Driven by increasing anti-Asian attacks, Jimmy Bounphengsy found himself becoming an accidental activist.
Bounphengsy, who lives in San Jose, California, said he was particularly upset by the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who died after being violently pushed to the ground in San Francisco in January. So the following month, Bounphengsy decided to go out on patrol on his own.
A 38-year-old Laotian American truck driver, Bounphengsy, who also goes by Jay B, drove more than 40 miles every day after work from San Jose to Oakland’s Chinatown and walked around providing unofficial store security, escorting elders home safely and more.
Bounphengsy’s efforts galvanized others within the Asian American community, many of whom said they were equally hurt and enraged by the senseless attack against Ratanapakdee and other incidents of Anti-Asian violence, to join.
His patrol group, Asians With Attitudes, or A.W.A., expanded to about 20 people within two months.
“I'm new to everything. I mean every single thing,” said Bounphengsy, now the Oakland leader of A.W.A., “I never thought I would have to step up and become this person I am today.”
Bounphengsy took a monthlong break from his job and devoted himself full time to A.W.A. He said money was an issue, and he had to sell one of his cars to get by, but he was ready to dig into his savings to travel around the state and the country to attend rallies and gatherings to raise awareness against Asian hate.
He said he hadn’t considered activism or the history of the Asian American experience before. Having had a difficult childhood surrounded by gangs and violence, he said he didn’t read a book until he was 18. It was at the rallies he began attending around the country that he really began to learn what solidarity was.
“Through Jay B’s actions, A.W.A. just became a movement,” said Kevin Ng, a member of the group. “That's when everybody wanted to come out like, ‘Hey, how can we help?’”
Almost 3,800 acts of anti-Asian violence or harassment have been reported since the pandemic began, according to the tracking organization Stop AAPI Hate. But many Asian Americans say racism against them is not new.
“It's been happening for a long time. Ask anybody, any immigrant from New York, anybody from San Francisco," said Jennifer Li, a member of A.W.A. in Chinatown Oakland. "It's just that with the recent media attention, there's starting to be more awareness about it. But I talked to a few store owners who were like, ‘Well, it's not more attacks than before. It's just that there's more attention now.'"
Experts have pointed out that the recent anti-Asian attacks have forced many to see Asian Americans as a minority group for the first time. They’ve also challenged many Asian Americans’ long-held beliefs about how to navigate life in America, and prompted some to turn to activism for the first time.
Though still learning to navigate the new identity and leading the movement, Bounphengsy has been determined to stay on the path, he said.
“I'm ready to march to the White House and let our presence be known,” he said, “That's my next step. And I'm not going to stop until I get there.”