Oakland Mayor Blames Crime Wave Against Asians on Defunded Police; Black and Asian Activists Disagree

As Asian Americans reel from a recent string of attacks in the Bay Area, some in Oakland have accused the city of pitting them against the Black population.

At a press conference in Chinatown, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf addressed the series of robberies and assaults targeting elderly members of the Asian American community. But her remarks quickly drew criticism when she blamed the violent incidences on defunding the police and budget cuts made to public safety, pointing a finger specifically to City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas.

Bas, whose district includes Chinatown and Little Saigon, was shocked and angered by the mayor's words. Although the communities that Bas serves have been hurt by slashes to the Oakland Police Department (OPD), the Filipina council member said she wasn't behind the action.

The recent cuts, which removed police officers from parts of the city, were actually made by Schaaf and City Administrator Ed Reiskin in December.

"The mayor's office and the city administrator unilaterally made these cuts without consulting community, without consulting labor. They made the decision to pull the community resource officers from the whole city, not just Chinatown," Alvina Wong, Asian Pacific Environmental Network's campaign and organizing director, told Newsweek.

Bas said that the mayor's decision to remove two foot patrol units from a largely pedestrian community, as well as a Chinatown police liaison at the police substation, jeopardized the safety of elderly residents and their ability to communicate with law enforcement officers, noting that many are monolingual.

Newsweek reached out to Schaaf's office for comment, but did not hear back before the publication of this story.

The proposal Bas put forward last June, however, did not cut those services, she told Newsweek. Rather, she presented a reduction in police overspending, an issue the city has long faced. Last year, the city's $32 million budget deficit was largely driven by overspending to OPD.

In a tweet following the conference, Bas said: "Across the nation, some electeds are seeding division among racial groups. I continue to be angered by what Mayor Schaaf did—taking a space for healing & safety & using it to politically attack me."

SF Chinatown
People wear surgical masks as they walk along Chinatown's Grant Avenue on February 26, 2020 in San Francisco, California. The Bay Area has recently seen a surge in racist attacks against Asian American residents. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Council member Carroll Fife, a Black woman, came to her colleague's defense, calling the mayor's behavior toward Bas "unacceptable."

"I'm saying this publicly because the disrespect was done publicly. You owe her, as well as Oakland's Asian and Black communities an apology," Fife tweeted.

Bas joined Fife in a Facebook livestream that evening to "set the record straight."

"What we feel is important and what I felt in that moment was triggered by the image of a white woman using dogwhistle tactics to create a fracture between the Asian community and the Black community," Fife said.

"The liberation of Black people means the liberation of all of us," Bas responded. "I want to say to my Asian brothers & sisters, we were used. We were used. I was disrespected in my community. I was silenced and disrespected."

Just as Bas has backed the Black residents in her district, they too have come out in support for the Asian American community of Oakland.

The Black Bay Area, a group focused on retaining a space for the Black population in San Francisco, has raised almost $15,000 to be donated between the Asian Health Center in Oakland and the Vietnamese Health Center in San Francisco.

The Anti Police-Terror Project, a Black-led coalition, also defended the two groups from the mayor's remarks, tweeting: "We won't let Mayor Libby Schaaf drive wedges between Oakland's Black and Asian communities to stop us from refunding our communities and investing in services that actually keep our neighborhoods safe."

In an interview with Newsweek, Bas said she has dedicated her two years on the council to uplifting both communities, together.

"What I'm trying to do is build more Black and Asian solidarity and understanding because it's very possible to condemn anti-Asian hate and violence, and also condemn violence against Black people," she said. "Those two things don't have to be in opposition. Every single person in our community deserves to feel safe."

Talking with Councilmember Carroll Fife to set the record straight.This afternoon, at a press conference in District 2's Chinatown to raise awareness...

Asian American communities across the nation have increasingly been the target of attacks since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Wong said that former President Donald Trump's rhetoric about the origins of COVID-19 is "driving the tension and desperation we're seeing in our neighborhoods right now."

"Ever since January and February of last year, the Chinatown community in Oakland has been impacted," Bas said on Wednesday. "[There's been] a loss in business with fewer people coming to Chinatown, where people normally come to shop and to eat, because Trump fueled this fear about COVID potentially being tied to the Chinese community."

On Monday, OPD announced the arrest of the suspect in a now-viral attack against a 91-year-old man. The footage shows the man being shoved to the ground in the city's Chinatown in broad daylight. The arrest came after two prominent Asian actors, Daniel Wu and Daniel Dae Kim, offered a $25,000 reward for the suspect.

When asked whether President Joe Biden has seen the videos, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she's not aware if he's viewed them, "But he is concerned about the discrimination against, the actions against the Asian American community, which is why he signed the executive order and why he's been outspoken in making clear that attacks, verbal attacks, any attacks of any form, are unacceptable."

One of the executive orders Biden issued during his first week in office recognized the racism being targeted at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Activists have also raised awareness of another incident in nearby San Francisco, which resulted in the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai native. A 19-year-old suspect accused of shoving Ratanapakdee to the ground has been arrested.

Community leaders are on high alert ahead of the Lunar New Year, when Chinatowns around the country typically see an uptick in crime. Because it is tradition for Asian seniors to give cash to younger children in their families, criminals familiar with the custom are increasingly making seniors the target of robberies and assault.

In response, OPD has said its re-allocated resources and added police patrols to the area. Officials said there will be 40 officers countywide in six different cities.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, Messiah Madyun, a spokesperson for Schaaf, said the recent criticisms do not reflect the mayor's views on the recent attacks nor her work in the six years she has held office.

"These attacks on the Mayor are wholly unfounded. Mayor Schaaf has spent her entire career bringing the diverse communities of Oakland together and defending immigrant rights," Madyun said. "She has condemned the crimes against Asian seniors and merchants as abhorrent. She will continue to point out hypocrisy when those who recently voted for deep cuts to public safety, turn around and criticize those very same cuts when they're actually made."

Schaaf voted against Bas' proposal from the June in a tie-breaking vote and argued that the same reductions made by the mayor would only have become effective earlier, had the proposal been passed.

While she doesn't think the mayor's remarks were intentionally damaging, Wong said she wishes those with larger platforms, like Schaaf, would be extra cognizant about how their messages can be construed.

"I do feel like [Schaaf's] comments have been fueling racial tension," she said. "I don't think that was the main intention, but I think it was careless of them, the comments they made."

"To cast blame and not take responsibility for your actions as an elected official undermines our ability to heal as a community, and roll up our sleeves to find solutions that reinvest in our safety nets," Bas said.

Update 02/12/21 12:23 p.m. ET This story was updated with comments from Madyun.