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Virginia Asian communities, lawmakers react to rise in targeted violence

Asian American communities in Central Virginia have come together in the past month, vigil after vigil in response to a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. Virginia lawmakers are also trying to tackle the problem, and recently formed a Virginia Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus to push legislation on behalf of Asian communities, such as increased language assistance in government services.

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By David Tran

Capital News Service

White signs reading “End Violence Against Asians” and “Stop Asian Hate” illuminated against candle flames outside the Richmond Korean Presbyterian Church.

More than 60 people gathered recently in Southside Richmond for the candlelight vigil to commemorate the Atlanta shooting victims and to call attention to recent anti-Asian violence.

“We did not want to be here, but we are here because of the hate,” said Mahmud Chowdhury, chairman of the Asian American Society of Central Virginia. “Because of madness in some people’s hearts and because of racism.”

The vigil was one of numerous events across Virginia this past March as communities, advocates and lawmakers came together in response to the murder of eight people in Atlanta. Six of the eight victims were Asian women. Police charged 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, who is white, with eight counts of murder.

A “Stop the Hate” rally was held in Richmond’s West End three days after the vigil. Community leaders and dignitaries, such as Attorney General Mark Herring and State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, spoke at the rally.

May Nivar, who is Asian American and chair of Gov. Ralph Northam’s Asian Advisory Board, said she attended the vigil to show support for her community.

“It’s important that we all stand together and stand not only together amongst our own community but also with other marginalized communities,” Nivar said.

Nivar also is a founding member and chair of the Asian & Latino Solidarity Alliance of Central Virginia and member of the Richmond chapter of Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. She said fundamental local and federal legislative changes are needed to address anti-Asian discrimination.

“These vigils, they help bring the community together when we’re hurting,” Nivar said. “However, the real change has to come at the root cause. And that’s racism.”

These changes, Nivar said, include anti-racist policies in government and education, such as teaching the history of minorities. She said white supremacy plays a part in the absence of teaching the history of marginalized communities in schools, such as African American and Asian American history.

Nivar said the Asian American and Pacific Islander community also needs to internally reflect on its part in addressing systemic racism and striving for substantial changes.

“We need to work with ourselves,” Nivar said. “There’s a lot of anti-Blackness in our community. There’s a lot of colorism in our community. There’s a lot of layers to unpack.”

State legislators recently formed a caucus to advocate legislation for Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Virginia, which the founding members said was partly a response to recent anti-Asian hate crimes.

Del. Kathy K.L. Tran, D-Springfield, said the movement to combat Asian hate is part of a larger racial and economic justice movement.

The caucus plans to work alongside the Virginia Legislative Black and Virginia Latino caucuses to push out legislation to “achieve our common goals of a more equitable future for Virginians.”

Tran was overcome with emotions as she reflected on the surge of violence against Asian Americans in the past months.

“It’s as if we have been so othered, that we’re at the point that we’re dehumanized,” Tran said, “and that you could be cruel against us. You can be a bully against us, because nobody’s going to stand up to help us.”

Days after Tran’s remarks, a Filipina American woman was brutally attacked in New York City during the day. No one intervened.

Tran’s family came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam. Her family dealt with discrimination and microaggressions when they moved to the U.S, she said.

“I’m thinking about my own experience and unpacking that,” Tran said. “That’s hard. It’s just a lot of trauma.”

Del. Kelly K. Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, said the Asian American community has a long history of enduring xenophobia and racism. Convirs-Fowler, who is of Filipino descent, added the Asian American and Pacific Islander community will not be a scapegoat. She rejected the notion that the group is a model minority, a stereotype that paints Asian Americans as hardworking and economically successful compared to other ethnic minorities. She said the caucus formation “symbolizes a shift” in Virginia’s Asian American community.

The caucus members do not have a firm list of policy agendas, but they will have a virtual listening tour in April to gauge issues and concerns in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. They will virtually meet with the public in Northern and Central Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Ashburn, said the caucus will incorporate the feedback into its policy agenda, which it plans to release in May, coinciding with Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The caucus will pursue specific legislation during the 2022 General Assembly session.

Del. Mark L. Keam, D-Fairfax, said he wants to improve language access at government services for Asian Americans and others who do not speak English. He said non-English speakers are not getting vital information about COVID-19 vaccine distribution or unemployment insurance claims due to the lack of language assistance.

While Atlanta law enforcement have not declared the killings a hate crime, many Asian Americans believe the shootings are another example of the spike in anti-Asian violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates and lawmakers have linked the hate crimes to rhetoric blaming the Asian community for COVID-19. Many attribute the origin to former President Donald Trump’s usage of the terms “Chinese virus” or “Kung flu” to describe COVID-19.

