SAN FRANCISCO – Tired of being locked inside during the pandemic, Vicha Ratanapakdee was impatient for his regular morning walk. He washed his face, put on a baseball cap and face mask and told his wife he would have the coffee she made for him when he returned. Then, on a crisp, misty northern California winter morning last month, he stepped out.
About an hour later, Mr. Vicha, an 84-year-old retired Thai auditor, was severely crushed to the ground by a man who charged him at full speed. It was the type of violent body blow that could have knocked out a young football player in full protective pads. For Mr. Vicha, who was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 113 pounds, the attack was fatal. He died of a brain hemorrhage at a San Francisco hospital two days later.
Captured by a neighbor’s security camera, video of the attack was viewed with horror around the world. Among Asian Americans, many of whom have suffered racist taunts, rants and worse during the coronavirus pandemic, the murder of a helpless older man has become a rallying cry.
Over the past year, researchers and activist groups have documented thousands of racist incidents against Asian Americans, a wave of hatred they link to former President Donald J. Trump, repeatedly referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”. Mr Vicha’s family described his murder as racist in nature, and this prompted an awareness campaign from many Asian Americans, who used the online hashtags #JusticeForVicha and #StopAsianHate.
“Vicha’s murder was as simple as daylight,” said Will Lex Ham, a New York-based actor, who, after watching the video, flew from New York to San Francisco to help lead the protests. and security patrols in Asian neighborhoods. “There was no longer any way to ignore the violence that was happening on people like us.”
Antoine Watson, a 19-year-old resident of the nearby town of Daly, was arrested two days after the attack and charged with murder and elder abuse. He pleaded not guilty but his lawyer admits that his client had a “fit of rage”.
Chesa Boudin, the district attorney for San Francisco, says Mr. Vicha’s death was heinous. But he says there is no evidence to suggest it was motivated by racial animosity.
Yet at a time when demands for racial justice rocked a rapidly changing nation, Mr. Vicha’s murder was notable for the galvanizing anger it elicited from a diverse group that includes people from Chinese, Japanese, Korean. , South Asian and Southeast Asian heritage. The murder of a Thai in America gave voice to a united community under the aegis of an Asian-American identity.
In the weeks since this happened, Mr Vicha’s death has become a symbol of the vulnerability many members of the Asian-American community feel at this time.
For his family, the death was devastating both in California and abroad. In Thailand, the murder made headlines and has been described as barbaric, a life cut short in a family where siblings typically live until the late 1990s, according to relatives.
Since his retirement in 1996 from Kasikornbank, one of Thailand’s largest financial institutions, Mr. Vicha had traveled between San Francisco, where his eldest daughter lives, and Thailand, where his youngest lives.
For months, Mr Vicha had wanted to return to Thailand, but had been unable to do so due to the pandemic. He disliked the cold and wet San Francisco winter and missed his favorite Southern Thai foods and extended family and friends.
His brother, Surachai Ratanapakdee, 89, now the only surviving brother of eight children, remembered Mr. Vicha as studious and curious about the world outside of the rice fields, watermelon fields and orchards of the family farm.
“Vicha was one of the few people in the village who spoke English well,” Surachai said.
Mr. Vicha continued his studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country.
Her eldest daughter, Monthanus, described her father as a devoted Buddhist. She wonders why on the morning of the attack he left without his Buddhist amulet, a protective talisman he always wore around his neck.
When Ms. Monthanus expressed her desire to go to graduate school twenty years ago, Mr. Vicha supported her decision to enroll in a business school at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating, when Ms. Monthanus got married and decided to stay in San Francisco, Mr. Vicha and his wife came to help raise their grandchildren.
At the time of the attack, Mr. Vicha was only months away from returning to Thailand. On January 15, he received the first injection of the Moderna vaccine.
“We said, ‘Daddy, we’ll be home soon! “, Remembers Mrs. Monthanus.
Mr Vicha’s second shot was scheduled for February 12, a date he would not live for.
His assassination came at a time when other disturbing images and reports were emerging across the San Francisco Bay Area. Three days later, an attacker pushed a 91-year-old man to the ground in Oakland Chinatown, another video that exploded on the internet.
This older victim has been wrongly described in numerous reports as Asian. Court documents name the victim as Gilbert Diaz, and Carl Chan, a community leader and president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said the victim was Latino. But Mr. Chan says he has documented more than two dozen assaults on Asian-American victims in Chinatown, including two others pushed by the assailant who knocked down Mr. Diaz.
Crime data from the district attorney’s offices in San Francisco County and Alameda County, which includes Oakland, shows that people of Asian descent were less likely than other ethnic groups to be victims of crime. ‘last year. In San Francisco, where 36% of the population is of Asian descent, 16% of crime victims of known ethnicity were Asian, a situation similar to that in Alameda County.
But leaders of the Bay Area Asian community say crime statistics are misleading because Asian American residents, especially immigrants, often do not report mistrust or theft out of mistrust. with regard to the language system or barriers. What is indisputable, say leaders of the country’s Asian-American community, is that the pandemic has created a climate of fear and a sense of insecurity from New York to California. Over the past week, the California Legislature approved $ 1.4 million in funding to track and research racist incidents against Asian Americans.
“Our elders are afraid to walk their own streets,” Chan said.
Last year, Ms. Monthanus, Mr. Vicha’s daughter, was accosted twice on the street by people who told her to leave the country because, according to the assailants, Asians were behind the coronavirus.
Mr Watson’s attorney, Sliman Nawabi, a public defender, said his client would not have been able to identify Mr Vicha’s ethnicity from his face mask, cap and clothing. ‘winter. Mr Nawabi described Mr Watson as someone who had struggled with anger.
In the hours leading up to the attack, Mr Watson experienced a series of setbacks. He left his home due to a family dispute and was in a traffic accident in San Francisco at 2 a.m. He was cited by San Francisco Police for spinning a stop sign and reckless driving, then slept that night in his car.
That morning, a number of security cameras in the area captured Mr. Watson hitting a car with his hand, according to Mr. Boudin, the public prosecutor.
“It seems that the accused was in a sort of anger,” said Boudin.
It was then that Mr. Vicha walked up Anzavista Avenue, a street with a view of the skyscrapers of the city’s financial district.
A witness told police that Mr. Watson said something like “What are you looking at?” A security camera inside a neighbor’s apartment captured Mr Watson charging down the sidewalk towards Mr Vicha, who briefly turned to his assailant before impact.
Two days after the attack, Ms. Monthanus and her mother went to the place where Mr. Vicha had been killed and saw that his blood still stained the sidewalk. They scrubbed the sidewalk with brushes and wondered why no one from town had come to do the same.
Mr. Vicha’s cremated remains were placed in two urns. Ms Monthanus says she and her family will charter a boat under the Golden Gate Bridge and disperse it in the Pacific Ocean.
“I want him to be close to me,” she said. “When we go to the beach, we can dream that he is with us.”
She plans to take the other urn back to her father’s hometown in southern Thailand, where the local Buddhist temple has a stupa that contains the family’s remains. “Her siblings are here,” Ms. Monthanus said. “They will all be together.”
The amulet, a treasured family heirloom, will be passed down to the next generation, Ms. Monthanus said.
“He always told me that if anything happened to him, it had to be passed on to the grandchildren,” she said.
Poypiti Amatatham contribution to Bangkok reports.