Editor’s note: In the wake of numerous incidents of anti-Asian assaults and increasing concern over violent crime in San Francisco, independent journalist Anh Lê shares this extended look at its impact on the city’s Asian American community and how it is affecting the movement to recall the district attorney.
For more information on this and related topics, see “Why colleagues say District Attorney Chesa Boudin must go,” “Reynolds Rap,” Marina Times, June 2021.
‘I JUST WANT MY STORE TO BE SAFE’
Fanley Chen is the owner of GoApple, a cell phone accessories store at 913 Grant Avenue in Chinatown. Many of the customers there speak Chinese, some of them are tourists. Due to the decrease in tourism during the pandemic, her store’s business volume has decreased. But Chen is a hard worker, and her store is open seven days a week. She is able to stay afloat and hopes that more tourists will gradually return to Chinatown.
In mid-May, unfortunately, Chen’s life was impacted by a serious problem plaguing some businesses in Chinatown: theft and robbery. And for Chen, violence against her.
Two young people, a male and a female, entered her store in broad daylight. The male showed her three phone cases and demanded that she give him three new phone cases of the correct size. She recognized that the cases were from her store and told him to show her a purchase receipt, which he couldn’t produce. He then walked over to the display, grabbed three new phone cases, and left the store. She followed him outside and told him to return the items or she would call the police. He yelled, “Go ahead! Call the police!”
Two Good Samaritans near the store intervened. One was able to get the phone cases from the thief, but the thief hit him and Chen. Later that afternoon, the thief returned to GoApple, and while Chen was helping a customer, the thief aimed a can of a caustic substance — presumably pepper spray — right at Chen and sprayed it on her face.
Her eyes burned, she could not see, and she had a hard time breathing. She felt a lot of pain in her eyes, her throat, her nasal passages, her lungs, her chest. 911 was called, and paramedics took her to the hospital emergency room for treatment.
When I first spoke with Chen, she told me that this male thief had stolen things from her store before over the past several years. She said he lives somewhere near her store, and she was afraid he would return to attack her. She told me the police said they know about this thief, but could not identify him nor do anything about the situation, though he had caused problems at other stores.
She further told me that she would like to see a restraining order issued against this individual and others who commit crimes on her block of Grant Avenue, to protect her, her customers, and the tourists who patronize businesses there. She would also like to see increased presence of SFPD officers along Grant Street and throughout Chinatown, including foot patrols. She showed me the security cameras’ film footage of the theft in her store, and the thief pepper spraying her. I told her that I believed that the San Francisco Police Department had the investigative resources and means to easily identify the thief and his counterpart. After all, the incident was captured on camera. I encouraged Chen to let the SFPD know that she wants the thief and his accomplice to be identified by the police and the thief to be held accountable for the crimes he committed.
The theft and pepper spraying received wide news coverage in San Francisco. KGO TV news reporter Dion Lim interviewed Fanley Chen. Betty Yu of KPIX covered the story, as did KTVU, KRON, SFGate and others, including the Marina Times, which posted the news on its website and tweeted it.
Not long after my conversation with Chen, the16-year-old thief who attacked and assaulted her was arrested on May 18.
After the incidents at GoApple were widely reported, word got out that District Attorney Chesa Boudin was going to visit GoApple and meet with Chen, but he did not show up. Instead, he sent a small delegation from his office to meet with her. Across the street from GoApple, Chinese Americans greeted the delegation with a loud and clear message to Boudin: “Stop coddling violent repeat offenders.” “Stand up for our elders.” “Hold attackers accountable.” “Systemic injustice is when a D.A. enables violence from repeat offenders.” “Stop AAPI Hate Crimes.”
When the district attorney’s delegation was leaving the GoApple store, one of them was asked by a reporter what had been discussed in their meeting with Chen. The woman replied, with a look of embarrassment on her face, “I am not allowed to talk about it.”
Later, a reporter asked Chen what she thought about Boudin not showing up. She responded matter-of-factly, “I really don’t care whether he shows up or not. I just want my store to be safe. I just want customers to feel safe and to be safe.”
NEARBY AT CITY GIFTS
At 957 Grant Avenue, about a half-block away from GoApple, Yvonne Lim and her family have owned their City Gifts store for the past 30 years. Yvonne Lim and Fanley Chen keep in close touch with each other.
City Gifts is packed with all kinds of gift items, all neatly displayed. On my visits there, most of the customers were tourists. On one recent visit, I met a group of students from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. During another recent visit, I met a couple in their 60s from Palm Springs who were on their honeymoon, married for the first time. This was their second shopping trip to City Gifts since they arrived in San Francisco.
