SAN JOSE – Citizens of San Joses Japantown hire volunteers to launch and maintain a high visibility community patrol over the historic district following escalating anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area and across the country.
Retired San Jose Police Veteran Rich Saito, who still works as a reserve officer, is leading the effort, modeled on a similar protection initiative in San Francisco that started before the pandemic began a year ago.
“We have to do something to protect the people, especially the elderly, in Japantown,” Saito said in an interview on Saturday.
Step One: Gather volunteers and go through the ground rules to ensure they can safely observe, record, report, and de-escalate any suspicious or disruptive activity without exposing themselves to danger or injury.
This work started on Saturday with Saito, who led the orientation and training of the volunteers. Urgency is kindled by mounting violence against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, which tragically climaxed at spas in the Atlanta area this week with the killing of eight people, six of whom were Korean or Chinese.
In San Jose, recent acts of violence involving Asian victims include vicious sexual assault and assault by a woman on Diridon Station, in which the attacker profanely denigrated Asians. And amid the tension, on Friday a man injured an elderly Filipino woman’s head while trying to steal her during an alleged crime that resulted in yet another carjacking.
“With all this concern, we need to get people involved and take over Japantown to protect local residents, businesses and visitors,” Saito said.
A special focus of his is helping people who go to the Yu-Ai Kai senior center for lunch. He fears that this population is “the main target for people who want to use their aggression against Asians”.
For Saito, the concept of community patrol is intended to complement the police due to their bandwidth limitations and also serve as a passive deterrent against violence when potential attackers know that people are watching.
“Detection is done before an attack using behavioral detection for people who look excited or use aggressive postures and expressions,” he said. “Just by saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ and you know that you will be noticed, that could put them off.”
This was the approach taken by the United Peace Collaborative, which was founded a year ago in San Francisco and serves as a model framework for what Saito is doing in Japantown. In fact, Saito pioneered the creation of a UPC chapter in San Jose, following chapter expansions in Oakland and Los Angeles.
The cooperation formed as people of Asian origin was harassed and violent at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which indicates evidence of the coronavirus – led by then President Donald Trump – as “Chinese virus”, “Wuhan virus” and kung flu. “
“That gave the people of America permission to do what Asians wanted to do,” said UPC co-founder Leanna Louie.
In San Francisco – where high-profile attacks crop up every week – 35,000 people live in a 22-square-foot area of Chinatown, and the majority are older, Louie said. Like Saito, she realizes that the police can’t always do saturation patrols, she wouldn’t necessarily want this to keep pedestrian traffic and business robust.
“We don’t want to just pick up the phone and call 911. We can solve many problems by de-escalating and calming the situation,” she said. “We want people to feel welcome. But we have to let everyone know that we are careful. “
Louie and Saito agree on this point and are trying to turn people’s heightened awareness of anti-Asian racism and violence into something restorative. So far, the results have been promising: Louie said her small group of volunteers would grow to 60 in the coming days and weeks, and Saito said a call for volunteers raised 100 interested people.
Saito called the answer “rewarding” and gave the burgeoning Japantown initiative the flexibility it needs, as its goal is for volunteers to commit between one patrol shift per week and one shift per month. A large number of candidates means that different availabilities are possible.
He hopes that once vaccinations are widespread and the ongoing threat of COVID-19 subsides, these patrols will be no longer needed. But he’s not interested in waiting for it.
“In the meantime,” Saito said, “I don’t want anyone attacking any of my seniors and parishioners.”