Houston Chronicle Sunday
Brutal attack on elderly Thai man in Calif. outrages Asian community
SAN FRANCISCO — Weary of being cooped inside during the pandemic, Vicha Ratanapakdee was impatient for his regular morning walk. He washed his face, put on a baseball cap and face mask and told his wife he would have the coffee she had prepared for him when he returned. Then, on a brisk and misty Northern California winter morning last month, he stepped outside.
About an hour later, Vicha, an 84-year-old retired auditor from Thailand, was violently slammed to the ground by a man who charged into him at full speed. It was the type of forceful body blow that might have knocked unconscious a young football player in full protective pads. For Vicha, who stood 5 feet, 6 inches and weighed 113 pounds, the attack was fatal. He died of a brain hemorrhage in a San Francisco hospital two days later.
Captured on a neighbor’s security camera, the video of the attack was watched with horror around the world. Among Asian Americans, many of whom have endured racist taunts, rants and worse during the coronavirus pandemic, the killing of a defenseless older man became a rallying cry.
In the past year, researchers and activist groups have tallied thousands of racist incidents against Asian Americans, a surge in hate that they link to former President Donald Trump repeatedly referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” Vicha’s family described his killing as racially motivated, and it spurred a campaign to raise awareness by many prominent Asian Americans, who used the online hashtags #JusticeForVicha and #StopAsianHate.
“The killing of Vicha was so plain as day,” said Will Lex Ham, a New York-based actor who, after watching the video, flew from New York to San Francisco to help lead protests and safety patrols in Asian neighborhoods. “There was no longer any way to ignore the violence that was happening to people who look like us.”
Antoine Watson, a 19-year-old resident of neighboring Daly City, was arrested two days after the attack and charged with murder and elder abuse. He has pleaded not guilty, but his lawyer admits that his client had an “outburst of rage.”
Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney, said Vicha’s death was heinous. But he said there is no evidence to suggest it was motivated by racial animus.
Still, at a time when demands for racial justice have rocked a demographically evolving nation, the killing of Vicha was notable for the galvanizing anger it brought to a diverse group that encompasses people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South Asian and Southeast Asian heritage. The killing of a Thai man in America has given voice to a united community under the umbrella of an Asian American identity.
Crime data from the district attorney offices in San Francisco County and Alameda County, which includes Oakland, show that people of Asian descent were less likely last year to be victims of crimes than other ethnic groups. In San Francisco, where 36 percent of the population is of Asian descent, 16 percent of crime victims of known ethnicity were Asian, a similar situation to Alameda County.
But leaders of the Bay Area Asian community said crime statistics are misleading because Asian American residents, especially immigrants, often do not report assaults or robberies out of mistrust of the system or language barriers. What is incontrovertible, said leaders of the Asian American community nationwide, is that the pandemic created a climate of fear and a feeling of insecurity from New York to California. In the past week the California Legislature approved $1.4 million in funding to track and research racist incidents against Asian Americans.
Watson’s lawyer, Sliman Nawabi, a public defender, said his client would not have been able to identify Vicha’s ethnicity through his face mask, cap and winter clothing. Nawabi described Watson as someone who had struggled with anger.
He left his home because of a family dispute and got in a traffic accident in San Francisco at 2 a.m. He was cited by police for running a stop sign and reckless driving and then slept that night in his car.
On that morning a number of security cameras in the area captured Watson banging a car with his hand, according to Boudin, the district attorney.
It was then that Vicha walked up Anzavista Avenue. A witness told police that Watson said something to the effect of, “What are you looking at?” A security camera inside a neighbor’s apartment captured Watson charging toward Vicha, who briefly turned to his assailant before the impact.