When Eddie Song leaves his Manhattan home, it can feel like heading into battle. The Korean American startup founder and avid rider dons his armored motorcycle jacket, motorcycle gloves, a skull face mask and a GoPro camera.
“The GoPro is on all the time whenever I leave the house now. Basically it’s a rolling camera,” Song said. “With the combination of looking intimidating and having the camera — if they pick a fight with me, they know I’m prepared.”
As the coronavirus first seen in China now ravages the U.S., Asian Americans are continuing to wrestle with a second epidemic: hate. Hundreds of attacks on Asian people have been reported, with few signs of decline. Rather than feel helpless, many are filming their interactions or carrying guns.
Others are training in deflection instead. Many Asian Americans say they want to safely confront racist bullying and harassment, and grassroots groups are sharing — virtually, of course — ways to defuse abuse.
Song, 41, made the camera a fixture after a middle-aged Latino man shoved him and demanded his shopping cart outside an Upper East Side Costco in February “because your people are the reason coronavirus is happening.” His Thai American wife, a nurse, goes out in scrubs in hopes of better treatment but also carries pepper spray.
Becky Gerhardus, a Cambodian American in Portland, Oregon, bought a handgun two months ago after reading about anti-Asian attacks, including a stabbing that wounded a Texas man and his two children. An Asian woman in her 20s, Gerhardus feared being stereotyped as an easy target.
“In these crazy times, I might be the only person that can keep myself safe in a bad situation,” said Gerhardus, who often went shooting at a range before buying a weapon herself.
Using the gun would absolutely be “the last resort,” she said.
Background checks required to buy firearms hit an all-time high in March, according to FBI data. The agency doesn’t track background checks by race, but several media outlets have reported Asian Americans making up a large portion of those in long lines at gun shops in the last two months.
The demand surprised Alvin Lin, a Taiwanese American who shoots competitively and is a licensed instructor in Louisville, Kentucky. All of his Asian friends have asked him about owning a firearm or weapons training.
People who are serious about getting a gun should be committed to learning how to use it, said Lin, 31, who also owns a restaurant group.
“It would be incredibly irresponsible to let a 16-year-old just buy a car and let them drive without any sort of training and any understanding of how a car works,” he said. “Same thing with a firearm.”
Lin said many of his friends partially blame President Donald Trump using the phrase “Chinese virus” for giving the “go ahead” on racism.
The onslaught of anti-Asian attacks has evoked parallels to how Muslim Americans were treated after 9/11. However, the president’s response made a difference. Six days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush spoke of unity at a Washington, D.C., mosque and hate crime reports noticeably went down, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
“He made a point of not criminalizing Muslims and their religion and their community — and really making a distinction between those committing violent acts and just people of faith who were wholly American,” said Rachel Gillum, author of “Muslims in a Post-9/11 America: A Survey of Attitudes and Beliefs and Their Implications for U.S. National Security Policy.”
During the pandemic, an online hate reporting center has received nearly 1,500 reports of racist abuse against Asians nationwide since it launched March 19. Stay-at-home orders mean in-person run-ins are down somewhat but vandalism of Asian-owned homes and businesses is up, according to the advocacy groups running the portal.
It’s difficult to predict whether incidents will dramatically drop once society goes back to “normal,” Levin said, because the pandemic is unprecedented.
“Generally when there’s a catalytic event, hate crimes tend to decline and have a bit of a half-life,” he said. “But that presupposes a singular catalytic event as opposed to a rolling one.”
Levin, a former NYPD officer, cautioned to only stop an attack if it can be safely done.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice is promoting just that with bystander training. The civil rights organization teamed with anti-harassment group hollaback! to hold videoconferencing sessions over the next month. They were overwhelmed when more than 1,000 people registered for the first training two weeks ago, said Marita Etcubañez, one of the coordinators.
“As hurtful and harmful as hate attacks can be, often the person is further traumatized when they feel like people who were around could have helped but did not,” Etcubañez said.
Most people say they don’t step in because they don’t know what to do or are afraid of making things worse, organizers found. Bystanders can try diverting attention from the person being harassed, get help or confront the perpetrator — but only if there’s no danger.
That support has turned to action in San Francisco, where volunteers patrol Chinatown. In New York City, a Facebook group pairs people with Asian Americans afraid to venture out alone.
Song, who gears up when he goes out in New York, wants to use his GoPro to document harassment against others. In a Facebook video posted this month, he criticized a white woman for calling another Asian man “corona.” It’s received thousands of views.
He’s optimistic he won’t have to be as vigilant once some normalcy returns.
“My theory is that these are purely opportunistic people where they feel they have a higher probability of getting away with it,” Song said. “With more people around … they’re more likely to be called out on being a jerk.”
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