District 10 community leaders worked this week to bridge the divide between Asian and African American residents, a rift exacerbated by high-profile crimes against Asian residents on the platform of the T-Third Street Muni line.
“The best way to bring communities together is to work on these problems together,” said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “It’s been a volatile several weeks.”
As Asian residents rallied City Hall to protest the violence, officials and community leaders tried to put it in perspective. They pointed to crime data showing Asians no more likely to be victims than any other ethnic group, but acknowledged that language barriers, cultural cues and size can make some residents into targets.
“They’re choosing small, they’re choosing vulnerable, they’re choosing isolated,” the District 10 supervisor, Sophie Maxwell, said.
At the same time, leaders worried that crime could pick up once school ends and more teenagers are on the streets unemployed and unable to attend summer school because of cuts to both high school and community college.
“I’m very concerned about the summer, and we’re all working feverishly to get kids placed in jobs,” said Bayview Police Captain Greg Suhr. “Everybody in this district is raining on City Hall.”
“We’re reaching out to anybody and everybody,” Maxwell said.
Much of District 10, which runs nearly the entire swath of the T-Third Street line along the Bay, was once over half African American, but that population has dropped below 27 percent, while Asians now account for a third of the district, according to the city’s 2003 numbers. In the last two decades, the region’s been incorporating new construction, redevelopment, and thousands of new immigrants from Asia and Latin America.
The focus on Bayview crime came after several incidents including two at the Oakdale Avenue stop of the T-Third Street Muni line. One incident in January resulted in the death of 83-year-old Huan Chen, who was assaulted during a robbery and died of his wounds in March. In another, five teenagers assaulted a 57-year-old woman and threw her off the Muni platform, according to police. Four days later, police arrested and charged a 15-year-old with assault.
While the main attention has been on the protests at City Hall, on April 8, hundreds attended a vigil for Chen in Bayview, an event that was attended by roughly equally numbers of African Americans and Asians.
“You can’t diffuse this anger that’s going on without having a dialogue,” said Francisco Da Costa, an active community member and the director of Environmental Justice Advocacy. He attributed the violent incidents to a few bad kids.
Supervisor Maxwell called those responsible for the incidents “thugs and criminals” but emphasized that these individuals were “victimizing all of us.”
For its part, the San Francisco Police Department shifted 16 officers from other districts to both Bayview and nearby Ingleside stations for a month.
Da Costa thought the current temporary addition police wasn’t doing much good, as they were unfamiliar with the turf and avoiding patrolling alone on foot. Others, like Pan, were more cautious.
“I think we have to be careful about trying to arrest our way out the problem, having more police isn’t going to be a long-term solution,” Pan said.
Suhr said his police station had also armed his officers with multilingual “personal awareness” fliers telling residents how to avoid being a victim of crime.
Supervisor Maxwell noted that people need to act differently in public, like offering to walk with vulnerable-looking strangers who might use company.
“We used to say, help an old lady cross the street,” she said. “We don’t say that anymore.”
Suhr said that the high-profile incidents were not random, racially-motivated attacks but aggravated assaults committed during robberies.
When it comes to violent crime, Suhr pointed out that Asians are not disproportionately targeted. This year, for example, nine – or 7 percent – of the 132 aggravated assaults in Bayview were against Asians, who represent a third of the population.
In robberies that didn’t involve physical harm to the victim, about a third were perpetrated against Asians, he said, in keeping with their percent of the population.
Still, Asian residents feel targeted, and some feel like the city’s not listening hard enough when they’ve been give statistics that show what they’re feeling isn’t true. “The issue of acknowledgment and respect are important in some cases,” said Pan from Chinese Affirmative Action.
Many Asian community members feel that crimes and slights against them don’t appear in the statistics because they’re too minor to be reported, like being tripped or verbally abused. And they say even theft and assaults go unreported because of various aspects of immigrant culture and fear of retaliation.
Marlene Tran, a spokesperson for the Visitation Valley Asians Alliance, said a major problem is the language barrier – one that makes it hard to report to the police, talk to patrols, or make a connection with neighbors who are of another ethnicity.
“I’ve been asking for the last five or six years to have more dedicated interpreters to act as liasons between public and the police,” Tran said.
There’s also cultural inhibition and past political repression experienced in former countries. “They were told to shut their mouth or get in trouble,” she said.
Stoicism can also be part of the Asian concept of saving face, Tran said. She also said that new immigrants without a credit history tend to travel with cash, making them lucrative targets.
Ta’yana Vinson, 16, spoke at last month’s vigil as the representative of her youth peers at POWER, a community organization in Bayview and the Mission. Vinson, who’s attended school in the area her whole life, said in an interview this week that it make her upset – even angry – that a few bad kids influence how the public sees her community.
“You’re making yourself and the rest of the Black community look bad,” she said, imagining talking with those responsible for the recent violence. “You’re sending us back – what were Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fighting for?”
During the interview at June Jordan School for Equity, west of Visitacion Valley, Vinson pointed out an indoor mural commemorating two students who were shot and killed before they could graduate.
Vinson said she thought the solutions to helping young African Americans in trouble – some of whom she’d known and grown up with – could be spending more money on after school programs and less on prisons.
And she wants parents to get involved, especially parents of color. “My mother is involved in everything I do,” she said, a statement that became particularly clear as her mother waited patiently for an hour outside while Vinson was interviewed.
“You wouldn’t want to ask me how I feel, because I’d be ready to fight the world,” she said when asked to say how she’d respond if it had been her grandfather who was killed in the incident.
Community leaders hope that the recent attention will spark more action to remedy access to the public safety system, education and housing, and perhaps most pressing given the summer fast approaching, support to those at risk of falling into a life of crime and violence.
“It sounds a little cookoo, but I’m really desperate to get help for our youth,” said Tran from the Visitacian Valley Asians Alliance.
“Right now the issue is young people, why is it that young people are on the street,” said Da Costa, a Kenyan-born man of East Indian descent. “We have different types of youth, some of them have a father and a mother, some have a mother, some have nobody. Can you imagine students like that – they don’t have a place to live.”