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As hate crimes against Asian Americans rise, a California neighborhood takes action

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A 64-year-old grandmother assaulted and robbed. A 52-year-old woman shot in the head with a flare gun. Researchers say hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have soared. Business and civil rights groups have been demanding that something change. And in one California neighborhood, it did. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Oakland.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: This time last year, Oakland's Chinatown seemed like a ghost town as the latest COVID variant combined with a wave of thefts and brutal attacks against Asian Americans to unnerve the community. Many customers and tourists stayed away, and business owners, like insurance broker Jennifer Gee, would close up early.

JENNIFER GEE: Our elderly are being hurt. People are getting robbed on the street. There's even, like, carjacking or car windows being broken into. So it really affects the safety of Chinatown, and that's why they don't want to stay here late.

WESTERVELT: But today, things are better. People are staying out a little later. Businesses have bounced back. That's due in part to an all-volunteer Chinatown citizen patrol Gee helps organize called the Blue Angels. Victor Kuang has run a Chinese herbal medicine store here for 30 years. He got involved in the patrol effort early on.

VICTOR KUANG: (Through interpreter) Chinatown is like a big family. And during the attacks and the news, my young son asked me, Dad, will there be a Chinatown in the future? Will it exist for us?

WESTERVELT: The volunteer patrol looks more like a glee club that's been to a home security superstore than menacing crime fighters - young and old, teens to retirees, are dressed in bright blue vests, with black baseball caps that say security. They walk the neighborhood three days a week, equipped with cameras, walkie-talkies, air horns and powder-blue umbrellas.

GEE: Just to kind of deter any crime - for self-defense, if anything happens.

WESTERVELT: Gee says if patrol members see crime, they turn on their body cameras, maybe sound their air horn, and dial a direct line to a local Oakland police liaison officer. Important, too, she says - the patrols act as a kind of bridge to the police for community members who may not speak English well and are often wary of police.

GEE: And they don't necessarily know how to report crime when it happens to them. So that presence - so they know there's someone local that will care about what happened to them and be able to relay that to police.

WESTERVELT: Businesswoman Eva Liu says she's grateful for the patrols. She's eight months pregnant and runs a small import/export business here. When a thief recently tried to steal goods off her shelf, she says, she was petrified. But she sounded her air horn, and the loud blast got the attention of the volunteers, and the thief took off - but not before he shouted an anti-Asian slur, she says, and hurled a bottle at her.

EVA LIU: (Through interpreter) He threw the bottle at me. I turned to protect the baby, and the bottle hit my back. He's yelling at me, calling me names. It was scary, but the air horn and patrols helped scare him for sure.

WESTERVELT: Most of the patrol members are Asian Americans who work or live in the neighborhood, but not all.

BOB BATTINICH: I was an ex-boxer. My main thing is I don't like bullies. You see an old person, they need to be honored.

WESTERVELT: Seventy-one-year-old retiree Bob Battinich (ph) shows up for most every patrol with his umbrella, pepper spray, and his head on a swivel. Battinich says he's built relationships here over years, coming to Chinatown for traditional medicine, food and friendships.

BATTINICH: I love the culture. I love the street sales here. Look at - you see an - here's an old man right here. He's out with his daughter. This is beautiful. It's family.

Ni hao.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ni hao, ni hao.

WESTERVELT: This citizen effort is only part of the solution. Oakland Police have also increased foot and car patrols in Chinatown and appointed a new liaison officer who the volunteer patrol members say speaks some Cantonese. The combined efforts have helped drive down property crime and assaults - in this part of Oakland, at least. LeRonne Armstrong is the city's police chief.

LERONNE ARMSTRONG: Whether that group is going to blow whistles, like some of them do, or have their body-worn cameras on and going to record an event, it makes it a hard place to commit crime when the criminal sees multiple people watching.

WESTERVELT: But you have to wonder - are citizen patrols really a viable long-term solution, and are they doing anything to address the deeper anti-Asian sentiment underlying some of the attacks? On a walk here with Carl Chan, head of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, I ask him if he's at all concerned about the patrols backfiring.

CARL CHAN: This is not about, like, being a hero. It's a group effort, and they are trained to make phone calls immediately and contact the necessary authorities.

WESTERVELT: So you would rather they deter and report. They're not out there to try to intervene.

CHAN: Absolutely. We don't want to intervene because, you know, this is not their job.

WESTERVELT: Chan says the patrols have been instrumental in bringing back not only people and customers, but rebuilding the confidence of the businesses and their employees. People here, he says, now just feel safer. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.