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Deadly Assault on Thai Man in San Francisco Fuels #StopAsianHate

SAN FRANCISCO – Vicha Ratanapakdee was tired of being locked up during the pandemic and was impatient for his regular morning walk. He washed his face, put on a baseball cap and face mask, and told his wife that when he got back he would drink the coffee she had made for him. Then, on a brisk and foggy winter morning in Northern California last month, he stepped outside.

About an hour later, Mr. Vicha, an 84-year-old retired accountant from Thailand, was forcibly thrown to the ground by a man who stormed him at full speed. It was the kind of violent body blow that would have knocked a young soccer player unconscious in full protective pads. The attack was fatal to Mr. Vicha, who was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 113 pounds. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage two days later in a San Francisco hospital.

The video of the attack was recorded by a neighbor’s surveillance camera and watched with horror around the world. The killing of a defenseless elderly man has become a rallying cry among Asian Americans, many of whom endured racist taunts, swear words, and worse during the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past year, researchers and activist groups have counted thousands of racist incidents against Americans of Asian descent, a surge in hatred they associate to former President Donald J. Trump, who repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”. Mr Vicha’s family described his murder as racially motivated and resulted in a campaign to raise awareness among many prominent Asian Americans using the online hashtags #JusticeForVicha and #StopAsianHate.

“The Vicha assassination was as obvious as the day,” said Will Lex Ham, a New York-based actor who, after watching the video, flew from New York to San Francisco to attend protests and security patrols in Asian neighborhoods conduct. “There was no longer any way to ignore the violence that befell people who look like us.”

Antoine Watson, a 19-year-old resident of the neighboring town of Daly, was arrested two days after the attack and charged with the murder and ill-treatment of the elderly. He pleaded not guilty, but his attorney admits that his client had a “fit of anger”.

San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin says Mr. Vicha’s death was horrific. But he says there is no evidence that it was motivated by racial hatred.

Still, at a time when demands for racial justice have shaken a demographically developing nation, the assassination of Mr. Vicha was notable for the furious anger it aroused a diverse group of people from Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, South and Southeast Asia includes heritage. The assassination of a Thai man in America has given voice to a united community under the umbrella of an Asian-American identity.

In the weeks since his death, Mr. Vicha’s death has become a symbol of the vulnerability many in the Asian-American community feel at this moment.

Death is devastating to his family, both in California and abroad. In Thailand, the murder was front page and described as barbaric, a life shortened in a family where siblings usually live until their late 90s, relatives say.

Since retiring in 1996 from Kasikornbank, one of Thailand’s largest financial institutions, Mr. Vicha has traveled between San Francisco, where his oldest daughter lives, and Thailand, where his youngest daughter lives.

For months, Mr. Vicha had longed for Thailand, but couldn’t because of the pandemic. He didn’t like the cold and wet winter in San Francisco and missed his favorite southern Thai dishes as well as his extended family and friends.

His brother Surachai Ratanapakdee, 89, now the only surviving sibling of eight children, remembered Mr. Vicha as hardworking and curious about the world outside of the family farm’s rice fields, watermelon fields and orchards.

“Vicha was one of the few people in the village who spoke good English,” said Mr. Surachai.

Mr. Vicha then studied at Thammasat University in Bangkok, one of the most renowned institutions in the country.

His older daughter Monthanus described her father as a devoted Buddhist. She remains confused as to why he went without his Buddhist amulet on the morning of the attack, a protective talisman that he always wore around his neck.

Updated

July 24, 2021 at 11:34 a.m. ET

When Ms. Monthanus expressed her desire to attend graduate school two decades ago, Mr. Vicha supported her decision to enroll in the Business School at the University of California, Berkeley. When Ms. Monthanus married after graduation and decided to stay in San Francisco, Mr. Vicha and his wife came to raise their grandchildren.

At the time of the attack, Mr. Vicha was only months away from returning to Thailand. On January 15th, he received the first shot of the Moderna vaccine.

“We said: ‘Dad, we’ll be back soon!’” Recalls Ms. Monthanus.

Mr Vicha’s second shot was scheduled for February 12th, an appointment he would never see again.

