Marpheen Chann was both surprised and unsurprised to learn that an Asian American woman in Portland was the victim of an attack police say was racially motivated.

Surprised because it happened just down the road from his home in Portland, a city he sees as a welcoming place that has led Maine on issues like LGBTQ rights. And yet not surprised because of increasingly racist rhetoric against Asian Americans locally and across the country since the beginning of the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty, sadness that this is happening when times are already especially tough. We’ve dealt with a year of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia because of the virus,” Chann said. “We’ve been going about our days differently, whether it’s grocery shopping or going around town or driving or waiting in a parking lot. There’s always that fear that something might happen.”

Portland police say an agitated white man may have committed a hate crime on Monday when he yelled “go back to where you came from” at an Asian American woman before kicking a side mirror off her car. The woman, who was with her young children when she was accosted outside of an oil change business on Forest Avenue, recorded the incident and reported it to police.

Police identified Troy Sprague, 47, as the suspect. Sprague, who police say is homeless, is facing a charge of criminal mischief as police continue to investigate the incident as a possible hate crime.

Sprague was not arrested or issued a summons because he was acting “manic” and not wearing a mask and ran away from police, said David Singer, a spokesman for the department. Officers will monitor Sprague and issue the summons the next time they come in contact with him, he said.

Members of Asian American communities in Portland say the incident has caused widespread fear, with some people afraid to go to the grocery store or to let their children travel to and from school. Since the Portland incident was reported, the leadership of Unified Asian Communities, a group formed during the pandemic to unite and support those communities in Maine, has been taking calls from people who talk about only going to the store in groups.

Asian Americans have experienced harassment and micro-aggressions for years, ranging from laws that prohibited immigrants from China in the 1880s to internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to people telling Asian Americans to “go home.” Asian Americans are the third most targeted ethnic or racial group after African Americans and Jewish Americans, said Amy Chea, the secretary and chief strategy officer for UAC.

“This is nothing new to us,” said Chan Himm, president and CEO of Unified Asian Communities. “Our heart is broken and it’s hurt because of what just happened in our community. To continuously try to calm them and let them know they are safe and secure, that’s a hard conversation to have.”

Portland’s mayor and city councilors issued written statements denouncing the incident on Monday, labeling it as a hate crime. All said the city of Portland is a welcoming community that does not tolerate hate.

“We will continue to work to make Portland a city that welcomes everyone and creates a secured community with a sense of belonging and inclusiveness for all and we stand united against hate,” Mayor Kate Snyder said.

Councilor Tae Chong, who is Asian American, cited the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes around the country and said it was unsettling that it happened to a family in Portland.

“Our community is only as good as how safe everyone feels,” Chong said. “Hate has no place in our community, where we all call Portland home.”

Such incidents that involve violence  are relatively rare in Maine, but similar reports of violence and harassment targeting Asian Americans have surged nationally during the pandemic, fueled by rhetoric blaming the coronavirus on China or Asian Americans. While in office, former President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu” and “China virus.”

The Stop AAPI Hate reporting center has recorded 3,795 incidents targeting Asian American and Pacific Islanders between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28. Most of the incidents have been aimed at women, and range from verbal harassment to physical assaults. A recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism said anti-Asian hate crimes increased 149 percent in American’s largest cities last year.

On Tuesday, eight people – six of whom were Asian – were shot to death at three Atlanta-area massage parlors, raising further alarm about hate crimes against people of Asian descent. Police in major cities had already ramped up security in some neighborhoods following violent attacks on Asian Americans in the past year.

Police in Portland have not been receiving more reports of crimes against Asian Americans. In the past year, Asian Americans were victims of three assaults or other violent crimes in the city, but it is not known if race was a factor in those cases, Singer said.

“To be the target of such a racist and hate-induced crime cuts directly against everything we stand for in the city of Portland,” police Chief Frank Clark said on Tuesday of the attack on Forest Avenue.

An estimated 1.3 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents, or roughly 17,000 people, are of Asian descent, according to the U.S. Census. That does not include people who identify with two or more races.

FBI data published by the Anti-Defamation League shows 19 reports of hate crimes in Maine in 2019, one fewer than 2018. Of the 19 incidents in 2019, 10 involved race, although races are not broken down. Seven incidents involved sexual orientation and two involved religion.

FBI hate crime data is not available for 2020, but the ADL lists 19 incidents last year in Maine that did not rise to the level of a crime, up from 16 in 2019. The vast majority of those were related to white-supremacist propaganda.

Chann, president of the Cambodian Community Association of Maine and an educator at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, said he has heard of other racist actions against Asian Americans in southern Maine, including graffiti painted on the walls of an Asian market and comments made to a local woman while she was leading a church service. He believes some people are hesitant to report harassment or other crimes to police because Asian Americans have not felt heard or that their concerns are addressed.

“I think that’s part of the trepidation that many people in the Asian American community feel when something happens. Will police listen? Will officials do anything about this? For a large part of our history in America, the answer has been no,” he said. “That’s the reason many Asian Americans feel like they can’t speak up, because they’re just going to be ignored.”

Thuy Sullivan, a UAC board member, said she and others in the Vietnamese community have felt uncomfortable and felt real fear, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. As national leaders used language like “China virus” during the pandemic, they noticed people moving away from them in stores, even though they were not more likely to have the virus.

“Many of us in the Asian communities in Portland have had experiences that make them feel very uncomfortable,” she said.

Many Asian Americans across the United States hesitate to report that type of biased behavior because they have been brought up in a culture where they were taught not to speak up, said Chea, the UAC’s secretary and chief strategy officer.

“These are people who have survived the worst of humanity, war and genocide, and now they’re forced to be afraid of radicalized domestic terrorists,” she said. “Many Asian immigrants are from authoritarian countries were speaking out against injustice means you are targeted, jailed and murdered.”

Theresa Kim, director of legal resources for UAC, is frustrated and discouraged that police did not immediately issue a summons to Sprague in connection with the incident on Forest Avenue. She worries that it will discourage people from speaking up and about what could happen if a future incident escalates to more violence.

“It’s a topic that needs to be brought to light and that needs to be talked about,” Kim said.  “It needs to stop being swept under the rug.”

The leadership of Unified Asian Communities say they are trying to channel the grief, fear and sadness members of their community are feeling into action to combat bias and racism against Asian Americans. By coming together to standup for their communities, they are trying to combat stigmas and empower people to speak out without fear of local or immigration authorities, said Thomas Ling, who serves as vice president of the organization.

“I think right now, in this point in our history, it’s more important than ever that the Asian American community is vocal and stands up and unifies and empowers each other,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated at 5:37 a.m. on Thursday, March 18, 2021 to correct the name of the group formed during the pandemic to support Asian communities in Maine.

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