On the Front Lines of the Surge in Violence Against Asian Americans

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Tuesdays are supposed to be Bay Area ABC reporter Dion Lim’s day off, but she was working this week, covering two separate attacks on Asian American men in San Francisco and Oakland. Later in the day — after the nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate released research showing some 3,800 verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans in the past year — a white assailant killed eight people, including six Asian women, at spas in metro Atlanta, in shootings that authorities are so far reluctant to describe as a hate crime.

Lim, who has spent much of the last year covering the surge in violence against Asian Americans, is all too familiar with the shape of these stories. “It feels like a sense of panic, a sense of extreme duty, and a sense of helplessness all at the same time,” she says of the work she has taken up roughly since the first coronavirus cases began emerging in the U.S. last year. In an interview with Intelligencer, she describes the challenges of reporting on anti-Asian violence when police officials do not qualify an act as a hate crime, the exhaustion of Bay Area communities facing attacks, and why the violence is persisting.

Looking at your work, it’s harrowing that this could essentially be someone’s unofficial beat. I know you wrote last March that this reporting has provided you with a “chance to be an ally for hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area,” but how has this affected you and your understanding of San Francisco and Oakland, which are considered two of the most progressive cities in the nation?

So I grew up in exceptionally non-diverse parts of the country: born in Michigan, then went to high school in rural Connecticut. Then went on to be a news anchor and news reporter in places like Kansas and North Carolina and Florida. In those places I was the first and only Asian American woman to be at the helm of a Monday-through-Friday news cast. And here we are in the Bay Area, I was so excited and enthused to be here because finally I would be around people who would no longer ask me why my lunch looked so funky and if I was bringing Panda Express to work. I expected there to be a level of tolerance. And coming here, yes, absolutely, it is vibrant, it is diverse; it is what I expected. But on the other hand, a law-enforcement official put it best to me this past week. He said, “Dion, you are now aware of the Bay Area’s dirty secret.”

And that dirty secret is what we’re experiencing right now. Except what’s different — this is not a new phenomenon, the attacks on Asian Americans — what we’re experiencing now is finally people are talking and people are using tools like social media to share. It feels like it’s been my crusade, it’s never something I anticipated happening, but I think when the pandemic first hit I realized it was my duty as a journalist to give a voice to these stories. Because never has everyone in these communities felt like they were being heard.

How has social media changed the way this story is told?

I think the mentality of a lot of Asian Americans is that we were brought up not to cause a fuss. So reporting to police has not traditionally been something Asian Americans do. But there’s a snowball effect on social media. When I first posted about a man being humiliated and beaten while he was collecting empty cans in the San Francisco Bayview, it resonated so much with people, encouraging them to share their own stories. Through that shared experience, it makes people more apt to want to report or speak out when there is injustice in their community. It’s a lot of the younger generation speaking out as well, for their grandparents.

Can you feel a sense of exhaustion among the victims and their communities you’ve spoken with over the past year?

Every time I see a bloody face or sent a video of an elderly Asian American being shoved to the ground, I think enough is enough. I wonder when the fever pitch is going to happen, when the people in power say, “This is a crisis, this is an epidemic.” The community has echoed the same thing over the course of many years, and obviously over the past year. They have always expressed a level of frustration, concern, confusion, and sympathy.

Yesterday was a point of feeling despair. People are getting angrier. Comments on my work are getting aggressive, calling for arming themselves or gun control or accusing officials of not doing enough. It’s like a tier system, almost. Just as I think I can’t handle enough, there’s something else that happens and there’s no time to process. The despair and the outrage don’t end, they just compound on top of each other. At the same time, there’s such a sense of resiliency. Asian Americans, and especially older Asian Americans, are some of the most resilient people in the world.

Looking at the larger trend, the rise in anti–Asian American hate crimes began as coronavirus cases first rose and the Trump administration started using racist rhetoric to refer to COVID. I was wondering if you’ve seen this trickle-down effect in your reporting.

I will not mince words in saying that the Trump administration opened the floodgates to the hate. Even if there were people who had negative feelings toward Asian Americans, because of the leadership of our country, many Americans saw it as okay and acceptable. I heard from so many viewers saying they had been trolled online by people saying, “I heard the president call it the China virus so I can do it as well.” There’s no denying that language coincided with the rise in violence.

What is your opinion on the apparent decision by police officials in Georgia not to question the shooter’s claims that the attack was not racially motivated? When you encounter police statements that forward an assailant’s language without much scrutiny, how do you approach that? 

I think there has to be a level of care with these cases like we’ve never seen before. When I heard what law enforcement conveyed to the public about this not being hate-motivated, how could I not have my doubts? The public is having their doubts. With so many attacks on Asian Americans, how could you not think this was the motivation?

