Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Crime and Criminality in the Golden State

Anti-Asian violence in California is nothing new—just ask Mark Twain. But the current wave of beatings and killing is also a harbinger of something larger.

Jonah Raskin
March 24, 2021
Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On March 9, 2021, a 75-year-old Asian American man named Pak Ho died after he sustained traumatic head injuries. His alleged assailant is a 26-year-old ex-convict named Teaunte Bailey, a derelict with multiple convictions for assault, burglary, and other crimes who had repeatedly assaulted other elderly Asians: easy targets. At the time of the assault, Bailey was on probation. Arrested by the police, he has been charged with a “special circumstances” murder by the Alameda County district attorney. Prosecutions under special circumstances allow for more severe punishments than are ordinarily permitted.

The American novelist Mark Twain would not have been surprised by the gruesome details of Bailey’s assault on Pak. In Roughing It, which was published in 1872, he wrote: “News comes that in broad daylight in San Francisco, some boys have stoned an inoffensive Chinaman to death, and that although a large crowd witnessed the shameful deed, no one interfered.” Twain lived and worked as a journalist in San Francisco in the 1860s. He exaggerated famously in his 1884 Mississippi River novel in which the narrator, Huck Finn, explains that “there was things which he [Twain] stretched but mainly he told the truth.” Twain mainly told the truth about the treatment of the Chinese in San Francisco, where he lived in the Occidental Hotel. He described it as “heaven on the half shell.” More than 150 years after his brief sojourn in oyster heaven, Asians are still being assaulted. While the media stretches some of the facts—that’s the nature of journalism—it hasn’t fabricated a disturbing trend, or invented Teaunte Bailey out of whole cloth.

Between late March 2020 and the end of December 2020, there were nearly 3,000 reported accounts of hate crimes against Asian Americans all across the nation. The most high profile was the March 16 Atlanta-area killing spree that left eight people dead, six of them Asian women.

But a significant number of these attacks have taken place in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is often thought of as a bastion of liberal values, tolerance, and respect.

On Monday March 15, 2021, Danilo Yu Chang, 59, an Asian American, was assaulted near the heart of San Francisco. “The old San Francisco is gone,” he said. “It’s not safe anymore.”

On that score, let’s also note here the dramatic presence of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, the son of ’60s radicals and anti-racists, has insisted that while the attack on the 84-year-old from Thailand was “heinous,” it was not motivated by race hatred. Bay Area Asian Americans have been disappointed by Boudin’s statements and his stance, though in fairness to him it’s probably worth saying that he doesn’t want or need to stir up more violence or add to the already substantial body of animosity that exists between Asian Americans and Blacks in his bailiwick. More about DA Boudin later in this essay. He offers too curious a story to be slighted. But first I want to bring myself and some of my own past into this narrative.

The current situation in San Francisco mirrors in some respects the dynamic that existed in 1960s New York. From 1959 to 1964 I lived on the edge of Harlem, where some residents viewed some Jewish shopkeepers as “the enemy.” New York media, which almost always acts as a furnace, helped to fan the flames of both anti-Semitism and racism. Especially the tabloids.

Saturday mornings I worked at a small stall in a public market owned and operated by a Jew who lived in Yonkers and sold dairy products, including milk, butter, eggs, and cheese to Blacks and Puerto Ricans. A quart of milk was a “loss leader.” It was sold at a price below market cost as a way to stimulate sales of more profitable items. The owner and his son used no calculators. Items were added up on the outside of a brown paper bag. The store policy was to insert a dollar amount for an item not purchased. If a customer complained, which was rare, the owner apologized for “the mistake” and removed the item from the list.

Liquor and grocery stores in Black and Latino neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area often charge more for alcohol, fruits, and vegetables than grocery stores and liquor stores in white middle class neighborhoods. So the resentments, anger and violence of residents do have some basis in fact, even if they offer no excuses for psychotic crimes. Sidney Lumet’s riveting 1965 movie The Pawnbroker explores some of the social issues that can arise between whites and ghetto residents. It features Sol Nazerman, a survivor of a concentration camp, a young Puerto Rican named Jesus, a social worker named Marilyn, and gun-toting gang members. With some changes it could be remade and be as timely today as it was in 1965.