Lim told me that theft is a common problem at her store and the other stores nearby.
In mid-May, one day she called the police when two individuals were stealing things from her store. I happened to be in the vicinity on Grant Avenue that day. Lim told me later that the two police officers who arrived at her store were able to get back a couple of the items that were stolen. Furthermore, she told me that one of the two thieves had come to her store the day before, demanding that she give him new BB pellet CO2 cartridges, claiming that the ones he had were defective. She told me that they were not defective; they were empty cartridges, as he had shot the BB pellets. She showed me a receipt of purchase for the cartridges, paid with a bank card — easily traceable to the owner of that card.
Yvonne Lim and Fanley Chen both work hard to earn a living. Both also serve as neighborhood watch guardians of their block on Grant Avenue. They said they appreciate the work of the San Francisco Police Department in Chinatown and that more police officers are needed to make it safer for the merchants and people who work and live in Chinatown, and for the tourists.
THE COMMUNITY RESPONDS
The Chinatown Merchants Association organized a community meeting at Portsmouth Square following the GoApple robbery and attack. Most of the people who attended the meeting were middle aged; everybody there seemed to speak Cantonese. Most of the people were merchants or people who work in Chinatown. Fanley Chen was one of the panelists seated at a table at the front of the room.
There were TV cameras filming the meeting, and one of the men on the panel provided a little bit of English translation. Chen told the audience members that she wanted to thank everyone for their show of support and concern for her since the incidents at her store. She said that it is important to be united and continue working hard to make Chinatown a safe place to work and live, and a safe and welcoming place for tourists.
During the meeting, a young Chinese woman sitting near the TV cameras got up from her chair to speak. Before she started speaking to the audience, she shielded her face and asked the TV cameramen to point their cameras in another direction and not film her.
After the meeting was over, I politely asked her why she shielded her face and did not want to be filmed. She told me that she went to the meeting to “educate the people about Proposition 47,” a 2014 state ballot measure that made theft or certain other crimes with a value of $950 or less a misdemeanor rather than a felony. I later asked her which organization she was with. She said she was newly hired as a victim’s advocate in the district attorney’s office. One still wonders why she shielded her face from the TV cameras and did not want to be filmed.
THE RECALL EFFORT
In February of this year, just 13 months after Chesa Boudin became district attorney, a campaign to recall Boudin was begun by Richie Greenberg, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for San Francisco mayor in 2018. According to the Bay Area Reporter, the “Recall Chesa Boudin” campaign was initiated as a result of two pedestrians who had been killed in the South of Market area on New Year’s Eve by a driver who was released by Boudin.
On May 26, a large rally took place at Portsmouth Square to launch a second campaign group to recall Chesa Boudin from office, called “Safer SF Without Boudin.” There were many people in attendance, the sky was clear blue, and the temperature was perfect. The tall TransAmerica building and other San Francisco skyscrapers could be seen looming a short distance away from Portsmouth Square and the older buildings in historic Chinatown. The people at the rally represented diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds: Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Indian, African American, Latino and Hispanic, Russian, Samoan, Caucasian.
The rally’s main organizers were Andrea Shorter, who served as MC; Leanna Louie, an activist in Chinatown; and Mary Jung, a former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.
Andrea Shorter is an African American woman who has lived in San Francisco for 30 years. She has worked on criminal justice reform, juvenile justice rights, and protecting the rights of poor and low-income people. Her work on juvenile detention diversion as a model for San Francisco has been replicated in Oakland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. She has served as the president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization of Women, has served on the Commission on Status of Women, and worked on LGBTQ issues.
“Chesa Boudin is failing to keep San Francisco safe,” Shorter said. “San Franciscans deserve a district attorney who responds seriously to the skyrocket of home break-ins, car break-ins, open drug dealing on our streets, and assaults on our elders in our parks, in our neighborhoods, at our doorsteps. Chesa Boudin refuses to hold serious and violent repeat offenders. It is our most vulnerable populations — our kids, grandparents, and folks who are barely making ends meet — who are suffering the most.
“Recalling an elected official isn’t a decision to take lightly. Chesa Boudin has failed to deliver on his promises and is putting San Franciscans in danger. We all agree that smart, real criminal justice reform is needed. Pitting reform against public safety and accountability doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense. People have paid for Boudin’s inaction with their lives — that’s not reform. . . . Real reform should not and cannot mean more victims for failing to adequately hold violent repeat offenders accountable. Boudin is failing San Franciscans by failing to deliver real reforms that protect public safety. People do not feel safe as residents of or visitors to San Francisco. We cannot endure another 2 years of Chesa Boudin as district attorney.”