I see the parallels with Atlanta in my own reporting. The automatic assumption is hate crime when you see an Asian American being attacked. And I want people to know the difference. Often times, should these crimes be categorized as such? I think so as a human being, not just as an Asian American, but as someone with feelings and emotions and common sense. But by the law, a hate crime has to be defined by certain parameters — were slurs used, was there a specific threat toward a particular community.

Were you aware of a Daily Beast report on Wednesday night saying that the police officer who said the shooter “had a bad day” posted a picture last April of a racist T-shirt blaming China for the pandemic?

Oh my God. I have to laugh, because every day when I think something cannot become more absurd, it does. This is the level of questioning and skepticism that I hope the public will have. Even though you’re hearing elected officials, people who are in power, make statements such as this, really educate yourself on who is saying this and where it’s coming from.

The statement from the sheriff’s spokesperson unfortunately echoes some recent comments from San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. He was quoted in the New York Times in February regarding 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai man who was pushed and killed by a suspect and was caught on camera in a story I broke. The DA was quoted as saying that the suspect was having a “temper tantrum.” I also reported his comments, then he backtracked saying he was just describing the suspect’s mental state before the attack.

I wanted to address some stats from the report from Stop AAPI Hate about the 3,800 physical and verbal attacks over the past year. It states that around 35 percent of incidents have occurred at stores and businesses. Has this been reflected in your reporting?

The Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center does phenomenal work and I will go out on a limb and say — even though there inherently can’t be statistics on this — but based on what I have collected over the past year, 90 percent of the incidents that do happen do not get reported. So if you do the math, 3,800 incidents, I would multiple by ten. Think about it, elderly Asian Americans aren’t using a website, let alone wanting to report these incidents.

But going back to the business aspect in the AAPI report, I can see why many of these incidents happen in these places. Oakland and San Francisco’s Chinatowns, for example, are thriving communities that are not just for tourists. For people who frequent the merchants there, this is a way of life. Obviously, if this is where Asian Americans are congregating, that I can see absolutely being a reason why. I’ve also been told by law enforcement that with the pandemic, with less traffic on the street, it’s an easier getaway.

We’ve discussed how elderly people have been attacked, but the AAPI report states that women make up a far higher share of victims, at 68 percent. Have you spoken with female victims who feel like they were targeted because they were women? Just to focus on Atlanta, the shooter described these salons as “temptations,” which is a code of sorts that seems to fetishize Asian women.

Look at the history, right, the idea of Asian women being fetishizing and the hyper-sexualization of Asian American women is nothing new. It’s a double whammy: Asian Americans already grow up in this culture where academics and behaving is praised, right? As a woman, having that hyper-sexualization of being submissive and being exotic, you see it around the globe. So some Asian American women are feeling exceptionally targeted because of those two factors compounding on one another.

I do think it’s a problem. I almost feel it myself. As a journalist, when I go to a press conference and am pelting an attorney with questions, people are shocked. If you see a white man do the same thing, yeah that’s par for the course. But you see someone who looks like me in a setting where I’m not expected to speak out on behalf of Asian Americans, I think that’s one reason people have paid so much attention.

How does this violence subside? I know we talked about Trump’s rhetoric, but we’re two months into the Biden administration and the attacks appear to have escalated.

I think the harm the Trump administration put Asian Americans in during the course of his presidency is going to take a very long time to undo. The healing process, we’re not just starting from zero, we’ve been set back years. I do think in a way, I’m able to champion these stories and more people are talking and there are these shows of solidarity, there is that hope that we’re going to get through a really dark time. I don’t know if we’ve hit rock bottom. It certainly felt like rock bottom yesterday. I was on the Peloton, I was exhausted and breathing and so physically tired. I started weeping, but it was these dry tearless sobs. I was heaving, I just thought, “This has got to be the worst.” But I woke up this morning to more tips of violence.

I think President Biden has been strong in his messaging, but two months compared to four years of Trump’s rhetoric, it feels like it’s going to take decades to overcome.

How do you continue with your work after this week?

It’s mental exhaustion to the point you can’t stop. I don’t know how to describe it. You’re so exhausted and you should be going to sleep. But you know deep down when you open your eyes, more hate will come to the surface. I don’t know how else to put it.

At the same time, the work has been empowering. When I feel overwhelmed, I think, “Okay, these are people at the lowest low in their lives. Someone that they love has been attacked and the first person they want to speak to is me so they can be accurately represented.” That is an honor that no amount of money or experience can give you.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

‘I Don’t Know If We’ve Hit Rock Bottom’