The history of the early 1960s, when I lived on the edge of Black New York, is in part the story of ghetto explosions, which rocked Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, and later Newark and Detroit. Citizens took part in looting and burning. The police arrived, shot and killed, and when the smoke settled and the fires were extinguished, a semblance of order was restored. There was often an official inquiry; cops were reprimanded. A Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton emerged on the scene and became a force. Money flowed into the ghetto again. Stores were rebuilt. A street was named after Martin Luther King Jr.

After Jewish merchants abandoned Harlem, Watts in California, and elsewhere, they were often replaced by immigrants from Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, and the familiar scenario would be played all over again with a new cast of characters. Recently, some of the actors in the drama have been equipped with smartphones and computers, along with the anxieties brought on by global climate change, the pandemic, the near constant insistence from both corporate and independent media that the poor suffer more than the wealthy, that vaccines are more readily available in some neighborhoods than others, and that it pays to be privileged.

Welcome to America in Year One of the Biden presidency that so far looks and feels differently, at least to Democrats, than the Trump presidency. But perhaps the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Twenty-nine years ago, in the wake of the infamous 1992 LA riots—when the city went up in flames, and a jury returned a “not guilty” verdict against the police officers charged with the arrest and beating of Rodney King—African Americans directed much of their anger at ghetto stores owned by Koreans. Headlines played up the clash of cultures and races and the antagonism between the descendants of people from Africa and the descendants of people from Asia. Armageddon called the tune, and popular hip-hop artists built their careers around the idealization of gangsters, gangs, and criminality, to say nothing of misogyny and the glorification of the abuse of women. The soundtrack didn’t encourage tolerance, respect, and tranquility, and was embraced by some of the country’s elites, who didn’t live anywhere near the neighborhoods where the music was made.

The “Rodney King riots” are still remembered today by older residents in Korean communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The verdict in the King trial ignited the fuse in LA. Now the fuse seems to be permanently lit. Over the last few months, some of the attacks against Asian Americans—who were often doing nothing more than standing on a street corner or taking their money from an ATM— have apparently been carried out by Black men. Still, given the fact that reliable statistics are not yet available, it would not be prudent to draw conclusions or make predictions about crime and race in America in 2021 based on the Bailey case, or other notorious assaults that have been caught on video and are being replayed across Asian communities on the West Coast—and no doubt worldwide.

I’ll admit that the news about the latest wave of anti-Asian sentiments has hit me hard. That’s because I have thought of myself as someone opposed to racism and hate speech—and a staunch defender of freedom of speech—and also because my nephews, Jesse and Sam Raskin, both live in Northern California, both are academics, and both are married to women of Asian descent. Jesse’s in-laws came to California to get away from communism. Sam’s in-laws came to make their fortunes, and they did. Their wives are both successful lawyers.

Sam Raskin, a kayaker and white-water rafter, teaches geology at a community college in Folsom, California. He told me, “I’m more concerned than ever that someone might direct hate or violence toward my Asian family members.” He added, “I’m scared to drive my family through parts of rural California.” Sam says he blames “Trump for riling up the white supremacists by scapegoating Asians and Asian Americans.” He recently bought a camper from an old white couple, and, while cleaning it out found racist graffiti, which added to his fears.

I worry about the world that Sam’s and Jesse’s children will inherit. Their Asian names may set them apart from peers and set them up for teasing and bullying, just as Jewish names once did. Their Asian looks might also work against them, though my nephews and their wives are professionals and solidly middle class. They have the wherewithal to protect and insulate their children who are growing up in comfortable homes with plenty of nourishing food, new clothes to wear, nifty toys to play with, a real community and close-knit family ties.

What has been missing from the news stories about the current wave of hate speech and violence against Asian Americans is any real discussion of the past.

