A rock presides over the Lakewood restaurant owned by Ivy Pham and her brother John, the brown-flecked stone displayed on a shelf the siblings erected as a reminder to themselves and all who enter Kickin’ Chicken that love and community prevail over hate.
The story of the rock, dubbed “Bob” by the Phams, is explained in a plaque below the exhibit: “I was thrown through and broke the window of Kickin’ Chicken during grand opening day. Instead of being a symbol of hate, I was adopted and have become part of the Kickin’ Chicken family!”
Unfortunately, the shelf display has grown.
In nine months, the restaurant has been vandalized four times. First the rock. Then a dumpster set ablaze. A BB shot at their store window. And someone heaved another rock through Kickin’ Chicken’s window a couple weeks ago.
“We’ve adopted the rocks, but we don’t want to adopt any more rocks,” said Ivy Pham, who is Asian American. “We’re just trying to make a sad and devastating situation a little more lighthearted and try to find some optimism. We’re hoping it’s not related to anti-Asian hate. We’re really hoping it’s not.”
Despite hoping otherwise, the thought creeps into Pham’s mind — understandably.
Attacks on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community — some fatal, including the recent Atlanta shootings that claimed eight lives, six of them Asian American women — have been on the rise in the United States, circulating in news accounts and horrific video footage.
In New York City, a suspect was arrested last week on assault and hate-crime charges after police allege he kicked a 65-year-old Asian woman in the stomach, knocked her to the ground, stomped on her face, shouted anti-Asian slurs and told her, “You don’t belong here.” A string of violent attacks on Asian Americans in California’s Bay Area has put law enforcement and the Asian communities living there on high alert.
While such high-profile hate crimes have not been reported in Colorado, the vitriol in the country has left members of the state’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community on edge. Locally, experts say incidents targeting Asian Americans often go unreported for a number of cultural reasons and that the standard to prove an act is a hate crime is difficult to reach.
Still, members of Colorado’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community say they’ve faced discrimination, vandalism and a drastic loss in business over the last year. Some local Asian American business owners waffle between not wanting to draw unwanted attention to themselves and needing to lure clientele back after a difficult financial year plagued by pandemic restrictions and customers whose biases kept them away.
“We started getting reports of severe decreases in foot traffic and revenue in our Asian American small businesses as early as January 2020 and this was before shutdown and all of that,” said Fran Campbell, president and CEO of metro Denver’s Asian Chamber of Commerce, representing more than 130 member companies.
“What we’re seeing now is they have to play catch-up. They are at a severe disadvantage,” said Campbell, a Filipino American. “When all the others are moving into the blue on the COVID dial and opening up, these businesses are having to contend with bringing back a client base that was very suspicious and bigoted toward them. How do you bring those customers back?”
Ethnic studies experts note anti-Asian discrimination is not new but has been exacerbated during the pandemic as the Trump administration frequently blamed COVID-19 on China, with the then-president himself often referring to the deadly coronavirus with derogatory names like “the Chinese virus.”
“If you heard (then-Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo calling it the ‘Wuhan virus,’ if you heard the president calling it ‘kung flu’ and blaming China, it’s not a far stretch for people already feeling afraid and financially insecure and totally stressed out because of COVID to lash out — which is not excusing their behavior — but I think that’s what’s happening,” said Jennifer Ho, ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
Rising incidences of anti-Asian hate
Nationally, new data from the organization Stop AAPI Hate documented nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents from March 2020 through February 2021. Reports of anti-Asian hate crime in 16 of the largest U.S. cities increased 145% from 2019 to 2020, even as overall hate crimes declined in those areas, according to an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
A June 2020 Pew Research Center survey found 31% of Asian adults in America admitted to experiencing slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity since the COVID-19 outbreak began. Nearly 60% of Asian adults said it was more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about Asian people than before the pandemic, the survey found.
Denver police documented three incidents of bias-motivated crimes against Asians in 2020 — the first reported in the city in six years — and one so far in 2021. These incidents range from a suspect “singling out” a man due to his race and making “threatening comments” to a suspect stabbing a victim in the hand with a ballpoint pen and making racist comments, according to police.
