining a broken hip.
Some victims are robbed, like the San Jose grandmother who lost $1,000 in a broad-daylight attack. Oakland’s Chinatown has endured more than 20 robberies; according to local Chamber of Commerce head Carl Chan, businesses “are so fearful they prefer to close early,” as there are “many juveniles driving around Chinatown and carrying guns . . . hurting people before they’re being robbed.”
Some have taken this crime wave, also seen in other cities, as evidence of surging anti-Asian hatred. Activists in New York marched against the “white nationalism” fueling the attacks, a charge reiterated by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Media reports and elected leaders have linked the violence to former President Donald Trump’s use of pejorative terms like “the Kung Flu” early in the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trump’s words were reckless, but it is unlikely that a year later they are the primary cause of these attacks. More generally, police have not officially established that prejudice motivated any of the assailants. And it makes no sense to blame “white supremacy” when most of the offenders captured on camera in these attacks thus far have been young black men, including Ratanapakdee’s alleged killer.
A more likely culprit is the climate of lawlessness that has reigned in many of America’s big cities following this summer’s protests against law enforcement. It should also come as no surprise that the Bay Area, which has been at the forefront of progressive criminal-justice reforms for years, is bearing the brunt of these attacks.
Historically, American cities have had a simple response to the sort of lawlessness that Chan and others describe: put additional cops on the beat, stop potential violent offenders before they do serious damage, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law when they do commit violent crimes. But in Northern California, that system is breaking down. Oakland slashed $14.3 million from its police budget and charged a task force with cutting the remaining budget in half over two years, even as homicides in the city have surged. In San Francisco, cops have fled the force “in record numbers,” and Mayor London Breed has pushed for a $120 million cut to the police and sheriff’s department. Statewide, research has linked an increase in the felony-theft threshold passed in 2014 to soaring retail burglaries of the sort now terrorizing Oakland.
Rather than enforce law and order, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Santa Clara County D.A. Jeff Rosen are working to weaken prosecution, ending cash bail and waiving gang and “three strikes” enhancements to sentencing. That means criminals feel greater freedom to offend and reoffend.
San Francisco has already felt the effects of prior “reforms,” as vagrancy, public drug use, and other public-order offenses have soared. That disorder has spilled over into higher transit crime, including a series of high-profile murders on the Bay Area Regional Transit system that an Alameda County grand jury pinned on lax quality-of-life enforcement. The crime wave is now clearly hurting the region’s Asian citizens as well.
Progressive organizers have been quick to insist that the attacks don’t justify support for more policing, and some leaders are listening: California governor Gavin Newsom just signed a bill earmarking $1.4 million to respond to the attacks—with research at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. Not a penny for policing.
Not every big city leader is thinking this way, however. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who has supported broad de-policing efforts while presiding over a dramatic uptick in violent crime, has nevertheless put his weight behind the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force, while Alameda County D.A. Nancy O’Malley has assembled a similar task force. The broader reality remains unchanged: citizens in all communities, Asian-Americans among them, have the right to live free from random violence. Some city leaders, entranced by “defund the police” nostrums, have forgotten this. If they don’t remember it soon, then Ratanapakdee will not be the last victim.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images