More than 200 people packed a town hall meeting tonight at a restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown where Police Chief Anthony Batts joined community members to discuss violence and the death of downtown beating victim Tian Sheng Yu earlier this month.
“I come here today humbly, asking for an opportunity to win your respect,” Batts told the standing-room-only crowd at the Peony Restaurant on Ninth Street.
The crowd consisted mostly of Chinese Americans but also included members of Oakland’s Korean- and Vietnamese-American communities and other groups.
Yu’s widow, Zhi Rui Wang, sat in the front of the room, flanked by Oakland police officers, including homicide Sgts. Mike Gantt and Gus Galindo, whose investigation led to the arrests of two young men in Yu’s death. Both suspects have now been charged with murder.
Yu and his adult son were attacked for no apparent reason while walking near the Fox Theater the afternoon of April 16. Yu fell to the sidewalk, hitting his head. He died four days later.
Batts said he is “very much inspired by Mrs. Yu,” who has called for peace and unity in the wake of her husband’s death.
“I almost broke out in tears listening to what this family is going through,” Batts said.
Gantt also said the case affected him deeply, and elicited applause from the crowd when he described working 48 hours straight, despite a loss in his own family that same weekend, to find Yu’s killers.
However, angry murmurs broke out when Gantt told the room that race was not a factor in the attack. “I can tell you that was not an issue,” he said.
There was clear discontent among some that the case was not charged as a hate crime.
Deputy Chief Jeff Israel offered numbers meant to show that Asian Americans are not targeted disproportionately in crimes.
He said Asian Americans represent only 5.3 percent of victims of aggravated assault in Oakland – a category that includes shootings, beatings and other attacks – with “no evidence of any of those crimes being hate crimes.”
After hearing from police, Young Kong, a member of the audience, angrily grabbed the microphone and began to yell at police and the crowd.
“You are a whole bunch of chickens,” he shouted. “This is a hate crime. Crime against what? Asian Americans. Violence against what? Asian Americans.”
“A lot of people are afraid to talk about race,” he said to loud cheers and applause.
Carl Chan, a Chinatown community leader and the organizer of tonight’s meeting, quickly sought to readjust the meeting’s tone.
“I just want all of us to calm down and talk,” Chan said. “This is not a show. This is about unity.”
Yu’s widow left shortly after Kong’s comments, escorted out the door by a police officer.
A number of the speakers said they or their loved ones had been victims of violent crimes, including Oakland attorney Virginia Sung, who said her friend had been attacked a few years ago.
“We need to support each other,” Sung said. “We don’t want to stir up racial tensions.”
The suspects in Yu’s death, Lavonte Drummer and Dominic Davis, both 18, are black.
One speaker brought up a recent series of attacks on Asian Americans in San Francisco’s Bayview District in which the attackers were also black.
Earlier in the meeting, while making the point that race was not a factor in the Yu case, Batts pointed out that Gantt, the investigating sergeant who worked overtime on the case, is black.
Batts said more officers are patrolling Chinatown since the attack on Yu, and that next week police will begin bringing together young people of different races for a dialogue.
The chief, who has been on the job for less than six months, said he was drawn to Oakland because of the bad shape it was in, saying more than 100 lives have been lost to violence each year over the past three decades.
He pointed out that the violence is spread across neighborhoods throughout the city.
“I am surprised the entire community is not outraged at the level of violence that is allowed to take place in this community,” Batts said.
He said he wants to increase “beat integrity” by having officers work one regular beat they can get to know. To do that, Batts said, the department needs 75 to 100 more officers – an addition he said is unlikely to be funded in the current budget climate.
“I’m going to do the best I can to shift resources … to focus on Chinatown,” Batts said. “But there is a responsibility that the community has too.”
He said residents need to act as eyes and ears and communicate with police.
The meeting, initially planned as a two-hour town hall, stretched for nearly four hours, wrapping up shortly before 9:30 p.m.
Chan said afterward he believes it went well despite the emotional undercurrents.
“We try to keep everything very focused and positive,” he said.