A photo from Bowdoin’s anti-Asian/Pacific Islander violence vigil on Monday, April 5. The vigil was organized by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Asian Students Alliance. Courtesy of Kevin Chi

“In case something happens,” Bowdoin College senior Kevin Chi said he recently bought pepper spray for self-defense.

Particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have faced an uptick in violence and harassment throughout the United States and, according to Chi, neither the town of Brunswick nor Bowdoin College is immune.

“In Brunswick, we students really face this kind of problem to a point where I feel extremely defensive every time I go walk to Brunswick downtown,” Chi said.

Reported attacks nationwide against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the past year have ranged from hate speech to murder, and while racism is not new in America, many attribute the increase to former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric surrounding COVID-19, in which he has blamed the pandemic on China.

“The rise in anti-Asian violence isn’t just something that happens in big cities like New York or San Francisco,” Chi said, who shared personal experiences of racist remarks both on and off campus.

At Bowdoin, Chi is the president of the Asian Students Alliance and, along with the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, organized vigil on Monday night. While the vigil was in part a response to the Atlanta shootings on March 16, which left eight dead, Chi said there was also an effort to raise awareness to “the whole picture,” rather than a single event.

“This isn’t just confined to this year,” said Bowdoin Professor of Asian Studies and English Belinda Kong, who also referenced past experiences with racist remarks in Brunswick.

“I think it wasn’t until the Atlanta shootings, that the college itself … became much more aware of the degree of that race hatred and the violence,” Kong added, saying that she does think the college’s response has been great, although there are still steps to be taken.

Between March 2020 and Feb. 2021, the San Francisco-based national nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate documented 3,795 incidents targeting Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

According to Brunswick’s Chief of Police Scott Stewart the Brunswick department has not handled any instances of anti-Asian/Pacific Islander violence since the pandemic began, but was made aware of one second-hand report by Bowdoin security.

There were 19 incidents of hate crimes in Maine in 2019, the last year data is available from the Maine Department of Public Safety, none that were reported were against those of Asian ancestry. No hate crimes were reported in the Brunswick area.

Under Maine law, hate crimes are defined as crimes that “manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.”

In addition to Monday’s vigil, various community spaces were held for staff and students and an anonymous document was created to allow Bowdoin community members a chance to share personal stories on discrimination and racism.

Kong said she is working to get the administration to implement community-wide bystander harassment intervention workshops.

“I know Bowdoin is trying, but it’s always not enough,” Chi said, stating that the extent of the college’s administrative response “was a couple of emails that were sent out by the president of the college.”

Chi said that a lot of professors did not acknowledge the Atlanta shootings and the Bowdoin student government’s response was “lacking in that they didn’t really put out a statement about this incident until five, six days later.”

As a result, Chi said that, along with the Asian Students Alliance, he has felt pressure to put together events for the community.

Chi said that he would like to see the university’s administration make more of an effort to take “the burden themselves” and see them allocate more resources to the diversity and inclusion office.

“I’m hopeful that this is a turning point and that we will start to build more systematic structures and programs,” Kong said.

According to a March 26 letter from Bowdoin’s President Clayton Rose, the college is offering three-hour workshops by the Racial Equity Institute designed to help people better understand the structural causes of racial inequity.

“We hope and expect that every member of our campus community will participate by the end of the fall 2021 semester in one of the sessions of this workshop,” Rose wrote.

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