“The past administration in the White House frequently sought to demean and dehumanize,” the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and didn’t respond to growing attacks, said Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield.

Hashmi introduced a bill this legislative session to expand the definition of hate crimes to include attacks based on the perception of a person’s identity. The bill failed to advance.

Tran said anti-Asian hate crimes may go unreported because most people are afraid to come forward.

“They might not have the language abilities, the trust of law enforcement, and they just don’t know how to report,” Tran said.

Subramanyam said he received calls and emails from Asian Americans, especially South Asian Americans, reporting hate incidents to his office because they feel uncomfortable reporting to law enforcement.

There were 215 reported victims of anti-Asian hate crimes in 2019, according to an FBI hate crime statistics report. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased nearly 150% from 2019 to 2020 in 16 major U.S. cities, according to a Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism report.

Almost 50 hate incidents against Asian Americans occurred in Virginia since March 2020, according to a report by STOP AAPI Hate, a group that tracks hate incidents against Asian Americans. The organization uses the term hate incident to account for incidents motivated by bias that might not be legally defined as a crime, such as racist slurs.

Nearly 3,800 hate incidents nationwide were reported to the organization since the pandemic. Virginia was one of the top 18 states with the most reported incidents, joining Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Reported hate incidents in Virginia were much lower than incidents reported in California, New York and Washington, which accounted for a majority of incidents. The group received almost 1,700 hate incident reports in California.

The majority of individuals reported verbal harassment, followed by shunning and physical assault. Chinese is the largest ethnicity group to report hate, followed by Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos. Women reported more than twice as much anti-Asian discrimination than men, according to the report.

There is a long legacy of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. that is often intertwined with misogyny, experts said. One of the earliest acts of anti-Asian sentiment was the 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles that killed 19 Chinese immigrants, said Sylvia Chong, associate professor of American studies at the University of Virginia.

The Page Act of 1875 denied Chinese women entry into the U.S. due to “lewd and immoral purposes” because “they were seen as a sort of a threat to immigration, but also, they were characterized as not being virtuous,” said Shilpa Davé, associate dean and assistant professor of media studies at UVA.

 Anti-Asian discrimination seeped into laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. It was the first federal law to bar a specific ethnic group from coming into the country.

Chong and Davé said the U.S. military presence and imperialism in Asia during the 20th century escalated the sexualization of Asian women. Chong said there was “persistent encouragement and use” of the local population to satisfy the military’s sexual needs.

“This introduces to American troops … the notion that Asian women in particular are in the position of sexual servitude,” Chong said. “So this follows people home.”

This narrative carried over and persisted in American popular culture, in numerous films and musicals, such as “Miss Saigon” portraying Asian women as sex objects, Davé said. It created the stereotype of Asian women being “sexually promiscuous or self-sacrificing” which became ingrained in American society.

The Atlanta shootings and recent violence underscore the intersectionality of gender, class and immigration status in anti-Asian racism, Chong said. While there is no indication the Atlanta shooting victims engaged in sex work, she said, Asian massage parlor workers are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Low-wage laborers, such as massage spa workers, are often exploited and demonized, she said. There is also a narrative that they need to be “saved from their lives,” which is harmful, according to Chong.

“They need to be given the protection to live their lives as others do,” Chong said. “Free from coercion, law enforcement coercion, as well as the random violence, societal violence. This is what any person in society wants.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

Downtown

Library of Virginia bringing Dopesick author Beth Macy to Richmond for the Carole Weinstein Author Series

Beth Macy is a Virginia-based journalist, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, and an executive producer and cowriter on Hulu’s Peabody Award–winning Dopesick series.

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The Library of Virginia continues its 2022 Carole Weinstein Author Series talks with New York Times best-selling author Beth Macy. Macy will discuss Raising Lazarus: Hope, Justice, and the Future of America’s Overdose Crisis, the much anticipated follow-up to her internationally acclaimed book and Amazon series Dopesick. Carole Weinstein Author Series talks are free and open to the public. Registration is required for in-person attendance. To register, click here.

The event takes place Tuesday, August 23rd from 6:00–7:30 p.m.at the Library of Virginia Lecture Hall. It will also be livestreamed.

Beth Macy is a Virginia-based journalist, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, and an executive producer and cowriter on Hulu’s Peabody Award–winning Dopesick series.

For more than 25 years, Macy has been reporting on stories from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia—previously for the Roanoke Times and, more recently, in occasional essays for the New York Times. She has also written for magazines, radio, and online journals from locations ranging from a mobile home in Bassett, Virginia, to a crowded cholera ward in Limbe, Haiti.

