The first beams of orange and yellow sunlight are just starting to shine over the light rail station on University Avenue and Dale Street in St. Paul, when the MN Asian Safety Squad gathers for its first-ever community patrol.
Jonathan Sry, a 37-year-old patent attorney, stands outside the Rondo Library as he waits for others to join him. Sry started the group in February in response to a nationwide spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Online, the group started discussing a plan to muster volunteers for community patrols through the Frogtown neighborhood, home to many of the city’s Hmong residents.
Then, on March 16, a man killed eight people — six of them Asian women — in a spree of mass shootings around Atlanta. The mass shooting sparked nationwide protests in anger and frustration over the rise of anti-Asian violence.
Now, Sry and the online organization he started are mobilizing a presence on the street, with a plan to protect vulnerable Asian people around the busy shopping boulevard.
”It’s been a year of just anti-Asian attacks, and no one’s started anything yet for this type of service in Minnesota,” Spry says. “So it falls on somebody. The first person to do it is the person who’s now responsible for it.”
During the week, Sry, 37, works on intellectual property assets at 3M and lives in St. Paul’s Union Park neighborhood. On this day, Sry wears a yellow vest and held a bag with additional yellow vests, flyers and a small first-aid kit.
Even as he waits for more people to show up, the neighborhood is lively. Music blares from cars, bells chime from the nearby Green Line light rail station and people bustle across the crosswalk on the way to here or there.
The early morning is chilly. By the time three more members arrive, it is around 7:30 a.m. Sry hands out yellow vests and gather the patrol in a circle to assign roles. Next to the Dale Street light rail station and the Rondo Community Library, the members start walking down University Avenue.
‘Protecting Asians where they are’
The day after the Atlanta-area spa shootings, Sry says he spoke on the phone with Joshua Lego, senior commander at the St. Paul Police Department in the Western District, searching for high crime areas to do community patrols.
“We always have neighborhood watches, but that’s a bit different. This one is more focused on protecting Asians where they are,” Sry says.
Sry says he learned two surprising and helpful insights from Lego.
First, the hours between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. are usually “hot-spot times” for car theft and crime. Second, Sry says Lego told him the area of Dale Street, Western Avenue, Minnehaha Avenue and University Avenue have registered a high number of quality-of-life crimes, including vandalism, graffiti and excessive noise.
“The purpose of community patrols, at least this one, is trying to protect the most amount of Asians, in the least amount of volunteer time,” Sry says. “And the only way you can really do that is trying to target the hot-spot times, the times when crimes are most likely to occur.”
The group’s first stop is at Sun Foods, a grocer, to post a flyer. This sheet includes information in different languages offering to provide volunteers who will safely escort vulnerable Asian people. In the parking lot, there are only a few cars.
Next, the group travels down the street and stops at the Western Avenue light rail station, while monitoring the area.
Joey Sivilay says he met Sry in a martial arts class two years ago and that the two go to the same gym in Union Park. He walks side by side with Sry, carrying a cup of coffee in his mittens. In a couple of months, he plans to move out of state but said he hopes that the group continues to thrive.
“I found that incredibly disturbing,” Sivilay says of the Atlanta-area spa shootings. “The fact that anyone would do that, in general, to anyone, and let alone the Asian community — I feel like that hit particularly close to home.”
Most of the 70 current members in the MN Asian Safety Squad’s Facebook group are Asian; the hope is to empower Asian individuals, Sry says. The group draws from a wide range of Asian backgrounds. Sry’s father, for instance, immigrated from Thailand — Sry identifies himself as Thai American — and he cites a violent assault against a Thai elder as the prompt for his recent activism.
On the morning of Jan. 28, Vichar Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old immigrant from Thailand, was walking in the Anza Vista neighborhood of San Francisco, having just received the coronavirus vaccine. A stranger violently shoved him to the ground. After the attack, Ratanapakdee never regained consciousness and died from his wounds. The family called the attack a hate crime.
Alex Kim says he found out about the MN Asian Safety Squad from staying in touch with Sry, whom he has known for around six years. A lawyer in his professional life, Kim is the founder of the Korean American Bar Association of Minnesota. He’s also the president of the International Association of Korean Lawyers, an organization to promote friendship and communications between lawyers of Korean heritage around the world.
“I think in Minnesota, the hatred issue is becoming more known now, but in various cities, like New York, San Francisco and other larger cities, this has been a major problem,” Kim says. “I knew eventually, it was going to come here.”
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism released an analysis this month that examined hate crimes in 16 of the largest cities in the nation. The report reveals that overall hate crimes decreased 7 percent in 2020. Yet hate incidents targeting Asian increased by nearly 150 percent.
When Kim heard from Sry through Facebook that he was starting the MN Asian Safety Squad, he wanted to join.
“There’s a lot of people talking, and prayers and hopes,” Kim says. “That has its place. But for people living in those communities that are affected day-to-day, it doesn’t really help them directly. So I hope organizations like this start growing. We have to protect our communities and find allies.”
Outside of Marc Heu Pâtisserie Paris, a pastry shop next to the Western Avenue light rail station, the group posts another flyer on the door.
Sry doesn’t necessarily expect to encounter anyone committing an assault — though members have been warned beforehand about varying risk levels. (In the days just before the patrol met, a 66-year-old Hmong grandfather described an incident of harassment while dropping his 5-year-old preschooler at a bus stop in St. Paul.) The MN Asian Safety Squad members stay together in a group, wear bright yellow vests, carry flashlights and plan ahead to de-escalate situations.
Some of the MN Asian Safety Squad members have experience in competitive fighting; Sry is an Iraq War veteran who served from 2009 to 2010.
“The people who victimize elders, they’re the bullies. And when they have the numbers on their side, and they see an alone, vulnerable person, that’s who they’re picking on,” Kim says. “So if we’re organized, and unified and in a certain number of groups, I think we have nothing to really fear.”
Another member of the morning’s MN Asian Safety Squad, Jennifer Amatya, brought pepper spray. She started her own community patrol for the city of Plymouth, in the western suburbs where she lives. But having met Sry on Facebook, she says that group has now merged with the MN Asian Safety Squad to create a larger group of volunteers.
“I’ve been reading for the last month and a half, every single day things are happening in California and everywhere,” Amatya says. “And you figure, it’s happening here, but not to the extent that it was. Or you just don’t know, because people aren’t reporting for numerous reasons.”
The MN Asian Safety Squad will host community patrols on a weekly basis and continues to grow. But the group is still looking for new members to join, and Sry says he hopes to expand community patrols to the East Side of St. Paul.
At 9 a.m., this first community patrol walk ends across the street from the starting point at Rondo Community Library. Sry says he counted some eight Asian people in the area. The group splits up, Amatya leaves, and the rest of the members circle back to the pastry shop they stopped at earlier to grab some croissants.
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