Berkeley police report increase in hate crimes

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Phillip Downey/File
Berkeley police have responded to increasing incidents of hate crime because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local residents have felt unsafe because of these occurrences.

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The Berkeley Police Department has reported at least four incidents of hate crimes in the city of Berkeley, three of which occurred in the span of a week.

A hate crime is legally defined as an escalated crime where the perpetrator is motivated by a “protected classification,” according to Michael Chang, a campus lecturer in comparative ethnic studies and a federal civil rights attorney.

“Someone is being targeted because of their race, nationality, gender orientation, country of origin, ethnicity or religion,” said Harvey Dong, a campus Asian American studies lecturer. “They’re targeted and an actual crime is committed — they are assaulted or their property is damaged.”

Dong attributed the rise in hate crimes partially to the pandemic, and how it has created an “atmosphere of hate.” Due to tension generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dong said Asian Americans have been particularly victimized during the pandemic.

Additionally, Dong described a history in the United States of othering Asian Americans as foreigners, beginning with the internment of Japanese Americans. According to a BPD Nixle alert, a man was arrested May 19 on suspicion of making disparaging comments about people of foreign descent in a 7-Eleven.

“There are very intentional hate crimes that’re directed by white supremacist ideology, so that would be intentional targeting,” Dong said. “(The rise in hate crimes) is definitely part of that atmosphere, given political statements and things on the internet. And it also has to do with mental illness.”

Chang noted that other violent incidents, such as a national spike in mass shootings, are representative of an endemic mental health problem. Dong added that those with mental illnesses are greatly affected by society’s atmosphere and are prone to repeating hateful comments if they are common.

Hate crimes have a large impact on the local community, Dong emphasized, especially on elderly individuals. Chang said hate crimes and potential harassment make people “afraid, angry, worried or anxious.”

“I have an elderly family member who maybe thinks twice before they go outside and go for a walk or go shopping,” Dong said. “It confines people within the house, which isn’t what you’d call an atmosphere where people feel safe.”

A solution to hate crimes would require a “root cause analysis” to effectively end the issue and prevent politicization, Chang added. Because of the role played by mental health in hate crimes, both Chang and Dong called for systemic policy changes and the provision of greater social services.

Chang and Dong added that bolstering local law enforcement or expanding criminalization would not resolve a rise in hate crimes.

“You want (anti-hate crime laws) to be robust to disincentivize the behavior,” Chang said. “The law should fully implement the mental health type of remedy. … That includes an understanding of the mental health issues that underlie many of these instances.”

Contact Kavya Gupta, Kira Rao-Poolla and Katherine Shok at [email protected].