As a reporter and columnist for two Northern California newspapers, The Bohemian and the Pacific Sun, I have talked with enough middle class, white Bay Area families to know that mothers and fathers worry that their sons and daughters will take drugs, get into trouble, do something stupid, earn bad grades, take a wrong turn and be arrested and jailed, or merely expelled from school. The stakes are high. Parents fear their teens and preteens will find themselves excluded from the American dream.

But there’s also something more. There’s a pervasive sense that the barbarians are once again at the gates. Parents see the signs of social disintegration and collapse nearly everywhere; at the protests outside and inside the Capitol, on the streets of the Bay Area where Asians are attacked, robbed and murdered and at the border with Mexico where more and more refugees arrive every day.

In my view, it doesn’t matter who is president or vice president, governor, or senator, and which party is in power, or thinks it is. The problem is global and existential. It’s exploding and imploding faster than a speeding bullet. It’s able to leap tall buildings at a single bound and travel from continent to continent nearly as fast as you can send a text.

I recently did a Zoom event which was “bombed.” The anonymous “bombers” posted a racial slur on the screen. One of them said, “Fuck you, Jonah, you old man.” Another “bomber” directed a comment toward the woman who hosted the event. “Tina, pop your titties out,” he shouted.

Friends blamed me for the attack. “You must have done something to provoke the Zoom bombing,” a neighbor said. Another told me, “How terrible.” I explained that it’s terrible when you’re physically assaulted in the street and robbed, not when you’re Zoom bombed. We rescheduled the event and held it a week later than originally planned. Still, there’s definitely a decline in civility online and offline.

“We’re living in a dire moment,” a longtime Bay Area activist and artist told me the other day. Once upon a time she and her friends looked to Havana and Beijing for role models. Not anymore. The artist activist added, “Pathologically powerful people and social classes, plus patriarchy, hold sway in many parts of the world. Globally, with COVID-19 and climate change, only worldwide cooperation will meet the challenge.”

I hear that view expressed all across the region, and, while no one here seems to have a realistic plan for global cooperation, local cooperation between citizens and law enforcement is precisely what San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin wants. Without it he won’t be able to put a dent in crime in the city and help make people feel safe.

I call Boudin a liberal, an idealist, and a dutiful son who believes in changing the system from within, peacefully, not from outside through acts of violence. He’s not a knee-jerk liberal, and, while he worked for the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela, he condemned Chavez for corruption and a failure to institute basic democratic reforms.

As the son of ’60s radicals and members of the Weather Underground, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who themselves turned to crime and criminality, Chesa knows the workings of the criminal justice system from the experiences of his own family. His mother apologized for her role in the botched robbery of a Brinks armored vehicle, which led to the death of two cops and a Brinks guard. Chesa’s father hasn’t apologized, and at the age of 76 he’s still in prison, serving a 75-year-to-life sentence as though determined not to make use of what his Weather comrades once called “white skin privilege.”

DA Boudin is also a politician who was elected to public office a little more than a year ago, despite efforts by the police to defeat him. Not surprisingly, he wants to be reelected. Currently, the police are waging a battle to remove him from office. He’s continually burnishing his image and running a political campaign. At least once a month he holds a Zoom meeting open to the public, with time for questions. I attend and listen.

Media stories about Boudin place him in a small group of young Bay Area DAs who want to reform the criminal justice system by abolishing the death penalty and also by abolishing the system of cash bail, which has enabled citizens with money to get out of jail after an arrest and before a trial. Cash bail has also meant that citizens like Bailey, who are without money, remain in jail—which in Bailey’s case is a good thing.

At a recent virtual town hall meeting, Boudin insisted that he “respected the courage” of SF cops, but that he didn’t like “dishonest and lazy” law enforcement officers. He was “pro-labor,” he said, but he was against police unions because, he explained, they are “part of the problem.” He added that he would not accept donations from any police union, and that he would do his best to see to it that cops who had records of misconduct would not be rehired.

