SAN FRANCISCO: Pedestrians walk along Grant Avenue in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco, California. Police departments and community activist groups are trying to figure out how to curb a surge in burglaries, vandalism, hate crimes and attacks against Asian Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. - AFP

WASHINGTON: As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged America, Esther Lim grew more worried by the day for her parents' welfare and her own-not just for their health, but their safety in the face of rising attacks against Asian-Americans. When her friend was hurt in a hit-and-run accident-in what she firmly believes was a hate attack-she decided to take action.

"I wanted to do something more proactive rather than wallow in fear," Lim, who is Korean-American, told AFP. So Lim, 32, bought her mother pepper spray, started learning judo from her father-and wrote "How to Report a Hate Crime," an information booklet with advice on dealing with the police and phrases written in English to show to bystanders, to ask for help.

As of this year, Lim has begun printing the booklet in six languages-Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese-and has more on the way, including Tagalog and Khmer. She distributes them to friends and Asian community centers in Los Angeles. She feels her work is more important than ever. Reports of attacks, primarily against Asian-American elders, have spiked in recent months-fuelled, activists believe, by talk of the "Chinese virus" by former president Donald Trump and others.

In an address to the nation on Thursday, President Joe Biden forcefully condemned what he called "vicious hate crimes against Asian-Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated." "It's wrong. It's un-American. And it must stop," he said. Documented incidents range from looting Asian-owned businesses, to vandalizing homes and cars with slurs, to violent and sometimes fatal attacks in the street. People of Filipino, Thai, Japanese, Laotian, Korean and Chinese descent have been targeted.

While racial motivation can be hard to establish, a study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at CSU San Bernardino found that reported anti-Asian hate crimes nearly tripled from 49 to 122 cases last year across 16 major US cities including New York and Los Angeles-even as overall hate crime fell seven percent. The report looked at events categorized as criminal in nature and showing evidence of ethnic or racial bias, using preliminary local police data.

'Protect the community'

Just days into his presidency, Biden signed an executive order on January 26 condemning racism towards the Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community during the pandemic. States are following suit, with California and New York allocating more resources to combating anti-Asian racism and draft legislation in the works in New York.

But "I don't think it's going to come quickly," said Lim. So like her, members of the community are taking matters into their own hands-campaigning online, fundraising for groups like Stop AAPI Hate, and raising awareness through hashtags such as #NotYourModelMinority. Throughout California, groups of volunteers have begun escorting elderly Asian citizens around town.

Jimmy Bounphensy founded one such group called Asians With Attitudes to patrol the Chinatown neighborhood of Oakland, California after a string of violent attacks and robberies. At first on his own, he was soon joined by other volunteers. "If I can save one person, then I'm happy," he told AFP while out on patrol. "My presence and our presence is to let other people know that we really are here trying to protect the community at all costs, make sure everybody goes home safe. "I believe we made an impact."

'Those days are over'

While absolute numbers of hate crimes remain relatively small, Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), which co-founded the Stop AAPI Hate advocacy group, says it's likely there are many more lower-level incidents going undetected. Stop AAPI Hate found that more than 2,800 incidents of racism and discrimination-including non-physical forms-targeting Asian-Americans were reported online across the United States between March and December.

"The recent surge has to do with the fact that there's blame being pointed at China" over COVID-19, Choi told AFP. "And then also couple that with racist rhetoric by the former president... and other elected officials." Beyond rhetoric linked to the pandemic, the crime wave has triggered something of a reckoning about anti-Asian sentiment in the United States-whose roots go back "ever since Asian folks came to the United States," in the words of Liz Kleinrock, an anti-bias, anti-racist educator and writer. Examples range from mass lynchings of Chinese laborers in the late 1800s, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only US immigration law to exclude an entire ethnic group, to the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Stereotypes relating to the AAPI community include what is known as the model minority myth, which portrays the diverse Asian diaspora as monolithic and "white adjacent." That, activists argue, had the effect of both erasing a varied history and portraying the community as immune from racism-which means Asians are often left out of racial reckoning. "Whatever type of acceptance... Asians have in the United States has always been conditional," says Kleinrock, who is Korean-American. It implies "Asian people are only respected and valued when we keep our heads down... and fall in line," she said.

"Well, those days are over." - AFP