Lakewood police said they identified one suspect in connection with one of Kickin’ Chicken’s vandalism incidents and don’t have proof the crime was racially motivated, but will continue to investigate.
Experts noted most of these types of incidents — potential hate crimes and bias incidents — go unreported. And furthermore, hate-crime charges and convictions don’t tell the full story.
Stan Garnett, a former Boulder County district attorney, said successfully prosecuting someone for a hate crime within the bounds of the U.S. legal system is a difficult task.
“What has to be proven is a subjective mindset of a defendant at the particular time a criminal act was done,” Garnett said. “Proving a primary motive is a very difficult thing. Criminals who commit acts often have a whole bunch of motives. They’re misogynistic or they’re violent or maybe they’re just an unpleasant person or maybe they’re biased against a certain community. For a hate crime, you have to prove it’s the primary motive, and that’s difficult to establish.
“There aren’t many documented hate crimes against Asian Americans or anybody because it’s very difficult to prove.”
Carl Murray Olsen, assistant director of the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center at Colorado State University, suggested another reason why attacks against his community often go unreported. The idea that Asian Americans should be “quiet” and “submissive” is a widely accepted American narrative that has been internalized by many in the community.
“When you think about the culture of Asian Americans, reporting is actually a really big deal,” Murray Olsen said. “We’re supposed to not stick out, just put your nose to the grindstone, don’t worry about it. That culture prevents reporting in a lot of ways.”
Asian American business owners and community members often report incidents to community leaders like Campbell rather than law enforcement, she said.
Local businesses have told Campbell about people running into an Asian American-owned liquor store and knocking all the inventory off the shelf, darting inside a Vietnamese restaurant to shout that everyone needs to go back to where they came from, throwing rocks through a restaurant’s open doors at Asian American employees, and asking restaurant staff whether the food is from Asia and contaminated with COVID-19.
The stores don’t want to out themselves, Campbell said, for fear of reprisal.
“There’s so many instances,” Campbell said. “So many of them have not been reported to police. Maybe there’s a cultural reluctance or distrust or a feeling of apathy that nobody is going to do anything, nobody is going to fix this. What can they do?”
Strong communities banding together
Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu decided they couldn’t stand by and do nothing.
The queer Asian immigrants and owners of Aurora’s Third Culture Bakery were heartbroken watching attacks against their community proliferate. They began fundraising for and creating safety kits — first reported by the Aurora Sentinel — intended to be distributed to vulnerable members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in Colorado and California.
Each kit features an “extremely loud” keychain alarm, a keychain pepper spray, a lanyard, wristband and directions translated in multiple languages including Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and more.
“We thought it would have just been a few hundred but when reaching out for pick-up locations, we received requests of 5,200-plus safety kits,” Shyu said. “More and more people started telling us how they wish they had these kits when they were attacked or when their family member had been attacked. We didn’t realize how great the need was for these kits as the demand was so much greater than what we initially thought.”
The partners hope to distribute the kits at locations like senior homes and vaccination sites. They have about 800 kits as of this week and anticipate needing to fundraise about $30,000 to meet the demand. Anyone interested in donating can do so at shopthirdculturebakery.com.
Aside from donating, what can you do if you want to be an ally to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community?
To start, Ho said, educate yourself about the history of Asian American racism, speak up about what you learn and actively speak out when you hear bias. Ho compiled a digestible resource housed on CU Boulder’s website with expert information on anti-Asian racism and allyship tips.
Additionally, Campbell said, support the local Asian American and Pacific Islander businesses in your neighborhood.
“Go back,” Campbell said. “That’s really what’s going to help us regain the trust, regain the economic foothold, restore what they’ve had, what they lost through the anti-Asian violence and COVID.”
When word began to spread the past few weeks about Kickin’ Chicken’s scourge of vandalism, Pham said Lakewood residents sprung into action and turned out in droves to feast on their four chicken entrees and sides ranging from Mexican street corn to Vietnamese slaw and macaroni salad.
“We’re children of immigrants,” Pham said. “It really does hit home to see all these anti-Asian crimes daily. It is really heartbreaking, but there is optimism in the sense that these tragic events happen, but then you see strong communities band together. We had such amazing outreach. We’re all about good vibes here.”
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