She said her recall effort is Democratic-led. “The previous and waning effort was led by conservatives, which allowed for Boudin and others to conveniently dismiss their concerns and efforts as purely partisan. San Francisco is markedly Democrat. The inconvenient truth for Boudin is that many San Franciscans, the majority of whom are not right-wing conservatives, have had enough of his inability to effectively promote and protect public safety. As a lifelong Democrat, a long-time resident of San Francisco, and long-time advocate for smart criminal justice reform that promotes public safety, I join many San Franciscans in this diverse, broad-based coalition recall effort.”
She continued, “Time and again, Boudin has failed to seriously respond to the attacks, and yes, sadly even fatal attacks on our Asian neighbors, friends, and families. His failure to hold violent attackers accountable, even when they are seen on video, arrested, and brought up for charges, is of serious concern for many Asians in San Francisco. It is terrifying and sickening to see on video the brutal, fatal attack on an Asian elder sitting quietly on a neighborhood sidewalk. It is beyond disconcerting that the district attorney’s response to that video is to remark that the attacker was having . . . a ‘temper tantrum.’ This is unacceptable on so many levels.”
Leanna Louie was born in Toisan Rural Region, Guangdong Province, China. She immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong, went through the San Francisco Unified School District from elementary school through high school graduation. She joined the U.S. Army and worked in the medical field. She received a full college scholarship, and was in the ROTC program. After college, she became a commissioned officer in the Military Intelligence Corps. In March 2020, when the pandemic started, she started a patrol group in Chinatown. It started with just her and another person, and now has more than 70 volunteer patrol members.
At the rally, Louie declared, “Look at the weather today. There’s no wind. There’s no rain. It’s all sunshine. God is shining on us! God is telling us, ‘this is the perfect gathering on a perfect day’ because we are doing the right thing. You are here because you care about your friends, your family, your neighbors, the citizens of San Francisco. You are here because you want justice.”
In Cantonese, Louie shouted, “Why should we recall Chesa Boudin?” The audience yelled, “Because he’s so bad!”
Leanna Louie shouted at the top of her lungs, “Yes, that’s right. As San Francisco district attorney, Boudin has a duty to protect us. If any of us are victims of crime, he has the responsibility to represent us in court and prosecute the criminals for their crimes. Has he done his duty?” The audience yelled, “No!”
Louie told the crowd gathered that the recall campaign needs to collect 52,000 eligible signatures before October 25, 2021, adding “Let’s get 100,000 signatures.”
Via email, Louie also shared a list of crime victims she said have not yet gotten any justice—“all people of color . . . Asians, African Americans, Latinos. Chesa Boudin says he wants reform and [to] bring equitable change, but he is in fact exacerbating the problem for people of color. The City is not safe with Chesa Boudin’s soft-on-crime policies on repeat criminals.” Her lengthy list includes everyone from an 89-year-old great grandmother who was brutally beaten to a 6-year-old child shot in the Bayview.
When asked who should replace Chesa Boudin, Leanna Louie named Nancy Tung, who had run in the November 2019 election for District Attorney against Chesa Boudin, Susie Loftus, and Leif Dautch in that race. “Nancy is an experienced prosecutor. She has worked with victims and their families in numerous cases in San Francisco and in Alameda County. A district attorney needs to assure the people of San Francisco public safety by prosecuting crimes, especially violent crimes. I would like the candidate to have a platform of ‘Representing the victims of crimes. Fair and balanced prosecution.’”
I asked Louie, “As a woman, a parent and mother, and as a Chinese American, did those facts play a role or have bearing on why you want Chesa Boudin removed from office, and why are you working so hard to accomplish that?”
Louie firmly replied, “No, these facts do not matter. I am a human being that cares about other human beings. It gives me great sadness and pain to see others get hurt, especially those innocent victims of crime who were attacked without provoking the attacker! When the victims or family members tell me what happened to them, and after seeing the videos, I said to myself, ‘I will do whatever it takes to get Chesa Boudin recalled!’ . . . We have not seen him successfully prosecute one murder case of an Asian victim yet!”
When asked what has Chesa Boudin done to protect the safety of Asian Americans, and all residents, of San Francisco, Louie replied, “He has given a lot of lip service, made promises for public safety, hired more staff, and created task forces, but nothing positive has resulted from all the funds he spent on these things. He has not produced any real, positive, visible results in the communities. That is why we want to recall him.”
