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Norman Ho, an instructor for Bay Area Tactical, demonstrates personal safety tactics to a group of attendees.

Pepper spray and alarms: Chinatown clinic teaches personal safety

on October 11, 2021

The shrill ring of safety alarms pierced through cool morning air on Saturday at East Bay Parking on the corner of Eighth and Harrison streets. A motley group of 15, old and young, dressed in neon orange patrol suits and white T-shirts embroidered with dragons paced around in small units.

They worked together to assemble tables and chairs, write name tags for one another, pass out warm pork buns, and unpack box after box of pepper spray canisters. When preparations were complete, they stood in the lot’s dark shade, waiting for the first arrivals.

The Oakland Chinatown Safety Committee hosted a personal safety and pepper spray clinic from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to train community members on how to be more aware of their surroundings and use pepper spray and alarms. The committee handed out over 100 pepper spray canisters and alarms in exchange for donations.

The clinic was organized in response to the city’s mounting violence. The Oakland Police Department has recorded 109 homicides so far this year, according to the department’s most recent crime report. At this point in 2020, there were 80 homicides. Assaults in Oakland have increased 12% this year, to over 2,800, and the Police Department has recorded over 2,000 robberies in 2021, a 15% increase compared with last year, the report shows.

Chinatown residents are especially concerned for the safety of their elders after several recent instances of robbery and assault against seniors this year, with many calling into question the racial motivation behind these attacks. Statewide anti-Asian bias events increased from 43 in 2019 to 89 in 2020, according to the California Department of Justice’s latest Hate Crime in California report.

“You’re not just attacking some old person on the street — you’re attacking my mom, my dad, my grandparents,” said Norman Ho, 33.

Ho, an instructor for Bay Area Tactical, an academy that provides training on firearm safety and personal protection, led pepper spray demonstrations in English and Cantonese at the clinic. Several members of local organizations, including the Asians with Attitude patrol group, the East Bay Toishan Association, and Compassion in Oakland passed out flyers and spoke with attendees about the importance of standing their ground and supporting fellow community members.

“We have this saying in Cantonese when you encounter trouble: Don’t look down,” said Halton Suen, 66, a member of the East Bay Toishan Association — one of the organizations that patrols the neighborhood every day. He recounted conversations with residents who were hesitant to look strangers in the eye for fear of retaliation. “Many have told me, ‘We’re small. What’s the use?’ That’s just not true,” Suen said.

Halton Suen, right, member of the East Bay Toishan Association and Foot Patrol Group, at Saturday’s clinic.

Looking ahead, Bob Yee, 64, and David Won, 59, vice chairs of the Oakland Chinatown Safety Committee, are discussing broader solutions to support the community, including discouraging the use of cash, increasing Asian American voting representation, and instilling more education and cultural awareness in local youth.

“In the short term, I think we need to do whatever we can to protect our citizens,” said Won, who hopes to encourage more people to participate in and support their community beyond the clinic.

“With work and family, it’s hard. There’s enough that you do just to survive on a day-to-day basis. But the world has a lot of smart people, and we’ll do better in the next 20 years.”

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