City councilor slams Portland progressive leaders for not understanding bias against Asians

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After the shooting deaths of eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were of Asian descent, a Portland city councilor has called out what he said was a local group’s “lack of awareness” surrounding racism towards Asian Americans.

Meanwhile, an alleged assault in Portland on March 15 against a woman of Asian descent has prompted members of a local organization to schedule a vigil this week to show support for and solidarity with the Asian community.

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong

Councilor Tae Chong posted a response on Facebook to what he called a total misunderstanding of racism by a local group that “claims to be progressive.” Chong, who is Asian American, told the Phoenix he didn’t want to identify a specific person in the post that was a response to what he said was ongoing ignorance from the progressive group People First Portland.

Chong said members of the group routinely use its platform to mock people, including him, with whom they disagree. But he said the worst instance was an attack on Planning Board member Marpheen Chann, a candidate for the Charter Commission, who is Asian American, openly gay, and works in the racial and social justice arena.

“You wouldn’t mock a Muslim working in racial and social justice,” Chong said. “They don’t even see they are doing something wrong because they think I’m white. They think my experience is just like theirs. They think I didn’t suffer growing up in Maine because they have the assumption Asians are fine. That makes me even more angry (because) they should know better (and) they don’t.”

Chong said the Atlanta shootings are the reason people are now talking about racism towards Asian Americans, but the community has always been the victim of hate crimes. He said Asians and Hispanics are ignored when people discuss racism and hate crimes, which he said is evidence of hypocrisy and ignorance about race.

“We’re just ignored, and somehow whatever happens to us isn’t as important because it isn’t as prominent as other hate crimes,” he said. “… Certainly no one talks about Asian American hate crime, no one believed it until eight people got shot. That’s why I’m mad, the hypocrisy and ignorance of race.”

Chong said he received a great deal of community support after his post, and he believes there is a sense that many people don’t acknowledge hate crimes that happen to the Asian community.

“It’s a topic this country doesn’t want to talk about, especially in Maine,” he said. “they think that race is just black and white. They think that’s it, but it’s not.”

Kate Sykes, a representative of People First Portland, said Chong’s post was “concerning news” and it’s not clear who Chong was talking about or if that person is even truly affiliated with People First Portland. 

Amy Chea of Unified Asian Communities.

“I can assure you that we hold Councilor Chong in high regard, even if we sometimes disagree on policy issues,” Sykes said. “If he or any other city councilor wishes to talk with us directly, we would welcome the discussion.”

‘A moment of distress’

Amy Chea, secretary and chief strategy officer of Unified Asian Communities, an organization that promotes civic engagement and empowerment for Maine’s Asian communities, said the country is in a “moment of distress.”

At a time when many people were looking for leadership, Chea said, leaders continued to spout harmful and false rhetoric that the coronavirus pandemic was brought to the United States by Asian people.

Former President Donald Trump, for example, used several racist and derogatory nicknames for the virus, including the “Kung flu.”

The March 15 incident on Forest Avenue, Chea said, is a direct result of that kind of rhetoric. “It’s an unfortunate event to happen in our community in Maine,” she said. “But it can happen here.”

Portland Police Department representative David Singer said the suspect in that case, 47-year-old Troy Sprague, was arrested Saturday, March 20, on criminal mischief charges. Although he is out on bail, Attorney General Aaron Frey on Monday announced a civil rights enforcement action against Sprague that bars him from contact with the victim and her family. Violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act are punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Singer said no other similar incidents of racially motivated attacks against members of the city’s Asian community have been reported.

Sprague, a homeless Portland man, allegedly harassed the 38-year-old woman at around 2 in the afternoon as the woman was sitting in her car with her children. She told police an “agitated” Sprague made eye contact with her and started yelling at her to “go back to where she came from.”

Troy Sprague

When the woman attempted to drive away Sprague allegedly kicked her car’s side mirror, snapping it from the bracket.

The alleged attack was denounced by Police Chief Frank Clark, who called it an “incident of racism” and later commended “the cooperation and assistance of the witnesses, along with the perseverance of our officers and detectives in quickly identifying this perpetrator.” 

“To be the target of such a racist and hate-induced crime cuts directly against everything we stand for in the city of Portland,” he said.

Chea said the UAC launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for damages to the victim’s car. In just a few days, she said the campaign had raised $3,000 after setting a goal of only $1,000.

“The community really rallied around this family,” Chea said. “So, lots of bright spots in a time of darkness.”

The attack was also swiftly denounced by Mayor Kate Snyder and city councilors.

“The Portland community stands united against racism,” Snyder said. “Unfortunately, hate against Asian American Pacific Islander communities has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. But together, we must call it out and stop it. Acts of cowardice, intent on causing fear and division, cannot be tolerated by any one of us. In light of other horrific events that have happened across the country, we need to be vigilant in not tolerating any form of hate crime, and offering our support for all who call our community home.”

A rise in hate crimes

In Atlanta, meanwhile, Robert Aaron Long, 21, was charged with several murders after allegedly killing eight people at three spas last week. Long confessed to the crimes, although police at the time said it was too early to consider his action a hate crime.

Although six of the women killed were of Asian descent, Long told police the attacks were not racially motivated. He blamed his action on sex addiction and said the spas were places he frequently visited.

Theresa Kim of Unified Asian Communities.

Chea and Theresa Kim, UAC’s director of legal resources, said their organization, which was founded in 2020 to support the local Asian American community, will partner with the Immigrant Welcome Center to hold a March 25 vigil for the Atlanta victims and others facing hate and racism, although the time and venue were not yet set.

“Sometimes you need to stand with someone and acknowledge the loss of life,” Chea said. “I think these events will be able to give people that feeling of being able to sit in on what’s going on and respect and honor the lives that were lost.”

The recent Forest Avenue attack came on the heels of several other racially or hate-driven events in Portland.

In the past few weeks, white supremacist fliers showed up in the city’s West end. These fliers promoted the Nationalist Social Club, which is described by the Anti-Defamation League as a “neo-Nazi group with small, autonomous regional chapters in the United States and abroad.”

Police and the attorney general’s office are investigating.

Earlier this year, police investigated a series of hate mailings sent to homes displaying either flags or posters supporting LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, or a political candidate. At least one home, which did not display a pride flag, had a resident who is gay.