Louie said, “As far as what I see, Chesa Boudin has been releasing criminals out over and over again to commit more violent crimes with more frequency. Boudin has made San Francisco a very dangerous city! . . . After collecting signatures for 1 week, I am positive that he will be recalled. There has been overwhelming support to Recall Chesa Boudin from the residents of San Francisco.”
She urged registered voters to visit safersfwithoutboudin.com and request a petition be mailed or delivered to them, or sign at one of the many petition sites volunteers are organizing around the city
A festive and celebratory concert was held at Portsmouth Square on May 28. The theme was “Unity.” There were dragon dancers. A group of older Chinese women, who call themselves the “Grant Avenue Follies,” performed their rap dance, “Gai Mou Sou Rap” (“Beware of the Chicken Feather Duster” — in many families in China, the chicken feather duster was used to reprimand misbehaving children). The rap, composed by Clara Hsu, the president of the Clarion Performing Arts Center in Chinatown and a published poet, was a response to the anti-Asian violence and hate in San Francisco and across the country. The rap had messages scolding people who engage in anti-Asian violence and hate, and also messages calling on people to open their minds. The rap received enthusiastic applause from the concert goers.
Emmy-nominated pianist Ricardo Scales performed with his ensemble, consisting of Michael “Spiderman” Robinson on drums, RB “Rock Box” Rhodes on keyboard, and singer Yulanda Williams. Scales, whose mother Patience Scales was a well-known music teacher in the Bay Area, started learning the piano from her at age 5. He began playing in public at age 7. He went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Scales said that the main theme and purposes of the Portsmouth Square event was to celebrate the API community and “bring awareness to the movement to ensure safety for the Asian community in light of the increase of incidents of violence targeting Asians both here and nationwide, because I think it is important for other communities to stand with the Asian community in condemning these acts and to show that we do not condone or support such appalling acts of violence. . . .
“I identify myself as a Black American of African descent. I believe that we need to become more comfortable in each other’s company. We can do that by knowing each other, as friends, colleagues, teammates, or anything that makes us ally with one another.”
Yuanda Williams is a captain in the San Francisco Police Department and president of the Officers for Justice Association (OFJ). “We are all Americans. We all deserve the right to co-exist peacefully with each other,” said Captain Williams. “As the president of the Officers for Justice Association, we do not condone any violence. Therefore, we stand in solidarity with our Asian brothers and sisters. Those who perpetrate hate must be dealt with for their crimes against the public.”
THIRD BAPTIST CHURCH
Another meeting was held at Third Baptist Church in the Fillmore district in June to address the issue of anti-Asian violence and hate. The minister of the church is Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP.
More than two dozen people attended the meeting. Attendees included presidents of African American and Asian American firefighter associations, SFPD Captain Yulanda Williams, pianist Ricardo Scales, SFPD officer Craig Dong of the Special Investigations Unit, Jeffrey Lee of a social club in Chinatown, Shari, an African American public school educator and piano teacher, and Nancy Tung, assistant district attorney for Alameda County.
Rev. Brown spent a lot of time during the meeting talking about the long history of racism that Blacks have faced in the United States. Another man, an officer of the local NAACP chapter, said that the attacks against Asian Americans were perpetrated by mentally ill individuals and should not be painted as racially motivated hate crimes. He vociferously and angrily blamed the exodus of African American people from San Francisco on Asian landlords in San Francisco who he said did not rent to Black people. He also said that most landlords in San Francisco are Asian. No one challenged that person to back up his statements with evidence or statistics. The Asian Americans sitting in the meeting listened politely. After all, this was only the first meeting of a group created to work together to address the serious community issue of violence and hate toward Asians.
After the meeting, Nancy Tung was asked several questions: “What should we as the API community do, individually and collectively, to address the problem of anti-Asian violence and hate?” “What should the judicial system, law enforcement, and the district attorney’s office do to address the problem?”
Tung sent her responses in an email: “The AAPI Community needs to be better engaged with law enforcement and reporting of crimes. Immigrant communities tend to be fearful of police, but we need to be educating our communities that law enforcement is here to keep us safe. Aside from reporting crime, we also need to be proactive in being aware of surroundings, providing safety services to seniors, and using security cameras to deter crime. Law enforcement agencies need to redouble their effort to reach immigrant communities to build trust. Part of that is having robust language capabilities and culturally competent officers and victim advocates to communicate effectively with victims of crime.”
