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Rise in violence against Asian Americans decried in Sonoma County

Mass shootings at massage businesses Tuesday in Atlanta is the latest example of rising violence against Asian Americans.|

Over dinner at Flamez Grill in Petaluma Wednesday, Elizabeth Escalante and her mother confided they worry for the other’s safety.

The mass shooting at three massage businesses Tuesday in the Atlanta area left eight people dead, six of them Asian women. The suspect claimed he was frustrated over a sexual addiction, authorities said.

The shooting was a horror, but it did not shock many Asian American residents of Sonoma County interviewed Thursday. They have watched with anxious attention as a rise in crimes targeting Asian Americans, especially elders, have been reported across the Bay Area. They have felt the jabs from former President Donald Trump, who publicly described the coronavirus in racist terms — like the “Kung flu.“

That was already enough to move Escalante, 29, a Filipina-American, to help organize a demonstration denouncing anti-Asian violence in February at Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa.

So when news came out of Georgia that a 21-year-old white man opened fire at not one but three massage spas, there was no question in her mind that the violence was rooted in a toxic mix of racism and misogyny long aimed at Asian women.

“My mother did warn me on the side of caution, ’Just please be careful,’” Escalante said. “My ethnicity might represent something to another person’s eye, so I have to be more careful. I’m livid about that, truthfully.”

Just last week, Santa Rosa Junior College trustees passed a resolution to demonstrate solidarity with Asian American Pacific Islander communities, a statement meant to counter recent violence and a sense that “the recent epidemic of COVID-19 has been falsely blamed on AAPI individuals.”

SRJC president Frank Chong draws a direct line from that hateful rhetoric to the violence in Georgia.

“Messages put out by our former president have hurt, and they have been a call to action for hate groups,” Chong said in an interview.

Violence hit home in November for Chong and his family when his older brother was attacked in Oakland by four youths who took his phone and tried to steal his car, according to Chong. His brother is 73, has Parkinson’s disease and cancer, and no longer feels safe leaving his house.

The assault felt like a flashback to the mid-1980s when Chong helped organize community meetings in Oakland to help stem violence targeted at refugees from Asia who had come to the Bay Area. Chong said he is deeply concerned to hear the murders in Atlanta aren’t being treated as hate crimes mired in America’s long history of discrimination against Asian people.

“We feel under siege right now. It’s shaken us to our core,” Chong said. “For the first time I feel wary about going out. Will I be insulted and marginalized?”

The shooter has been charged with eight counts of murder but no hate crimes. A spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office drew ire after describing the day of the shooting as the result of “a really bad day” for the suspect. The spokesman had also previously posted images of T-shirts on social media echoing Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric, calling the coronavirus an “imported virus from Chy-na,” according to the New York Times.

Petaluma resident Kimi Stout, 35, quit her server job at the Girl & the Fig restaurant in Sonoma last month after she said she was told she couldn’t wear a mask with the words “Black Lives Matter” on it.

Stout said she felt it was essential to make a stand at a time when the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had surfaced the deep grief of Black America. Tuesday’s violence in Atlanta felt deeply personal and “devastating,” said Stout, who is Chinese-Filipina American.

“It’s almost as devastating to hear people say, ’We asked him if it was racially motivated and he said no,’ ” Stout said. “To take his word for it? For an officer of the law to excuse him as having a bad day? It doesn’t surprise me that something like this happened.”

Bodega Bay resident Jon Yatabe, 83, said he fears the violence shows that the country has not progressed far enough away from the kind of racism that led to the internment of the Japanese during World War II.

Yatabe was about 5 years old in 1942 when his family, who had a flower business in Redwood City, was imprisoned, and forced to move into the horse stables at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno. They were later shipped to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah while his father joined the 442nd Infantry Regiment, sent to the front lines of the European theater.

Yatabe said the last year has revived that sense of fear and insecurity that pervaded the fabric of life when he was a child. He became worried for his son, an attorney in Colorado near reports of anti-Asian violence.

“I hear about violence like that, and I just think back on all violence against all minorities, not just Asians, violence against blacks, against Latinos,” Yatabe said. “It brings back a fear that the country hasn’t really progressed from where we once were.”

Santa Rosa mother Chantavy Tornado helped Escalante organize February’s anti-Asian violence demonstration in Santa Rosa.

Tuesday, Tornado said she was talking on the phone with Rohnert Park City Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, who was recently called racial slurs by an anonymous caller who told her to “go back to Africa,” when she started receiving messages about the mass shooting in Atlanta.

One week earlier, Tornado, who is Khmer and the daughter of survivors of Cambodia’s killing fields, was walking with her 7-year-old son on West Third Street when someone driving past cursed at them and yelled a racial slur used against Chinese people.

A lifetime of experiences, including the deep betrayal of a white man who abused Tornado as a child, made the news hard to bear. She turned on some music and cried.

Now Tornado said she’s ready to speak out and call for all people in Sonoma County to take a strong, public stance against violence because of the many ways these injustices are allowed to continue in private.

“It’s a different floor plan in Sonoma County. We can’t do it alone, there’s only 2% of us in this community,” Tornado said, referring to the Asian population here. “We need a mass healing in so many ways.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Escalante helped organize a demonstration denouncing anti-Asian violence in February. Her surname was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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