IT was March 17, the day after the Atlanta spa shooting, and a national wave of violence against Asian Americans was sweeping the streets of San Francisco.
Steven Jenkins, a 39-year-old homeless man with a long history of serious mental illness, was arrested for assaulting two Asian residents, including a 75-year-old woman, making headlines around the world. Bravely fought off his attacker.
The task of defending Mr Jenkins fell to Eric McBurney, a Taiwan-born attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office. Within days, Mr. McBurney’s email inbox was flooded with hateful messages asking why, as an Asian American, he was defending someone accused of such hateful attacks against Asians.
When I met Mr. McBurney for coffee this week, he told me he understood what he was up against when members of his own family in Taiwan read about it in the Chinese press and went to pick it up. criticized him.
“How will this man have a fair trial?” Mr. McBurney asked about his client.
In the months since the attack, Mr McBurney has waged a battle against public opinion and what he described as a false narrative. He argues that the attack involving his client is based not on racial hatred but on mental illness and the often rough and chaotic street conditions of the homeless in San Francisco.
“This case has nothing to do with anti-Asian hatred,” Mr McBurney said. “Mr. Jenkins has dealt with an average of five mental illness emergencies each year over the past five years.
“His mind is broken.”
The attacks that Mr Jenkins has been accused of came amid a series of high-profile attacks against Asians. Six of the eight people killed in the Atlanta shooting were of Asian descent. Earlier that week, a man was arrested in San Francisco for assaulting a 59-year-old travel agent from the Philippines, Danny Yu Chang, who was returning to his office after lunch. Two months ago, a 19-year-old man was accused of brutally thrashing a Thai man, an attack on video that sparked fear in the Gulf region Asian community.
Former President Donald Trump’s outrage about “kung flu” from the coronavirus sparked flat-out hatred against Asian Americans, thousands of examples of which have been documented by activist groups across the country.
The family of Xiao Zhen Xie, the woman attacked by Jenkins, raised more than $1 million (£700,000) on a GoFundMe page. The bulk of the money will be donated to a non-profit association the family helped set up to help victims of hate crimes.
Her family wrote, “She has been badly affected mentally, physically and emotionally.” “She also said that she is afraid to step out of her house from now on.”
Experts have said that the pain and fear of being targeted for being Asian is valid and should be addressed, but it is often impossible to analyze the specific motivations of attackers.
In an unusual attempt to dispel the notion that his client acted out of hatred, Mr. McBurney released a seven-minute video in April that featured the attack on Ms. Zee and the moments before it.
On the day of the attacks, Mr Jenkins, who has been homeless for the past decade, was found among tents and non-household items at United Nations Plaza. In footage captured from security cameras, Mr Jenkins is seen being punched and kicked dozens of times by several unidentified assailants, attacks that Mr McBurney calls unprovoked.
An attacker in a bright yellow vest puts two right hooks in Jenkins’s face and then follows him onto a sidewalk on Market Street. Mr. Jenkins staggers, spins and swings. He strikes Ms. Zee, who is on a street corner, in the face.
The video shows Mr Jenkins on the ground, caught by a security guard, when Xie hits Mr Jenkins’s legs with a wooden board. Not captured in the footage was another attack that Mr Jenkins is accused of perpetrating an 83-year-old Vietnamese man, Ngoc Pham.
On the day of the attack, the first images circulated around the world showed Mr Jenkins on a stretcher with a bloodied face and Ms Xie holding a wooden board nearby. The story of an elderly Asian woman fighting back was born.
Mr McBurney, who was adopted by a white family as a teenager, said he understood the racism against Asians. He said that he felt it for the first time in the small towns of the South during his childhood.
“I grew up in cities where I have the entire Asian population,” he said. “You’re always feeling like you don’t belong.”
Mr. McBurney, 48, spent two decades busking and doing waiting tables, garden work and other odd jobs before developing a passion for literature and law. He received a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Utah and went on to the University of Iowa College of Law on a full scholarship.
I asked him how he was handling hate mail from other Asian Americans and rejection from even within his extended family in Taiwan.
“I love it,” Mr. McBurney shot back quickly. “It’s extra motivation.
“It’s when the whole world is against your client, that’s when a public defender says, ‘Yeah, that’s my job.'”
the new York Times
Credit: www.independent.co.uk / San Francisco