Tuesday's deadly shootings in the Atlanta area, where a white gunman killed eight people — six of them women of Asian descent — have heightened concerns across Minnesota about the increase in violence against Asian Americans, especially women, since the start of the pandemic.
In Austin, Minn., an Asian American family found the words "China virus" burned into their lawn. In Bloomington, a woman walking on a trail was attacked after racial slurs were hurled at her.
And in Shakopee, a couple were followed out of a store by a man who shoved the husband and yelled that they should "take the coronavirus and leave."
"Racism is not a one-time incident," said Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), a St. Paul nonprofit. "What we are hearing about was not something that was just going to go away. … We were worried that it would get more violent."
Across the United States, Asian Americans have faced increasing hostility, racism and discrimination since former President Donald Trump dubbed the coronavirus the "China virus." The outbreak is believed to have started in December 2019 in Wuhan, China.
Thao-Urabe said her organization and others have been sounding the alarm as they've seen bias increasingly escalate from verbal attacks to physical assaults.
"We were worried things like this could happen," she said of Tuesday's shooting. "This is not new. … We were concerned not enough was being done."
Wednesday at the Legislature, Rep. Tou Xiong, DFL-Maplewood, led a moment of silence for the victims of the Atlanta shootings and urged Minnesotans to denounce rising anti-Asian bigotry.
Xiong, who chairs the Minnesota Asian Pacific Caucus, called on government leaders to do more to fight disinformation and a tide of hate crimes.
"Silence amidst this growing surge [in hate] against fellow Asian Americans is unacceptable," Xiong said.
On Wednesday evening, metro-area Asian Americans said they're being more cautious.
Sela Hafoka, a recent graduate of White Bear Lake High School who identifies as Asian-Polynesian American, said she believes Trump's "China virus" statements unleashed some of the racism.
She said one of her classmates told another whom she thought was Asian to go back to China. "There's more blatant racism towards Asian Americans than before," Hafoka said.
Her mother, Ruth Hafoka, agreed, saying she has seen an increase in anti-Asian rhetoric on social media. "I feel like we're the invisible, forgotten community," she added.
Rebecca Thao said she received worried texts from her mother soon after the first reports of the Georgia attacks.
"My mom texted me and said to be careful and not to start trouble with people," she said. "When I'm by myself, I'm more cautious. I stay aware."
Last year, Minnesota launched a discrimination helpline — 1-833-454-0148 — after bias reports against Asian Americans grew during the pandemic. More than 300,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders representing various ethnic groups from Hmong to Indian and Vietnamese call Minnesota home. All told, they make up more than 5% of the state's population.
Since April 2020, about 7% of the Human Rights Department's COVID-related calls have been reports alleging anti-Asian Pacific Islander bias and discrimination — which means Minnesotans of Asian descent are being affected to an extent that is disproportionate to their share of the population.
In January, CAAL backed President Joe Biden's presidential memorandum condemning racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The memo directed the U.S. Department of Justice to engage with the community on hate crimes, hate incidents and harassment, and directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the COVID-19 health equity task force to issue guidance on cultural competency, language access and sensitivity in light of Trump's comments.
CAAL created the Asian Minnesotan Alliance for Justice last May, in response to rising anti-Asian racism and the global outcry over racial injustice following the death of George Floyd.
Next Wednesday, the alliance will host a public community event online to increase awareness of victims of hate crimes and share how the community can help combat anti-Asian racism.
"People should feel safe and welcome no matter where they live and work … this is really up to us," Thao-Urabe said. "I really believe that Minnesotans can do more and we should do more. Asian Minnesotans, like other communities, are struggling."
When Thao-Urabe logged onto Zoom to host a webinar last April educating the community on the history of xenophobia and anti-racism, she froze.
While more than 500 participants had joined the webinar, some were racist trolls who inserted obscene comments and pictures into the virtual chat before the nonprofit shut it down.
On social media, #StopAsianHate trended online Wednesday. Both the Minnesota GOP and DFL parties issued statements condemning the violence, as did the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus and many other organizations.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan addressed the shooting Wednesday during an advocacy day address to the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action.
She said racism and misogyny must be included in the state's debate over gun violence reduction and firearm legislation. The Moms Demand Action group called for legislation to expand criminal background checks on firearms sales and to adopt an extreme-risk protection order — or "red flag" law — that would allow a judge to order the removal of firearms from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others.
The legislation, prioritized by Democrats, is unlikely to pass the Republican-led Senate. A bill was also introduced by legislators this month that would expand the reporting of bias crimes and resources.
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.