When documented incidents of violence against Asians here and elsewhere in the U.S. began to increase during the pandemic, Oakland city officials, police, and community members in Chinatown began stepping up their efforts to instill a sense of safety. Now, recent police data on reported hate crimes suggests safety may be improving in a neighborhood so recently wracked with fear of hate-fueled violence.
The data was presented at a recent town hall, hosted by the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce (OCCC) at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, to discuss the current state of violent crime in Chinatown and take stock of the effectiveness of safety strategies being employed there. Police Capt. Clay Burch presented and was joined by a panel of guests that included OCCC President Carl Chan, OPD Asian Liaison Officer Mae Phu, and translator Michael Sze.
Of the seven hate crimes reported so far in Oakland in 2022, according to Burch, none involved victims from AAPI communities. The citywide number presents a notable drop from prior months: There were 46 hate crimes reported in Oakland over the 16-month period from January 2020 to May 2021, according to Burch. It’s unclear how many of those were reported by or perpetrated against people of Asian descent.
Despite the lower number of citywide hate crimes reported, speakers spent much of the time acknowledging the anxieties that still exist in the Chinatown community and speaking about the need to continue carrying out meaningful strategies to reduce violence going into the future, including how the community can better assist the police.
Around the time when national media coverage of anti-Asian violence was peaking, in early 2021, some local Asian-owned businesses began closing early out of caution. Others from Chinese communities living elsewhere in the Bay were hesitant to come to Oakland’s Chinatown out of fear for their own safety, leading some in the neighborhood’s business community to worry about a prolonged economic impact.
“It’s not really a fear here anymore, but it was a fear,” said Jacky Kuang, member and de facto spokesperson for the Blue Angels Patrol Group, an all-volunteer, civilian group that was formed as a response to violence in Chinatown and to bolster security in the neighborhood. About 30 members of the group attended the town hall.
Kuang said the group consists of “residents, business owners, and employees of merchants in Oakland Chinatown.” Members wear matching blue safety vests emblazoned with security badges and hats, and some carry walkie-talkies and air horns. The purpose of the latter, explained Kuang, is to interrupt criminal acts in a non-aggressive and non-physical way by scaring off would-be attackers and sounding the alarm for members of the community to come help.
Kuang recounted a story of one recent attempted theft in which a pregnant shop owner used an air horn to alert several passersby who then came to her aid. Kuang said he has been out on over 100 patrols with the Blue Angels, and has no thoughts of slowing down.
“This team started as helping the community out; we were just protecting and walking the streets and stuff. But I feel that over time, this team has turned into an advocate for the Chinese community and the Asian community, protesting against AAPI hate,” said Kuang. “This is more than just a patrol team. So as long as the team is still here, I would love to stay here.”
Policing in Chinatown has been a subject of debate among elected officials and community members, mirroring a larger ongoing discussion in Oakland about the merits of traditional policing. While some have called for more police, others have advocated for reducing OPD’s budget and investing more in community-driven alternatives to increase public safety.
Language barriers can complicate the dynamic between police and some Chinatown residents, who may be wary of reaching out to the police for help or unsure of how to file a police report. Despite this, police who were present emphasized how grateful they are for the amount of cooperation they receive from Chinatown residents.
Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan recalled the community and city responding to a comparable uptick in violence 15 to 20 years ago when he said “many seniors were being targeted” for crimes. Those efforts resulted in the first bilingual Chinatown Crime Prevention Council. The council would operate out of the Lincoln Recreation Center one month, then convene at senior centers the next. A similar effort to spread awareness and share knowledge is underway today, said Chan, who added OCCC plans to host similar town halls and workshops to educate residents about how to stay safe and report crimes when they do occur.
Burch introduced members of the police department’s Chinatown Robbery Enforcement team, a small group of officers tasked with suppressing crime in the neighborhood that was formed early in the pandemic after highly publicized attacks on AAPI Oaklanders.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s an indefinite detail, it’s one that I’m committed to running every day, for as long as I’m here,” said Burch.
One of the reasons for the formation of the Chinatown detail, he said, was to act as a preventative measure against the rise in hate crimes. Of the 46 hate crimes reported over the 16-month period from January 2020 to May 2021, 37 were determined by OPD to be hate crimes and resulted in arrests, according to Burch. He said the department also formed a separate Hate Crimes Task Force in July 2020.
Burch noted that Black and LGBTQ people have long been disproportionately the victims of hate crimes in Oakland. He expressed hope that if hate crimes are able to be quelled in Chinatown, then hopefully similar models can be adopted to address violent crime in other neighborhoods as well.
City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who was not at the town hall, has expressed a desire in recent weeks to increase the city’s public safety investments in Little Saigon, a narrow corridor of homes and largely Vietnamese businesses extending from Lake Merritt southeast along International Boulevard. Bas released a statement in late June calling attention to the neighborhood’s high crime rate and citing support from the Vietnamese merchants, the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, and others for measures similar to those implemented in Chinatown, including an increased police presence, “high visibility patrols on the corridor,” and a dedicated officer who can speak Vietnamese and act as a liaison in the community for “longer-term relationship-building.”
Chan closed the town hall in Chinatown by announcing plans for more such meetings in the future, but dates are still to be determined.