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How one activist influenced Seattle Chinatown's alternative to traditional policing

Donnie Chin "provided a much broader sense of public safety that was never just about policing."
Image: Activist Donnie Chin
Activist Donnie Chin.Courtesy Caroline Li

For nearly a half-century, Donnie Chin was widely considered the unofficial security guard and medic of Seattle's Chinatown-International District.

Five years after Chin was killed in a shootout between rival gangs, his legacy still looms large in the neighborhood. Amid recent calls to reimagine public safety, some residents have touted Chin and the International District Emergency Center — the nonprofit he founded in 1968 — as viable alternatives to traditional policing.

In early June, after dozens of businesses were vandalized during riots over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis custody, a new crop of young Asian Americans emerged in Chin's image and formed an unarmed block watch.

"We really haven't had anyone who's done what he did," said Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International-District Preservation and Development Authority. "He provided a much broader sense of public safety that was never just about policing."

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As a teenager, Chin noticed that the police were slow to answer 911 calls in the neighborhood, and he began patrolling the streets by himself. He procured radios, police scanners and first aid kits — tools that allowed him to administer CPR, feed children and protect elders from fires more quickly than authorities could.

In devoting his life to the International District, Chin made many sacrifices. He never married or had children, and he often slept on a cot at the Emergency Center. And he died protecting his community. One early morning in 2015, he was caught in a hail of bullets as he sped to the scene of a shooting. The police determined that Chin wasn't a target of the gang dispute, but his killing remains unresolved.

"Donnie Chin provided us with a template from which to work," said Matthew Toles, founder of the Chinatown-International District Community Watch, an all-volunteer collective that has more than 400 Facebook members. The effort worked well from the outset, he said, because residents were already familiar with Chin's work and took it for granted that a similar model would be effective.

Although the community watch offers people some protection, its primary goal is to "provide services that aren't being provided at a government level," Toles said.

Around 10 o'clock each night, a handful of responders traverse the International District, hitting Chinatown, Little Japantown and Little Saigon. (The patrol ends at midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends.) For the most part, they collect trash and needles and distribute food and water to the homeless. Sometimes, they've had to help extinguish fires and direct people to food kitchens, substance abuse clinics and other social services organizations.

There have long been block watches in Chinatowns across the country, although their stature has grown tremendously since the spring, when the coronavirus pandemic began ravaging Asian businesses. In New York City, the Guardian Angels, an unarmed civilian group formed in 1979, began protecting Chinatown as early as February. San Francisco's collective, formed a little later, includes veterans.

But public support in Chinatowns across the country can be split, experts say. The spike in lootings, bias incidents and hate crimes this year has created a climate of fear in Asian enclaves that made some people, especially seniors, uneasy about the anti-police movement. In Seattle, not everyone was happy when the City Council voted this month to cut the police budget by $4 million and trim the force by about 100 officers.

Chin's childhood friend Dean Wong, a co-founder of the Emergency Center, said the move was "crazy" given the rise in anti-Asian attacks and the needs left unattended after Chin's death.

Although Chin was inspired by the Black Panther movement, Wong said, he also worked closely with authorities. Firefighters taught him the basics of being a first responder and supplied him with gauze and bandages. At Chin's memorial, Wong recalled, his friends from the police and fire departments honored him as they would a fallen comrade.

Ron Chew, a former director of the Wing Luke Museum and editor of the International Examiner, an Asian paper covering the district, said: "Asian Americans are stuck in a strange in-between place in this civil rights debate. After George Floyd's murder, of course, everyone's shocked, but people are also feeling the brunt of the vandalism. And they're in need of support, too."

The generational split can partly be chalked up to a history of shootings in the district that informs how elders respond to police reform, Chew said. In the early 1980s, a rash of murders, including a massacre at the Wah Mee gambling club, prompted local advocates to work with law enforcement to bring perpetrators to justice. The two sides built lasting relationships.

The split over policing among Asian Americans never reached its current intensity when Chin was guarding the neighborhood, Chew said. "Maybe it's true that we're at a reckoning point where institutional change will sweep over us," he said.

Meanwhile, the young volunteers who watch the streets today are struggling to find a balance between staying cognizant of police violence and ensuring their own safety.

"We were born from a political situation," patrol leader Tanya Woo said. "As much as we want to stay out of politics, we don't really have a choice."

One night in July, Woo's group tried to defuse a fight between several intoxicated men and a homeless person. When the men threatened to attack the volunteers, she called the police. By the time officers arrived, 45 minutes later, the team had already de-escalated the situation, and no one was hurt. But Woo's decision to involve law enforcement angered some members who felt that 911 shouldn't be dialed under any circumstance, especially not when a homeless or mentally ill person is involved.

Toles, the group's founder, said: "Not every situation is de-escalatable without having more force behind us. Responders don't actively collaborate with police but won't rule out requesting their assistance. Although some responders have martial arts training, it's still an enormous risk to step into a fight unarmed. By being on the scene, they can at least hold officers accountable for excessive use of force and other forms of misconduct.

Winkler-Chin, whose organization provides a host of senior services, said the evening patrols have restored a sense of security to vulnerable residents. But she wonders whether the model is sustainable without support from the city.

"A short-term volunteer effort is great, but what are the values going forward?" she asked. "Are these groups going to be trained and insured? Will anyone be willing to patrol the neighborhood for three hours a night for free in perpetuity?"

CORRECTION (Sept. 1, 2020, 1:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Ron Chew’s position with the International Examiner. He is the former editor, not the current editor.