It was March 17, the day after the Atlanta shooting, and a nationwide wave of violence against Asian Americans appeared to be sweeping the streets of San Francisco.
Steven Jenkins, a 39-year-old homeless man with a long history of serious mental illness, has been arrested for assaulting two Asian residents, including a 75-year-old woman. who, according to headlines around the world, bravely fought off her attacker.
The task of defending Jenkins fell to a Taiwanese-born lawyer from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Eric McBurney. Within days, McBurney’s inbox filled with hateful messages asking him why, as an Asian American, he was defending someone accused of such a heinous attack on Asians.
When I met McBurney for a coffee this week, he told me he understood what he was up against in this matter when his own family members in Taiwan read about it in the Chinese press and he. criticized for taking care of it.
“How is this guy going to get a fair trial?” McBurney asked about his client.
In the months following the assault, McBurney waged a battle against public opinion and what he described as a false narrative. He argues that the attack involving his client is not based on racial hatred but on the mental illness and the often difficult and chaotic street conditions of the homeless in San Francisco.
“This case has nothing to do with anti-Asian hatred,” McBurney said. “Mr. Jenkins over the past five years has had an average of five mental illness emergencies each year.”
“His mind is broken.
The assaults Jenkins is accused of committing came amid a series of high-profile attacks on Asians. Six of the eight people killed in the Atlanta shooting were of Asian descent. Earlier that week, a San Francisco man was arrested for assaulting Danny Yu Chang, a 59-year-old Filipino travel agent who was returning to his office after lunch. Two months earlier, a 19-year-old man had been accused of pushing a Thai man to death in a filmed assault that sowed fear in the Asian community in the Bay Area.
Coronavirus and former President Donald J. Trump’s insults about the “Kung flu” sparked outright hatred against Asian Americans, thousands of examples of which have been documented across the country by militant groups.
The family of Xiao Zhen Xie, the woman attacked by Jenkins, raised over $ 1 million on a GoFundMe page. Most of the money will be donated to a nonprofit that the family helped set up to help victims of hate crimes.
“She was severely affected mentally, physically and emotionally,” her family wrote. “She also said she was afraid to leave her home from now on.”
Experts have said that while the pain and fear of being targeted for being Asian are legitimate and must be taken into account, it is often impossible to analyze the specific motivations of the attackers.
In an unusual attempt to dispel the idea that his client acted out of hatred, McBurney released a seven-minute video in April showing the assault on Xie and the moments leading up to it.
On the day of the attacks, Jenkins, who has been homeless for a decade, mingled with the tents and belongings of the homeless at UN Plaza. In footage taken by security cameras, Jenkins is seen punching and kicking dozens of times by a number of unknown assailants, attacks McBurney describes as unprovoked.
A striker dressed in a bright yellow vest appears to put two right hooks on Jenkins’ face, then follows him down a Market Street sidewalk. Jenkins staggers, turns and swings. He hits Xie, who is on a street corner, in the face.
Pinned down by a security guard, Jenkins is on the ground when Xie hits Jenkins’ feet with a plank of wood, the video shows. Not captured in the footage was another assault Jenkins is accused of committing on 83-year-old Vietnamese Ngoc Pham.
On the day of the attack, the first images released to the world showed Jenkins on a stretcher with a bloodied face and Xie nearby holding a plank of wood. The story of the old Asian woman who fought back is born.
McBurney, who was adopted by a white family as a teenager, says he understands racism against Asians. He said he had felt it firsthand during his childhood in small towns in the South.
“I grew up in cities where I am the entire Asian population,” he said. “You always feel like you don’t belong. “
McBurney, 48, spent two decades riding buses and serving tables, doing gardening and other odd jobs before developing a passion for literature and law. He holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Utah and went to University of Iowa Law School on a full scholarship.
I asked him how he dealt with hate mail from other Asian Americans and even disapproval from his extended family in Taiwan.
“I love it,” McBurney retorted quickly. “It’s an additional motivation.
“That’s when the whole world is against your client, that’s when a public defender says, ‘Yeah, that’s my job. “
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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from UC Berkeley, and has reported statewide, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles – but she always wants to see more. Follow here or on Twitter.