Anna Russell writes about how the coronavirus has created an uptick in hate crimes and racist incidents in London and other places.
On a Monday night in late February, Jonathan Mok was walking down London’s busy Oxford Street, when he was attacked. He was kicked and punched in the face, a beating that resulted in a bruised and swollen eye the size of a golf ball, which he showed to the world in a Facebook post. Mok is twenty-three and Singaporean; he had been studying for the last two years at the University of London. The attack, which he described in his post, was brutal and racially motivated. “The guy who tried to kick me then said, ‘I don’t want your coronavirus
in my country,’ ” he wrote, “before swinging another sucker punch at me, which resulted in my face exploding with blood.”
The Metropolitan Police were called to the scene, near the Tottenham Court Road tube station, around nine-fifteen in the evening. On March 6th, they called the incident “racially aggravated assault” and announced that they had arrested two teen-agers, one sixteen, the other fifteen. At the time, they were still looking for two additional men believed to have been involved, and asked the public for help in identifying them. The pictures released of the two men are difficult to make out; they’re blurry and black-and-white. One of the men wears a thick parka and holds something to his mouth. “This attack left the victim shaken and hurt,” Detective Sergeant Emma Kirby, the officer on the case, said in a statement. “There’s no room on our streets for this kind of violent behaviour and we are committed to finding the perpetrators.”
In recent days, however, as fear and anxiety about covid
-19 have spread, other incidents have emerged in the U.K. and elsewhere. In New York City, on the subway, a man sprayed an Asian passenger with Febreze and verbally abused him. Last week, a Vietnamese curator, An Nguyen, posted an e-mail from a gallerist preparing to exhibit at London’s Affordable Art Fair. The gallerist asked Nguyen not to come assist with the booth. “The coronavirus
is causing much anxiety everywhere, and fairly or not, Asians are being seen as carriers of the virus,” the e-mail read. “Your presence on the stand would unfortunately create hesitation on the part of the audience to enter the exhibition space.” The Affordable Art Fair later confirmed that the gallery would not be exhibiting at the fair by mutual agreement. (In another irony, many of the initial news reports on the incident used the photo and biography of the wrong An Nguyen, an artist who lives in Canada.)
When I spoke to Mike Ainsworth, the director of London services at Stop Hate U.K., an anti-hate group, he said his organization had seen a spike in hate crimes and incidents reported by Asian communities and individuals in the U.K. “There has been, for our helpline, a significant increase in calls from the Chinese community,” he said. “The incidents range from name calling, through to spitting, through to someone having been pushed in the road in the path of oncoming vehicles.” He called the increase a modest but marked one, “given that this is a community which we traditionally didn’t receive any calls from whatsoever.” He also noted “an upturn in concern and fear” from the Chinese community in London regarding wearing surgical masks. “People that would normally wear masks are now feeling that somehow they would become the target of abuse if they continued to do so,” he said.
In the U.S., the Anti-Defamation League has been tracking racist memes and online activity directed toward Asian communities in reaction to the outbreak. They’ve uncovered lurid cartoons depicting an Asian “Winnie the Flu,” mocking references to “bat soup,” and more violent imagery. “For months, there have been posts on notoriously extremist-friendly platforms like Telegram, 4chan and Gab linking the coronavirus
to racist and antisemitic slurs and memes,” the A.D.L. wrote, in a recent blog post. “Users across these channels regularly share racist messages or caricatures of Chinese people, mocking their eating habits, accents, and hygiene.” Some posts, they went on, “appear to be cheering on the virus, hoping it will spread to predominately non-white countries, such as those in Africa.” Oren Segal, the vice-president of the A.D.L.’s Center on Extremism, noted that extremists “use every opportunity they can to create division.” He worried about the spread of racist content as more and more people are asked to stay at home and communicate online. “The fact that this sort of hatred exists in the same spaces where people are collecting their legitimate news-it is a concern,” he said.
Rebecca Hayes Jacobs, an urban-studies scholar who co-curated an exhibition titled “Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis” at the Museum of the City of New York last year, told me that, throughout history, pandemics had often intensified discrimination against minorities. In 1858, a mob burned down a massive quarantine hospital on Staten Island. Locals “were afraid that immigrants were carrying yellow fever, especially Irish immigrants,” Jacobs said. Pandemics can intensify fears of “the other,” and exacerbate racist myths about foreigners being diseased or unclean. “Often the line between vigilance and fear can get really blurry,” she said. “Vigilance is important to protect the population at large but, at the same time, underlying societal prejudices and problems can become extremely heightened when people are already predisposed to not trust one another.”In the early twentieth century, immigrants at Ellis Island, seen as carriers of trachoma, underwent invasive screenings that were “wrapped up in all kinds of anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” she said.
Danielle Olsen, who works for the Wellcome Trust, a health charity in the U.K. that recently coördinated a series of exhibitions for a project called “Contagious Cities,” told me, “With sars, in 2003, you’d see people stopping going to Chinatown” in Manhattan. She noted a similar reaction to covid
-19, which has given rise to “these kinds of informal ideas that it’s anything to do with your race rather than where you happen to have travelled from,” she said. “This inflammatory language, or alarmist rhetoric, happens so quickly, and is not based on any facts.”
Ainsworth, from Stop Hate U.K., told me that, after Britain voted to leave the E.U., his organization also received an influx of calls about hate crimes. “There were a lot of people phoning us up saying, ‘I have never experienced racism in the U.K. until last week and I’ve been living here twenty or thirty years.’ ” Victims are often confused by what has happened to them. “Attacking members of the Chinese community over the coronavirus
is exactly the same thing as attacking members of the Muslim community over leaving Europe: there is no logical connection. This is a completely illogical act.”
Ainsworth stressed that hate crimes should be reported to the police. But he also noted that witnesses could help by interacting with the victim, to convey a sense of solidarity. “I don’t expect people to confront perpetrators, but I do expect people to show the victim that they don’t agree with what the perpetrators say,” he said. “Talk to them about anything, it doesn’t matter. What clothes are you wearing, where are you going, how are you?”
“There’s a narrative that happens with hate crime from the perpetrator which says, ‘I am attacking you, but actually lots of people agree with me.’ Where hate crime becomes really dangerous is if victims start to believe that,” Ainsworth said. “I’ve talked to victims of hate crime in London, and one of the things they say is ‘being racially abused on the tube station is horrible, but having two hundred people stand there saying nothing is the bit that starts to really upset me and corrode my trust in society.’ ”