Tung added, “As a community, we also need to participate more in civic activities, including serving on juries. I know there is a temptation to try to get out of jury service because of inconvenience to our lives, but it is truly one of the most important parts of the criminal justice system and essential for our community views to be heard in the jury room.”
Fanley Chen wanted to speak during the court hearing involving the 16-year-old who had robbed her store and attacked her, but she was not given an opportunity to do so.
As our community continues to try to come to terms with these and related crimes, and the proper official response to them, I have questions regarding the court hearing, and the case itself, which should be asked and which San Franciscans deserve answers to:
- Did the district attorney and the DA’s office not allow her to speak at the court hearing? Why?
- Did they also order her not to speak to the media from now on? Why?
- What has the DA and his office told Fanley Chen?
- How have the DA and his office treated Fanley Chen, the victim in the robbery and the attack and assault?
- What have the DA and his office done to protect Fanley Chen’s rights, and to ensure that her physical safety and welfare are protected?
- What is the judicial system in San Francisco doing to protect the rights of Fanley Chen, the victim, and to ensure that her physical safety and welfare are protected?
On the recall front, Andrea Shorter gave this update since the May 26 rally at Portsmouth Square: “We gathered 23,000 signatures in 1 month, since our launch on May 26. We need 51,000 by October 25. As of June 26, we have 23,000 signatures gathered. For extra measure, we are working to gather well over 51,000 signatures. We are organizing to achieve our goal. 51,000 valid signatures of registered San Francisco voters is what is required. We are on track to meet that requirement.”
Shorter quoted anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Meanwhile, more brutal attacks and assaults against Asian American elders and other Asian Americans have occurred.
On June 16, Mrs. Anh Peng Taylor, a 94 year old Chinese Vietnamese woman, was stabbed while walking in the 800 block of Post Street and Leavenworth Street near her apartment in the Tenderloin. Kate Larsen of KGO TV News reported that Peng was stabbed through the wrist and torso, and hit on the head. The San Francisco Police Department reported that the person who allegedly stabbed her, Daniel Cauich, 35, was arrested less than two hours later, several blocks away from where Peng was stabbed. He was arrested for attempted homicide, battery with serious injury, elder abuse, and other charges. He had been arrested in 2016 on murder charges in a stabbing in the Mission district; a judge dismissed those charges in 2019 for lack of evidence. In May of this year, he was arrested on burglary charges, but was released on June 7. At the time of his arrest on June 16, it was reported that he had cut off the ankle monitor he was wearing. Cauich, similar to many others in San Francisco, was released to repeat his crimes on those he preyed. And as in so many other cases in San Francisco, the most vulnerable crime victims who are targeted are the elderly, and oftentimes Asian Americans.
- On June 30, California State Attorney General Rob Bonta issued the report “Hate Crime in California 2000,” from the California Department of Justice. Anti-Asian hate crimes reported to law enforcement increased by 107 percent in 2020. Bonta calls it “an epidemic of hate” against Asian Americans.
- San Francisco Supervisors Gordon Mar and Dean Preston recently sent e-mails to their constituents touting their accomplishments and outlining their priorities for San Francisco. Nowhere do they address the very serious issue of anti-Asian violence and hate crimes and killings in San Francisco. Mar and Preston, like other district supervisors, do not care to address this issue. They much prefer to look the other way.
- Many anti-Asian violent crimes have occurred in San Francisco in 2020 and 2021. District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the district attorney’s office have not prosecuted these crimes.
- Instead, Chesa Boudin told The New York Times on March 2 that the killer of 84 year old Vicha Ratanapkadee on January 28, 2021, 19-year-old Antoine Watson, was just “having some sort of temper tantrum” when he killed him. Watson, along with his accomplice in the killing, pled “not guilty” at their court hearings.
A PERSONAL PLEA
We must stand up and say to the elected officials, including District Attorney Chesa Boudin, “We will not sit in silence. We will not allow you to let the wave of violence against Asian Americans in San Francisco continue. We will not permit you to turn the other way and condone and perpetuate anti-Asian violence and hate crimes and murders in San Francisco.”
We must also demand that State Attorney General Rob Bonta and the California Department of Justice take over the prosecution of these cases. In addition, we must also call on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the United States Department of Justice to take over the cases.
We must stand up and stop the violence, hate crimes, and murders of Asian Americans in San Francisco.
The time is now.
Anh Lê is an independent journalist in San Francisco. You can follow him on Twitter @Anh48145594.