AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES — By now, the stories have become almost familiar: elderly Asian Americans shoved to the ground, Asian students subject to racist harassment, xenophobic epithets shouted in public. According to the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, Asian Americans have reported over 9,000 incidents of hate since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US. The rise in xenophobia and violence against the Asian and Pacific Islander community has community leaders and politicians across California -home to more API Americans than any other state- re-examining their approaches to public safety.
Traditionally, ‘public safety’ has been defined as three city departments: police, fire, and emergency medical services. But Sacramento Councilwoman Mai Vang argues that greater security for the API community can only come if her city commits itself “to jointly work with Asian American communities to develop tangible community lead solutions.” Speaking on August 12 at the City of Sacramento’s third ‘Anti-Asian Hate Convening,’ Councilwoman Vang emphasized the importance of building a “public safety infrastructure” that includes nonprofit community organizations who can provide language competent services for non-native English speakers.
Sacramento is not alone in taking a new approach to public safety. In March, San Francisco mayor London Breed announced her city’s response to the rise in hate crimes: a series of violence prevention and community outreach programs. In March, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved additional funding for hate crime reporting and victim support. And in July, California’s state government allocated $156 million for civilian and community-led responses to hate and violence in API communities.
“It’s a long time coming,” says Oakland City Councilwoman Sheng Thao. “The funding that came out from the state is going to be very helpful, because that’ll help target…those communities under the API umbrella that most need those resources.” Thao notes that the broad umbrella of ‘Asian Pacific Islander’ often leads to policy making that overlooks more recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, those who are least likely to report hate incidents. Like Sacramento, Oakland is looking beyond the police to reach those API members facing linguistic and cultural barriers.
“We need both a police aspect, and we need a community aspect,” Thao says. According to Thao, that means putting the state’s funding not just into more police foot patrols, but also into violence prevention, housing, and healthcare access. It also means continuing funding for non-profits who already work in the Asian community.
During the COVID pandemic, Oakland issued a grant to Asian Health Services, which offers healthcare to underserved API communities in a variety of languages. AHS “was able to actually connect with our API community, especially our seniors -who are already their clients- to get them the information they need in the language that they need.” Oakland also worked with its Chamber of Commerce to help API businesses get translations of information on the Paycheck Protection Program. For Oakland, money from the state will help reinforce this wider perspective of public safety.
But according to Lee Lo of the Sacramento Regional API Network, state funding is only one piece of the puzzle; she says that “the request here is not just about funding.” Although she welcomes the additional nonprofit grants from the state, Lo argues that the money is only a first step in ensuring safer API communities. At the Sacramento anti-hate convening, Lo called for a “long term partnership” between the city and its API nonprofits, the kind she says is necessary to address the root causes of API insecurity: poverty, lack of healthcare access, and language barriers that prevent API citizens from reaching out to social services.
Unlike Oakland, not all California cities have existing city-community partnerships. Allison Joe -Chief of Staff to Sacramento’s Vice Mayor- says that, although “we want to be swift, we want to be inclusive, we want to do the right thing,” change does not come overnight. At the same meeting as Lo and Vang, Joe mentioned the difficulty of building trust between Asian Americans and the city government, especially given the broad diversity of the API community.
Ensuring that all API Californians are safe in their communities will no doubt be a long term project. But it is one that is gaining traction across the state, says Councilwoman Thao. “As I’m working with other elected officials [from across California] they are coming to me to ask more questions about how we are implementing” new public safety measures in Oakland. “They want to see what model works…and I know that many other cities will start doing what we’re doing.”
Senior Aidan M. Smith-Fagen is a Political Science and International Relations major at LMU.