At one recent Zoom meeting, Boudin noted that, on the whole, crime had decreased dramatically (by 50%) in San Francisco since his tenure as DA began, though he didn’t take credit for that development. COVID-19 and the shutdown of businesses in the city led to a reduction in crimes against property, he explained. He added that the theft of automobiles—always a big SF issue—had increased by 28%. Win some, lose some.

Perhaps the most dramatic statistic that he offered was that 75% of the people in jail in the city were mentally ill, addicted to drugs or both. “I’m not a drug warrior,” Boudin said. “We can’t arrest our way out of drug addiction.” True. He also noted that 24% of the felony cases his office handled derived from situations that involved the sale of drugs. There was, he explained, a steady rise of overdose deaths from fentanyl in the city.

For decades the California way has been to build prisons and incarcerate and then build more prisons where young men often learn from adult cons how to game the system and become repeat offenders. The California State Prison System owns and operates 34 prisons, which hold about 120,000 people. The $16 billion per year cost of this system adds up to 7.4% of the California state budget. No wonder that critics call it a prison-industrial complex.

In the spring of 2020, at the time of the “George Floyd protests” in Portland, Oregon, Boudin was asked, “What will your office do if Trump sends troops to San Francisco?” He replied, “We don’t need or want, and won’t tolerate the kind of behavior seen in Portland.” It wasn’t clear to me what behavior he had in mind, but he asserted, “If Trump sends troops we’ll protect First Amendment rights.” He sounded like he was ready to build barricades—the kind of barricades that his mother and father once built.

What has been missing from the news stories about the current wave of hate speech and violence against Asian Americans is any real discussion of the past: We have been here before, folks, and have done this before. There’s a long history of racism against Asian Americans in California. Long before the advent of the Proud Boys, some white Californians wanted the Golden State to be a “white republic.” UCLA history professor Alexander Saxton, who helped create the first Asian American studies department in an American university, told a big chunk of the story of California racism in his 1990 book The Rise and Fall of the White Republic.

California in Mark Twain’s day, and throughout the second half of the 19th century, offers a vivid spectacle of anti-Asian racism, which was in fact the state’s defining form of hatred. In 1858, California passed a law that made it illegal for any person of the “Chinese or Mongolian races” to enter the state, though the state Supreme Court struck it down

Chinese men had arrived in California in droves in the late 1840s hoping to strike it rich during the Gold Rush. Their presence was deeply resented by men with white skins. Jack London, one of the fathers of California literature, and a longtime member of the Socialist Party of the U.S., harbored racist ideas about Asians, Blacks, Latinos, and especially Eurasians, some of which he expressed in novels like Martin Eden, and also in the 1904 essay “The Yellow Peril.” London’s abiding fear was that the Chinese and the Japanese would form an alliance and undermine the economic and political hegemony of the United States.

Everyone who knows the history of the Japanese in the United States knows that in February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of thousands of Japanese men, women, and children. In Sonoma County, where I live, refugees from European fascism moved into houses that were owned by Japanese families. Some of the interned families returned to their homes after 1945, finding them well-kept. That was justice and civility.

Not until 1988 did President Reagan issue a public apology on behalf of the United States government and authorize reparations to former internees or their descendants. Republicans in the White House do the right thing, sometimes.

In California, there are Hollywood endings of sorts, though wherever one looks on the big screen of history there are dark splotches that haven’t been erased. If the citizens of the Golden State are going to come to terms with the latest wave of anti-Asian sentiments, and put an end to violence based on race, resentment, and just plain insanity, they will have to come to terms with the past as well as address the present. That will not be easy task in a state that worships the here and the now, and that is all too eager to cancel aspects of history it prefers not to remember.

Though we are often perceived as laid-back, Californians try too hard. I’m one of them. We think we have to carry the rest of the country on our backs and into the promised land. We’re often surprised that the poor, the wretched, and the bigoted live next door to us, and that not everyone treats their neighbors neighborly.

Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.