Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.
Tha Par wasn’t going to wait to address concerns that Asian American residents of Battle Creek, particularly the Burmese community, have about the way they are being treated since COVID-19 made its way here.
Par, Executive Director of the Burma Center in Battle Creek, hosted a Zoom meeting on Thursday with state and local legal representatives, law enforcement officials, and the FBI to discuss hate crimes, discrimination, reporting incidents, and what people’s rights are if they are the victims of an incident. The meeting was the result of the nationwide spread of Anti-Asian sentiment during the time of the COVID-19 outbreak.
While she is not aware of any hate crimes against the local Burmese community, which numbers between 2,500 and 3,000 residents, Par says there have been local incidents that are cause for concern.
“There was a young Burmese gentleman in a local grocery store minding his own business when an older person told him to get away from her because she didn’t want to get infected with COVID-19,” Par says. “There was another incident where a Burmese woman was at the same local store pumping gas and someone started yelling at her for bringing COVID-19 to the United States.
“We’re trying to meet everyone on this continuum so they have information so when they have these unfortunate incidents, they know who to call.”
Like other demographic groups, Par says some in the Burmese community are afraid to leave their homes or let their children go outside to play, but she says there’s also a faction that may not be taking the potentially devastating impact of the virus seriously.
“Some are taking it very seriously and some are feeling more courageous or immune to the virus because they’re Christian and believe God will protect them,” Par says.
The language barrier also plays a part in the way Burmese residents are handling the issues around COVID-19 and for some, it is a real issue. “I think it gives some of them an opportunity to check out from all of this horrific news and pretend that life is good,” Par says. “You don’t understand unless you have someone explain to you. We need to make sure that language isn’t a barrier or an issue to getting information in a timely manner.”
To that end, the Burmese Center created a crisis team that includes community members; a liaison to families who provides outreach; physicians; and educators. This team came together to address health and safety issues in addition to the harmful narrative since the spread of COVID-19 that Asian Americans are responsible for this pandemic, Par says.
“Two physicians on the crisis team have produced videos about how to care for yourself and your loved ones so you can minimize the spread,” Par says. “We released the videos
in the four main dialects that people here speak and also ask people to submit questions so they can be answered.”
Portions of Thursday’s Zoom meeting, including contact information for the panelists, also will be released in those four dialects for members of the Burmese community.
Deputy Chief Jim Grafton with the Battle Creek Police Department, a panelist, says there is a service called Language Line that is used regionally by law enforcement personnel which will get an interpreter involved to assist victims of a crime who may not be proficient in the English language.
“It only takes seconds to get them on the line,” Grafton says.
He, like his fellow panelists, emphasized the importance of reporting hate crimes. Many of them are never reported.
Sunita Doddamani, Michigan Assistant Attorney General, Hate Crimes Unit, and a panelist, says that only about 3 percent of hate crimes are actually reported.
Par says she reached out to Doddamani’s office three weeks ago with her concerns about what Burmese residents were sharing with her and within two weeks Thursday’s meeting came together.
“Perfection is our enemy right now,” Par says in reference to the meeting technology. “I said, let’s just get it done.”
Although Michigan currently has not had any reported incidences of violence associated with COVID-19 related hate crimes, Doddamani says there have been Zoom bombings of Zoom meetings in which people have used profanity-laden or derogatory language, sometimes targeted at different ethnic and minority groups.
Carolyn Normandin, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Michigan office, says they are seeing a “tremendous amount” of hate-like activity moving from the dark website onto digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter. She cited examples of someone shaking an Asian American’s hand and then simulating cutting off their own hand.
She says it’s difficult to say if it’s a new phenomenon or if it’s because people are more willing to report occurrences such as this.
“The incidences that are being reported to our office are that Asian Americans, Jews, and immigrants are (being accused of being) responsible for COVID-19,” says Normandin, who spoke during the Zoom meeting.
Ron Robinson, Chief Civil Rights Division, Michigan Attorney General's Office, dispelling these false narratives is all about education and a lot of what is being seen right now is all about ignorance.
Par says President Trump’s reference to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” raised even more alarm bells for people. She says ignorance exists around Asian Americans and people assume that because they share similar facial features “we’re all Chinese.”
“The more critical something gets and the more stressful, the more people want to blame others,” Doddamani says. “We’ve seen a lot more hate crimes against Asian Americans reported across the country. I don’t know if this is because there are more occurring or if more attention is being paid to them.
“Asian Americans on the street are getting screamed at by random strangers. If someone is standing on the sidewalk yelling at you, that’s not a crime. Words with actions are considered a crime.”
Agent Joseph Lupinacci, FBI Detroit Field Office, Civil Rights Squad, another panelist, says his office works very closely with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and he urges anyone who is a hate crime victim or knows someone who is to contact his office and report it.
“Hate crimes against your community is hate against our community,” says Lupinacci.
On a local level, Calhoun County Prosecutor Dave Gilbert, a panelist, says his office is committed to working with victims of hate crimes and will work towards a resolution.
Par says she wants the larger community to know that if they have biases against ethnic groups, they won’t be tolerated.
“I want people to know that this is serious,” she says.