Opinion

Op-ed: Post-election hate in Berkeley: 14 troubling stories, and 5 ways to respond

poster-at-mikes-bikes
Poster at Mike’s Bikes in Berkeley. Photo: Anirvan Chatterjee

The election of Donald Trump precipitated a wave of xenophobia across the United States — and “liberal” Berkeley, California has not been immune.

On Nov. 10 around 9 p.m., a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was verbally abused and physically threatened on the UC Berkeley campus by three white men who taunted her over Trump’s victory and demanded that she “rip that shit off your head before we rip it off for you.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the incident left many Muslim students in Berkeley feeling anxious and unsafe. In response to the hate, UC Berkeley’s Muslim Student Association jumped into action, organizing group prayers on Sproul Plaza, holding a workshop on Islamophobia, and creating a WhatsApp message group with volunteers ready to escort students concerned about walking alone in Berkeley.

On Nov. 23 around 5 p.m., Asma Mohseni was walking on San Pablo Avenue with her toddler when a man started yelling at her. When she didn’t respond, he followed her down the street, screaming “you don’t even speak English, go back to your fucking country, I’m going to kill you.” Mohseni, who shared her story with us by email, pleaded for help, only to have a bystander yell at her and walk away. Other witnesses eventually intervened, but the man went on to yell more racial slurs, and eventually backed her up against a wall, threatening to punch her head. Thankfully, Mohseni and her child escaped without injury. She describes this incident in Berkeley as the worst ethnically motivated aggression she’s ever experienced, far worse than what she faced living on the East Coast after 9/11.

On Nov. 13 around 9 p.m., Ismael Chamu was returning home from a shopping trip, walking down University Avenue near Foster Freeze, when a red Ford pickup truck pulled over and a white man yelled “son of a bitch wetback” at him, before speeding away. “I was reminded of my middle school years in South Carolina when I was called a “wetback illegal” many times,” Chamu said, who posted his story on Facebook (it was also reported in the Daily Cal). “Now I’m in California and it follows me. This political climate is empowering these racist lost souls.”

This isn’t new. In the days after 9/11, Berkeley’s Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian residents faced a similar upsurge of targeted xenophobia: a Pakistani man assaulted on Shattuck Avenue (reported to the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action in September 2001); a Berkeley High student who had to spend four days in the hospital after she was attacked, a Muslim organization receiving voicemail death threats, and Palestinian students facing physical harassment (source).

The incidents

I’ve been working with a group of Berkeley residents to track post-election hate incidents in Berkeley via news stories, first-person reports, social media, hate incident reporting sites, as well as our online form to report Berkeley hate incidents. These incidents have targeted people who are (or are perceived to be) Muslim, South Asian, East Asian, LGBTQ, Mexican, and/or immigrant.

  • Nov 8: a white man in his 50s spits at two students and calls them racist and homophobic slurs, while election results are playing at Sproul Plaza [source]
  • Nov 8-10: a South Asian woman is told to “go back to your own country” on the streets twice over the course of three days [shared with us privately]
  • Nov 10: three white men abuse a Muslim woman, and threaten to rip off her hijab while taunting her about the election results, an incident that caused substantial concern in the local Muslim community [source]
  • Nov 10: someone yells “you’ll all be deported soon” at a non-white woman walking through Berkeley [reported on social media by her husband]
  • Nov 11: a white man in a car yelled at a South Asian woman for her to “go back to her country” [source]
  • Nov 12 (approx): a witness sees a man yelling misogynistic slurs at a woman on the sidewalk, referencing Donald Trump [source]
  • Nov 12-13: in at least three separate incidents over the course of two days, men driving through central Berkeley pelted non-white and/or LGBTQ residents with eggs, and in one case, rocks (it’s unclear whether these attacks were targeted or random) [source, and reported multiple times in a UC Berkeley internal Facebook group]
  • Nov 13: two white men in a pickup truck yell “son of a bitch wetback” to an out-of-state student walking home late at night [source]
  • Nov 13: Trump supporters confront two Latina women on Sproul Plaza, then start filming the incident while yelling about “hostility in Berkeley” and “don’t kick me” — even though the students were standing several feet away [reported in a UC Berkeley internal Facebook group]
  • Nov 14: a UC Berkeley instructor describes hearing of five violent election-related assaults, including students who witnessed and interrupted a group of men in Trump hats kicking a homeless man [source; submitter’s name is redacted, so we can’t verify details]
  • Nov 15: an older white man harasses a South Asian woman crossing Telegraph Avenue, while encouraging nearby drivers to run her over [shared with us privately on condition of anonymity]
  • Nov 21: an older white man shopping at Berkeley Bowl tells an Asian American woman to “go back to China” [source]
  • Nov 23: a man chases a woman and her toddler down San Pablo, yelling “you don’t even speak English, go back to your fucking country, I’m going to kill you,” and later threatens to punch and shoot her [shared with us privately on condition of anonymity]
  • In at least two separate incidents in November, white customers racially harass a Muslim business owner [shared with us privately on condition of anonymity]

We believe that most of these reports are legitimate, and it seems probable that more incidents have occurred, given the high rates of underreporting of hate incidents.

How do we fight the hate?

Thank you to Sine Hwang Jensen, Sathvik Nair, the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, UC Berkeley’s South Asians for Social Justice, Councilmember Lori Droste, Sarah Ravani, Aleah Jennings-Newhouse, and all the Berkeley residents who entrusted us with their stories.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a curator of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.