Like the treatment innovators she profiles, Beth Macy meets the opioid crisis where it is—not where we think it should be or wish it was. Bearing witness with clear eyes, intrepid curiosity, and unfailing empathy, she brings us the crucial next installment in the story of the defining disaster of our era, one that touches every single one of us, whether directly or indirectly. A complex story of public health, big pharma, dark money, politics, race, and class that is by turns harrowing and heartening, infuriating and inspiring, Raising Lazarus is a must-read for all Americans.

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Downtown

Youngkin calls raid on Trump club a ‘stunning move’ by feds, raising speculation about presidential run

Youngkin’s statement didn’t reference Trump specifically, but it was an unusually direct show of support from a Republican figure who kept the ex-president at arm’s length en route to his close win last year in a purple state.

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By Graham Moomaw

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin called the federal raid on former President Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago a “stunning move by the DOJ and FBI” and implied it could be politically motivated.

In a tweet posted Tuesday morning, Youngkin drew a connection between the news of the search in Florida and prior events in Virginia.

“This same DOJ labeled parents in Loudoun County as terrorists and failed to enforce federal law to protect Justices in their homes,” read the post from the governor’s political account. “Selective, politically motivated actions have no place in our democracy.”

The governor’s claim about the events in Loudoun has already been widely refuted by fact-checkers. A controversial letter from the National School Boards Association mentioned the arrest of a Loudoun father upset over his daughter’s sexual assault in a school as an example of aggressive behavior toward school boards that could be “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.” When Attorney General Merrick Garland responded by saying he would investigate and prosecute threats against school boards, he didn’t mention terrorism or Loudoun.

In response to protests over the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Youngkin, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan asked the Department of Justice to enforce a law that bars picketing outside justices’ houses in their states, but no federal prosecutions followed.

Youngkin’s statement didn’t reference Trump specifically, but it was an unusually direct show of support from a Republican figure who kept the ex-president at arm’s length en route to his close win last year in a purple state. Youngkin has been downplaying speculation about whether he might run for president in 2024, a move that could put him in competition with Trump for the GOP nomination.

Controversy over federal law enforcement agencies has particular resonance in Virginia due to the high numbers of federal employees who live in the state.

Facts have been scarce about why the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, what agents were looking for and what federal authorities believe Trump may have done. But Virginia Republicans didn’t hold back expressions of outrage over the move.

“The dangerous precedent the Democrats set yesterday by weaponizing the FBI should anger and frighten every American,” state Sen. Jen Kiggans, the Republican nominee in a close congressional race in the Hampton Roads area, said on Twitter. “All to settle old political scores and silence their political opponents – it’s corrupt, and it’s flat out unacceptable.”

Kiggans was responding to an earlier statement from her opponent, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a member of the congressional Jan. 6 committee who was pointing to Republican threats to investigate the Department of Justice if the GOP wins back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“There is no way to defend Trump, only to deflect,” Luria said.

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Crime

Editorial: Dogwood Dell: a massacre foiled or a tale too good to be true?

“The story seemed almost too good to be true. Now, a month later, a city prosecutor has given us reason to believe it’s not true.”

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By Bob Lewis

If you don’t live near Richmond and get your news from its regional media market, the last time you probably heard of a place called Dogwood Dell was a little over a month ago when Virginia’s capital city made national news for boldly claiming to have foiled a mass shooting.

The claim by Richmond’s police chief and mayor came on the heels of atrocities in Uvalde and Buffalo. Just two days earlier, a rooftop gunman indiscriminately mowed down spectators lining a Fourth of July parade route on the streets of Highland Park, Illinois.

As Chief Gerald Smith and Mayor Levar Stoney explained to a phalanx of television cameras on July 6, a tip from a “hero citizen” allowed police to apprehend two Guatemalan men illegally in the United States and foil their plot to take high-powered firearms to Dogwood Dell, a bandshell and amphitheater in a city park, and unleash hell on hundreds attending an evening Independence Day concert and fireworks display.

The story made network evening newscasts, an upbeat counterpoint to the fresh horror from suburban Chicago. Smith did cable news interviews with outlets like CNN, spreading the word. The publicity was a perfect balm for a police department whose community relations had been strained mightily by its heavy-handed response in the summer of 2020 to demonstrations along Richmond’s Monument Avenue triggered by the broad-daylight police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Stoney was forced to fire the police chief at the time, William Smith (no relation to the current chief), after officers in riot gear teargassed, maced, cursed and kicked protesters gathered peacefully at the since-razed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It took the city two years, prodded by the settlement of a citizens’ lawsuit, to formally apologize for those police actions.

But this summer, in the first week of July, buoyed by national headlines of a police triumph and lives spared, the city seemed to have made notable strides toward restoring faith in its leadership.

