PORTLAND, Ore. — Local government officials and members of Portland's Asian American community spoke out on Thursday under the banner of Oregon Rises Above Hate, saying "enough is enough" to a rising tide of anti-Asian incidents that culminated in a racist attack on a California family along the Eastbank Esplanade early this month.
Though the speakers cited the July 2 attack on Dr. Ryuichiro Abe and his daughter and a subsequent anti-Asian "road rage" incident as particularly salient examples of the virulent hatred that members of Portland's Asian community face, many of them said that the vast majority of incidents go unremarked or unreported.
"Our elders are afraid to leave their homes and our women are afraid to walk alone," said speaker Chisao Hata, creative director at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. "We do not feel safe here."
Hata spoke about an elderly woman of Japanese descent who survived the Hiroshima atomic bombing during World War II, losing her hearing, who has endured three separate attacks here in Portland within the last year.
"She's over 80, but now she doesn't go out by herself," Hata said. "She used to walk at least her 10,000 steps before 10 a.m. She doesn't do that as much anymore, especially if she's alone."
Hata said that Asian Americans need the wider community to see their pain and step up to stop hateful behavior.
Bonnie Richardson, an attorney representing the Abe family, read a statement from Dr. Abe addressing the incident. His family came to California from Japan a year ago, and he took them on a trip to Portland because he wanted his wife and daughter to fall in love with America, he said.
Abe said he was stunned and shaken to be viciously attacked simply for being Asian. He expressed thanks to the people nearby who came and halted the attack.
Though his injuries are healing, Abe detailed how the damage from that one incident had already been done. His wife and 5-year-old daughter, he said, told him that they wished to leave the U.S. and "never wanted to see this city again."
"Nothing comes from violence. Targeting us as Asians needs to be stopped," Abe said in his statement. "I hope by speaking up we can work together to make Portland a better place for everyone."
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Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal took to the microphone, becoming visibly emotional as she described a recent racist incident targeting her sister, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, at her home in Seattle.
"My sister was at home ... this man, who we later learned lived just a half-mile away, had earlier driven by her house yelling vile obscenities," the commissioner said. "He returned, he parked outside her house, he got out of his car, still yelling obscenities — which neighbors later said included, 'Go back to India' — and he threatened to kill her."
Authorities said that the suspect in that case, a 48-year-old man, was carrying a holstered handgun when police took him into custody.
"We are all carrying the fear, whether conscious or subconscious, that at any moment, one of these people could act on that hate and act in violence towards us," Commissioner Jayapal said.
Jayapal reiterated that racism and racist violence are not new, and far from unknown against people of Asian descent for the centuries that they have been in the U.S.
"They've always been rooted in the belief that — whether we are tourists or residents or citizens or elected officials — we do not belong here, that we should, quote, 'Go back to where we came from,'" Jayapal said. "I think what we're gathered here this afternoon to say, and what we will keep gathering to say every time, is we are here and we belong."
Metro Councilor Duncan Hwang, who serves as associate director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), said he sees incidents targeting Asian residents and businesses far too often.
"I'm tired of getting calls from my community about broken windows, about violent incidents, about a rough incident at the grocery store," Hwang said. "This happens almost every day. I'm tired of talking to the press ... we've had this conversation many times over the last couple months. And I'm tired of inaction."
Hwang said that confronting the problem starts with clear reporting. A survey conducted by APANO this year among Asian Americans in the community, in the languages with which they were most comfortable, found that 49% of respondents had "witnessed something" either directly or involving a family member, Hwang said. Of those, 84% said that they didn't go on to report it.
For Hwang, the survey showed that Portland metro's Asian community needs greater victim support and data gathering from the justice system so that the true scale of the problem can be identified and addressed.
John Kodachi, attorney and former president of the Portland Japanese American Citizens League, took Hwang's points a step further — talking about how the Eastbank Esplanade attack was a "shock" that soon became an indictment of the justice system from top to bottom.
"Our shock turned to anger when we learned that Dylan Kesterson was arrested and charged with bias crime in the first degree, a hate crime, and then released on the same day," Kodachi said. "Our anger quickly turned to outrage when we learned just a few days ago that this was not the first time Kesterson engaged in a racial attack."
A Multnomah County grand jury indicted Dylan Kesterson on a total of 19 counts on Tuesday, many of which stemmed from another alleged racist attack in April for which Kesterson was not previously arrested or charged.
Kodachi said that during the April 17 incident, Kesterson grabbed a Filipino woman by the back of the head and pulled her down, "ripping hair from her head."
"Kesterson was not arrested despite the pleas from the victim," Kodachi said. "This is unjust and unacceptable. We all should feel safe here in Portland ... we all should feel that hate crimes are taken seriously."
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A spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau said Friday that three officers responded after the April 17 attack was reported and made "a significant effort" to find the suspect at the time. Though the officers wrote up a report which was reviewed by a bias crime detective, the suspect was not found or identified. It was only after one of the victims saw the report about Kesterson's arrest this month and contacted police that PPB connected him to the crime.
"We want our community to know that crime was absolutely taken seriously at the time," Sgt. Kevin Allen said. "The arrest of Dylan Kesterson was the break in the case we needed. Prior to that we did not have an identification of the suspect. In criminal investigations it’s not at all unusual for us to have incomplete information for a time, but then connect cases when more information comes in."
Allen said that PPB had reached out to Asian American community groups to keep them updated on developments in the case.
During his speech, Kodachi said that Portland's Asian American community demanded to speak with the Multnomah County District Attorney, officials with the Portland Police Bureau and representatives from the court system — seeking answers and concrete solutions to the overall problem of anti-Asian attacks.
At the conclusion of Thursday's event, Hata said that many of the same leaders who spoke were working together on a fund to support the victims of the Eastbank Esplanade attack, "Portland Unite for the Abe Family's Healing," though details are still to come.