A local leader in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community decried “racist laws, racist policies and racist rhetoric” that “make it seem like we are not part of the fabric of American society.”
The lament from Harry Budisidharta came during a virtual town hall held on March 22 by the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the Aurora Police Department, and the Asian Pacific Development Center, an organization that supports health, education, and advocacy for immigrant and refugee communities.
“Racists (were) emboldened to attack our community when the federal government rounded up all people of Japanese ancestry in World War II regardless of their citizenship status,” Budisidharta, the director of the development center, said during the March 22 event.
A more recent example of rhetoric that could embolden racist behavior is calling the COVID-19 the “kung flu,” said Vanessa Wilson, the Aurora police chief. That was a reference to former President Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “kung flu” to talk about the coronavirus.
“We will not allow the COVID-19 pandemic to (fuel) racism, hate or stereotyping,” Wilson said.
In 2020, Wilson’s department heard reports of three bias-motivated crimes in Aurora, including two against Asian Americans. In one incident, the victim believed someone was intentionally leaving nails for her to run over in her car; another was reported as an assault and racial slurs at a bus station. A third crime was a reported assault against an Ethiopian American. But hate crimes are likely underreported, Wilson said.
“With the Aurora Police Department, we’ve had issues of trust in the community. And we’ve worked hard” to rectify that, Wilson said.
A bias-motivated crime is one that is fueled by an aspect of a victim’s identity. Bias-motivated harassment, for example, involves the “intent to harass or intimidate another person because of that person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation,” according to a presentation during the town hall.
The Aurora Police Department engages in “implicit and unconscious bias and cultural competency training” for its officers, Claudine McDonald, the department’s chief community relations officer, said during the event.
The town hall also held a moment of silence for the eight victims of the recent shootings in the Atlanta area and mentioned the King Soopers shootings in Boulder, which occurred the same day as the town hall and about which few details were known at the time.
“If you take anything away from this (town hall) today, I want you to know this: The DA’s office stands with our friends in the Asian community. We stand (against) hate of any kind,” said John Kellner, the new district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. That area encompasses Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.
On average, over the last five or six years, the DA’s office has prosecuted, or filed charges, on about 30 bias-motivated crimes every year, Kellner said.
“In 2019, that number was actually down, it was down in a good way, at 22,” Kellner said. “It spiked again in 2020 to 33. That’s a pretty hefty increase in percentages and one I don’t want to see repeated in 2021.”
A couple weeks before the town hall, Kellner started a bias-motivated crime team — a group of prosecutors especially dedicated to handling those crimes, Kellner said.
“What we know is that one bias-motivated crime, it impacts that one victim, but that’s not just it,” Kellner said. “And it’s not just the victim’s family. It’s often, in these cases, the victim’s whole community.”
The audience also heard from Brian Sugioka, a prosecutor with the DA’s office who said that in 1942, his family fled California in the wake of the executive order that caused Japanese internment.
“Despite perhaps having some sort of historical cause to distrust government, I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to government,” Sugioka said.
He added: “If you feel frightened, if you are the victim of racist (harassment), you should call the police.” Leave it to law enforcement to determine what rises to the level of a crime, Sugioka said.
Budisidharta, Wilson and Kellner started talking about holding the town hall roughly a month before it took place, Kellner said. The shootings around Atlanta illustrate how important it is to unite and say “we will not tolerate that kind of hate here,” Kellner said.
Kellner also said that although words may just seem like hateful rhetoric, officials “do not want to see those words turn into criminal action. So report it, please. Let us know, let us help.”
Said Wilson: “The Aurora Police Department does not enforce immigration laws, and we will not ask, investigate or share the immigration status of any victim reporting a hate crime.”
McDonald, the Aurora community relations officer, wondered if starting an “escort” or “buddy system” — people volunteering to walk with others in public — could deter harassment.
“Our community is strong — our community is resilient,” Budisidharta said. “We will get through this with all of your help.”