People hold signs on street corner. Some of the messages on the signs include: "Racism is a virus," and "Stop Asian Hate."

Protesters in Southeast Portland on March 21, 2021, decry a rise in anti-Asian violence.

Crystal Ligori / OPB

Kimberly Dam usually feels safe working at her coffee shop, Portland Cà Phê, in southeast Portland.

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But that sense of safety changed in February.

“Our door was, I don’t know if it was smashed or someone shot a BB gun at it,” she says.

Dam figured the vandalism was a one-time incident. But her shop was hit again in May, during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Only this time, Dam says, Portland Cà Phê wasn’t the only target.

“The Thai restaurant is one door down from us and they got broken into. The person threw a brick through their door and broke the glass.”

Dam doesn’t know if these attacks were racially motivated, but she does suspect it. She is quick to point out that the store standing between hers and the Thai restaurant, PDX Thai Dining, is white-owned, and it wasn’t vandalized.

“I don’t want to say that it was racially motivated, but it does seem like that.”

Dam’s story is part of a rising trend of bias crimes and incidents against communities of color across Oregon.

Over the recent July 4th weekend, a white man attacked an Asian American father and his young daughter on Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade. Police arrested the alleged attacker, identified as Dylan Kesterson, and released him that same day. Kesterson was eventually rearrested and now faces multiple charges of committing bias crimes.

The Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, a nonprofit organization that specializes in nonpartisan data collection and research, released a study in May that revealed that most Asian Oregonians fear for their safety.

“The numbers aren’t good,” says Amaury Vogel, the associate executive director of OVBC. “49% of Asian Oregonians say that they or a family member have experienced someone using a racial slur, epithet, or degrading language against them.”

Since 2019, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission has collected data about bias crimes and incidents statewide.

The commission released its latest report this month, which revealed that bias crimes and incidents have risen at an alarming rate, especially among those targeting Black and Asian people. According to the report, anti-Asian incidents went up by 200% last year and anti-Asian crime increased by 300% in 2021.

This chart breaks out bias incidents and bias crimes reported to the bias crimes hotline against Asians and Asian Americans, by month.

“[A bias incident] is a hostile expression of animus directed at a person based on their perception of the person’s race, color, religion, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity,” says Fay Stetz-Waters, the Director of Civil Rights at the Oregon Department of Justice.

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In other words, if someone blurts out an offensive slur, it’s considered a bias incident. But if someone physically assaults another person because of how they identify themselves, it’s considered a bias crime.

Both bias crimes and incidents are on the rise. What state officials are still trying to determine is how much of it is directly in response to a rise in bias crimes, versus the state collecting the data for the first time.

In early 2019, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum held a series of town hall meetings with the state’s communities of color to learn what the Oregon Department of Justice can do to address the issue.

Through those conversations, Rosenblum proposed Senate Bill 577, which aimed to more clearly define the difference between a bias crime and bias incident, designate gender identity as a protected class, and require law enforcement to provide data on bias crimes.

State legislators passed SB 577 and Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law in July 2019.

The Oregon Department of Justice also created the non-emergency bias crimes hotline, a confidential service that offers support to victims of bias crimes, as well as collecting previously underreported data.

“It’s important to document what happened so people know. People deny that this is actually a problem in Oregon. We can demonstrate, we actually do, and this is what’s hurting,” Stetz-Waters says.

The hotline received mixed reviews when it first launched in early 2020.

“When we first opened, boy, people were mad,” Stetz-Waters says. “We get a lot of hate mail. But we get a lot of people who say, ‘You’re the first person who’s listened to me.”

A rise in anti-Asian sentiment linked to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly boosted the number of calls.

The hotline fielded a total of 189 calls from Asian Oregonians in 2021, compared to just 68 in 2020.

While the data from the hotline reveals a concerning rise in reported bias crimes in 2021, Amaury Vogel believes many incidents never even get counted.

“With our statewide BIPOC survey, 79% of people said they did not report an incident compared to our Asian-only survey where 84% said they did not report,” Vogel says.

State Rep. Khanh Pham is Oregon’s first Vietnamese American elected to the Legislature and currently the only Asian American representative. Pham says that many Asians don’t report bias crimes for a variety of reasons, including lack of information on where to report, language and cultural differences, and a general fear of law enforcement.

“Most people don’t know where to go and many Asian Americans have been socialized to not cause conflicts,” explains Pham. “If the local police aren’t seeing what they’re experiencing and taking it seriously, then that can discourage other community members from wanting to go to the police.”

Rep. Pham pushed for more hotline funding after a gunman shot and killed eight people, six of them Asian women, in Atlanta. The gunman pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“It’s been a challenging year. Between this pandemic, which has shattered so many of our families and just broken life as we know it, as well as just as an Asian American woman, and just feeling rising tensions and divisions and the scapegoating that happens,” she says.

With new funding sources secured, the hotline directors hired more multilingual operators to answer the phones in different areas of the state.

According to Fay Stetz-Waters, preliminary data from the Department of Justice that tracks reported calls in 2022 suggest a continued upward trend. But Stetz-Waters cautions that the 2022 data is still under review. That said, Stetz-Waters believes the figures show cause for concern.

Officials acknowledge that the hotline won’t immediately fix the complex issue of racism. But for Pham, it’s part of a bigger solution.

“I also have been really inspired by just some of the strengths and the resilience and the collective organizing that I’ve seen in our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities who’ve really come together to demand safety, demand justice, and to really assert that we all belong.”

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