His assassination came at a time when other disturbing images and reports were surfacing from across San Francisco Bay. Three days later, an attacker pushed a 91-year-old man to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown, another video that exploded online.

This elderly victim has been mistakenly described as Asian in many news reports. Court documents give the victim’s name as Gilbert Diaz, and Carl Chan, a community leader and president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said the victim was a Latino. But Mr Chan says he counted more than two dozen attacks on Asian-American victims in Chinatown, including two other people who were pushed by the assailant who knocked down Mr Diaz.

Crime data from prosecutors in San Francisco County and Alameda County, which includes Oakland, shows that people of Asian descent are less likely than other ethnic groups to be victims of crime over the past year. In San Francisco, where 36 percent of the population is Asian, 16 percent of known ethnicity crimes were Asian, a situation similar to Alameda County.

But leaders of the Asian Bay Area community say crime statistics are misleading because Asian American residents, especially immigrants, often fail to report assaults or robberies out of suspicion of the system or language barriers. Undeniable, say leaders of the Asian-American community across the country, is that the pandemic has created a climate of fear and a sense of insecurity from New York to California. Last week, California lawmakers approved $ 1.4 million in funds to prosecute and investigate racist incidents against Americans of Asian origin.

An increase in anti-Asian attacks

Last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, a flurry of hatred and violence against people of Asian descent began in the United States.

    • Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who often used racist terms such as “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
    • Data: The New York Times used media reports from across the country to get a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, and found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of racial hatred.
    • Undervalued Hate crimes: The balance sheet may be a fraction of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures episodes of violence across the country that have increased in number due to Mr Trump’s comments.
    • In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been exacerbated by the economic fallout from the pandemic that dealt a severe blow to the Asian-American communities in New York. Many community leaders say racist abuse is overlooked by the authorities.
    • What happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in gunfights at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said the gunfights at the Atlanta area spa were hate crimes and that she will pursue the death penalty against the suspect. who is charged with murder.

“Our seniors are afraid to walk on their own streets,” said Chan.

Last year, Ms. Monthanus, Mr. Vicha’s daughter, was approached twice on the street by people who told her to leave the country because Asians caused the coronavirus, the attackers said.

Mr. Watson’s attorney Sliman Nawabi, a public defender, said his client was unable to identify Mr. Vicha’s ethnicity through his face mask, hat and winter clothing. Mr. Nawabi described Mr. Watson as someone who struggled with anger.

In the hours leading up to the attack, Mr Watson had a number of setbacks. He left home because of a family quarrel and was involved in a traffic accident at 2 a.m. in San Francisco. He was cited by the San Francisco Police Department for a stop sign and reckless driving and then slept in his car that night.

That morning, several surveillance cameras in the area caught Mr. Watson slapping his hand on a car, District Attorney Boudin said.

“It appears that the defendant was in some kind of tantrum,” said Boudin.

Then Mr. Vicha walked up Anzavista Avenue, a street overlooking the skyscrapers in the city’s financial district.

A witness told police officers that Mr. Watson said something like, “What are you looking at?” A surveillance camera in a neighbor’s home caught Mr. Watson charging across the sidewalk towards Mr. Vicha, who was about to hit the ground turned to his attacker.

Two days after the attack, Ms. Monthanus and her mother went to the place where Mr. Vicha was killed and saw that his blood was still staining the sidewalk. They scrubbed the sidewalk with brushes, wondering why no one had come out of town to do the same.

Mr. Vicha’s cremated remains were placed in two urns. Ms. Monthanus says she and her family will charter a boat under the Golden Gate Bridge and scatter some of it into the Pacific Ocean.

“I want him to be near me,” she said. “When we go to the beach, we can dream that he is with us.”

She wants to take the other urn back to her father’s hometown in southern Thailand, where the local Buddhist temple has a stupa where the family’s remains are kept. “His brothers and sisters are there,” said Ms. Monthanus. “You will all be together.”

The amulet, a valuable family heirloom, will be passed on to the next generation, said Ms. Monthanus.

“He always told me that if something happened to him, it had to be passed on to the grandchildren,” she said.

Poypiti Amatatham contributed the coverage from Bangkok.

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