On their final night together, father and daughter watched the news and traded goodnight kisses on the cheek. The next morning, Vicha Ratanapakdee was assaulted while on a walk in San Francisco and died, becoming yet another Asian victim of violence in America.
On Sunday, Monthanus Ratanapakdee marked the one-year anniversary of her father’s death with a rally in the San Francisco neighborhood where the 84-year-old was killed. She was joined by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, local leaders and several hundred people who came out to say they would stay silent no more.
“It’s been traumatizing to see this again and again happen to people who look like you,” said Natassia Kwan, an attorney and rally organizer. “Today, we’re going to say it’s not okay for our elders and women to be pushed into subway tracks, to be killed, to be beaten. We deserve better.”
Hundreds of people in five other U.S. cities joined in the national event, all of them seeking justice for Asian Americans who have been harassed, assaulted, and even killed in alarming numbers since the start of the pandemic.
Ratanapakdee, who was raised in Thailand, feels compelled to speak out so people don’t forget the gentle, bespectacled man who doted on his young grandsons and encouraged her to pursue her education in America.
“I really want my father’s death to not be in vain,” said Ratanapakdee, 49, a food safety inspector with the San Francisco Unified School District. “I wouldn’t want anyone to feel this pain.”
Asians in America have long been subject to prejudice and discrimination, but the attacks escalated sharply after the coronavirus first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. More than 10,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported to the Stop AAPI Hate coalition from March 2020 through September 2021. The incidents involved shunning, racist taunting and physical assaults.
In San Francisco and elsewhere, news reports showed video and photos of older Asian people robbed and knocked down, bruised and stabbed on public streets. Preliminary data shows that reported hate crimes against Asian Americans in San Francisco surged from 9 victims in 2020 to 60 in 2021. Crime stats don’t tell the whole story, however, as many victims are reluctant to report and not all charges result in hate crime enhancements.
High-profile victims nationally include Michelle Go, 40, who died after a mentally unstable man shoved her in front of a subway in New York City earlier this month. In March, a gunman shot and killed eight people at three Georgia massage spas, including six women of Asian descent ranging in age from 44 to 74. There’s disagreement among officials whether those attacks were racially motivated, but the deaths have rattled Asian Americans, who see bias.
Organizers say Sunday’s events in San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles are to honor victims, stand in solidarity and demand more attention to anti-Asian discrimination. But organizers say they also want to spark conversation in a community where both longtime Americans and newer immigrants are often lumped together as forever foreigners.
“The tiny window of visibility we had with the ‘Stop Asian Hate’ movement, it really was just a glimpse of what Asian Americans feel every day, that kind of pervasive disrespect and casual contempt at our parents, our languages, our families,” said Charles Jung, a Los Angeles employment attorney and executive director of the California Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
“What we really want is to encourage Asian Americans to tell their stories,” he said, “and finally break the silence.”
Vicha Ratanapakdee encouraged his oldest daughter to move to the U.S. more than two decades ago to pursue a master’s degree in business at the University of California at Berkeley. He and his wife were living with Ratanapakdee, her husband and the couple’s two sons, now 9 and 12.
He was on his usual morning walk when authorities say Antoine Watson, 19 years old at the time, charged at him and knocked him to the ground. Ratanapakdee’s father died two days later, never regaining consciousness.
“My mom told me that day was the best day for my father. He was happy to go out,” said Ratanapakdee. “But it was a bad day for us, because he never came back again.”
San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, has charged Watson, who is Black, with murder and elder abuse but not with a hate crime, frustrating the family. Watson’s attorney, Sliman Nawabi, has said his client was not motivated by race, and the assault stemmed from a mental-health breakdown.
The brutal attack, caught on surveillance video, has galvanized Thai immigrants, said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, which participated in Sunday’s rally. His killing, and the overwhelming support from other Asian American communities, has made them rethink their place in the United States, she said.
“It really sparked this consciousness among Thai immigrants,” she said, “that they’re part of something larger.”
While there’s much more to do, the country has come a long way from 1982 when two white men in Detroit upset over the loss of auto jobs to Japan fatally beat Vincent Chin, says Bonnie Youn, a rally organizer in Atlanta and board member of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
A judge sentenced the two men to probation, saying they weren’t the kind of people to go to prison.
Compare that to the March 16 shootings in Atlanta and a northern suburb, Youn said, when journalists worked to make sure the Asian names of six slain women were pronounced correctly and their stories were told with sensitivity.
In San Francisco on Sunday, Ratanapakdee and Breed led a short chant-filled march to the house where her father fell, and where flowers marked the pavement.
He loved the United States, she said, and would want people to “raise their voice.”
“I know people are scared about anti-Asian hate in the community, and we must demand action for justice and all human rights,” she said Sunday. “Please be strong in memory of my father.”