The story seemed almost too good to be true. Now, a month later, a city prosecutor has given us reason to believe it’s not true.

Asked directly in open court by Richmond General District Court Judge David Hicks last week if there was any evidence of plans to attack Dogwood Dell on July Fourth, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Clint Seal gave a clear, unequivocal and crushing response: “No.”

But that moment wasn’t the first time cracks in the city’s story had appeared. Troubling questions began surfacing as early as the upbeat July 6 press conference itself.

Why, if there was a known threat of a mass shooting, were the Dogwood Dell festivities allowed to proceed as scheduled, particularly with one of the two suspects not yet in custody?

Why was one of the suspects – at a minimum, a person illegally in the country – granted a low $15,000 bond on the same day Smith and Stoney announced his arrest? Five days later, another judge thought better of it and revoked the man’s bond, meaning both suspects are now being held without bail.

Why, if the alleged plot was so ignominious and worthy of the bold assertions unambiguously trumpeted by the city’s top officials, has neither man been charged in connection with it? Why is it not mentioned, even obliquely, in any of the charges currently pending against them? (Both are being held on federal immigration and firearms charges and facing deportation.)

And why have city government and police officials steadfastly stiff-armed persistent media requests to answer those questions and elaborate on the case?

The response from the police chief and the mayor? Double down on their claim and insist that it’s valid, the prosecutor’s contradictory statement in court under pain of perjury notwithstanding.

The basis for the chief’s belief that the two men planned specifically to shoot up Dogwood Dell? Essentially, his gut. And probability.

It came “from the experience and knowledge that your police department has and dealing with situations every day; of studying what happens in mass shootings, mass casualty incidents,” Smith said after the court proceeding in an on-camera interview with WTVR-TV in Richmond. “It comes from just your police department knowing what it’s doing.”

“It’s Richmond. Fourth of July celebration. It’s at the Dogwood Dell,” he said.

There’s no paucity of Independence Day observations in Richmond, a city with its own significant contributions to the nation’s struggle for independence. Arguably better known than Dogwood Dell is the annual fireworks display after the final out of the Richmond Flying Squirrels game at The Diamond, a minor league ballpark at the opposite terminus of Arthur Ashe Boulevard from Dogwood Dell. The city’s suburbs have their own numerous public celebrations and pyrotechnics extravaganzas.

As it turns out, we’ve been shown no more evidence for a plot targeting Dogwood Dell than we have for any other potential venue, though we’ve been implored to believe the claim absent any publicly shared substantiation beyond a conversation overheard by an earnest citizen tipster.

None of this is to suggest that these suspects don’t need to be sent away. They do.

Rolman Alberto Balcarcel had been deported twice from the United States and had returned a third time when he was arrested last month. His housemate, Julio Alvarado-Dubon, is charged with illegal possession of a firearm by a person illegally in the country. He had purchased two assault-style rifles, a handgun and multiple high-capacity ammunition magazines at a yard sale near Fredericksburg.

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin last week asked the U.S. Department of Justice to take over prosecution of the men because they are “two illegal aliens with guns so we wanted them prosecuted at the highest level possible.” There was no reference to a mass shooting.

Did Balcarcel and Alvarado-Dubon plan to carry out a bloody assault on U.S. soil – perhaps Richmond soil? I don’t know. Clearly, they had an arsenal capable of it. The chief and the mayor say that was their intent, but nobody in authority has yet put one word of it in writing, made such a claim in a legal proceeding, or shared a shred of corroboration beyond because we say so!

We should not lose sight of the fact that law enforcement performed a great service by taking these two into custody based solely on the armaments seized and the wanton immigration violations alleged in court documents. They deserve our thanks.

The problems come not from the work officers did but from city leadership building so fantastical a narrative and announcing it so broadly yet sharing no proof to support it.

The press may not be the juggernaut it once was, but there are still a lot of journalists out there who are really good at skeptically listening to a claim, methodically vetting and finding holes in it, and asking those responsible to explain the discrepancies. When those officials can’t – or won’t – the whole thing unravels pretty fast, particularly after scenes like the one in Judge Hicks’s courtroom.

What, for a few weeks, seemed like a much-needed PR breakthrough for city leadership in general and the police in particular has instead put both on the defensive again as Smith’s and Stoney’s sensational account falters on the verge of collapse.

Chief Smith, Mayor Stoney – if you’ve got the goods that you say you do tying these two guys to a mass murder plot at Dogwood Dell (or any place else), it’s time to stop stonewalling legitimate inquiries and back your claim with some verifiable proof.

At stake is the public trust and confidence necessary to govern.

Will you help support independent, local journalism?

We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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