Rallygoers in group photo at Wilson Park in Torrance, Calif., on July 11. (Photo: George Toshio Johnston)
A spike in COVID-19 assaults on Asians in the U.S. also raises concerns.
By P.C. Staff
Dozens of protesters and observers gathered in Torrance, Calif., on July 11 to exercise their right to exercise without becoming victimized for being Asian.
The rally took place in Wilson Park one month after two separate incidents occurred there on June 10 in which a woman, later identified by the Torrance Police Department as Lena Hernandez, 54, of Long Beach, allegedly harangued and threatened people of Asian Pacific descent.
Among the speakers at the rally were three Asians who said that they were victims of Hernandez: Sherry-Ann Bulseco, Kayceelyn Salminao and a father and son who asked to remain anonymous, with the father requesting to be referred to as Victim No. 3. All three are being represented by attorney Sandy Roxas.
Victim No. 3 told the Pacific Citizen that he was with his sons, ages 11 and 2, for a walk in Wilson Park on June 10 when he encountered Hernandez in the parking lot.
“I noticed this woman was shouting at me, so I rolled down my window and realized she was basically threatening me and making racial slurs,” he said.
Victim No. 3 began recording the incident on his smartphone, and the video shows Hernandez — who he dubbed “Torrance Karen” — calling him “Chinaman.” Earlier that day, Bulseco was at Wilson Park to exercise when she encountered Hernandez. Because she was recording her workout, she also recorded Hernandez racially harassing and threatening her.
While the video does not show Hernandez going out of her way to purposely bump Bulseco, which she says did happen and caused her to exclaim “Jesus” in reaction, her video shows Hernandez telling Bulseco, “Go back to whatever f****** Asian country you came from,” and, “Next time you ever talk to me like that you’re going to get your a** kicked by my family. They’re going to f*** you up!”
Preceding the twin June 10 incidents was another that took place Oct. 11, 2019, at Torrance’s Del Amo Fashion Center mall that also allegedly involved Hernandez, in which she was said to have verbally assaulted a mall custodian and then “pushed and struck” bystander Salminao when she tried to intervene.
According to attorney Roxas, photos of Hernandez were taken immediately after the alleged attack by Salminao’s husband.
“He witnessed the assault, and he broke it up, and he followed Lena Hernandez until law enforcement stopped her at the Del Amo Mall,” Roxas said.
Fast-forwarding to June 2020 after the two Wilson Park incidents involving Hernandez, Roxas told the Pacific Citizen, “As soon as Kayceelyn saw those viral videos, she recognized her, and she called Torrance P.D. and said, ‘This is the same suspect.’”
However, Roxas also said that when the Torrance police held a news conference on June 12, they said that they did not know the information for the alleged perpetrator — Hernandez — which she says is inaccurate.
“They had her information because they took her ID and wrote down all her information at the Del Amo Mall. But at the press conference, they were saying they didn’t have her information, they were trying to ascertain it,” Roxas said.
Roxas said the Torrance P.D. made another inaccurate statement. “They publicly put on social media — I think it was Instagram — that when people were calling them out, [asking] why didn’t you do anything, why didn’t you file charges against Lena, they said that Kayceelyn retracted her charges and didn’t want to go forward . . . which is definitely a misstatement because Kayceelyn says that she kept following up with the Torrance P.D. and getting pushed to the side and not getting any attention.”
After the Wilson Park videos were released on social media, City News Service reported that the Torrance police found Hernandez at a park in San Pedro.
A statement in a Torrance P.D. news release said that when Torrance police located Hernandez and interviewed her, the conclusion was: “Based on the fact all three incidents are misdemeanor crimes and did not occur in the presence of an officer, Hernandez was not arrested at the time of the interview.”
When Hernandez was arrested for the Torrance mall incident at about 1 p.m. on July 3 — 266 days after the October 2019 incident — it was on a warrant charging her with battery, a misdemeanor. There were, however, no additional charges for the alleged racist verbal assaults at Wilson Park.
Regarding the time lag in arresting Hernandez for her alleged part in the October 2019 battery, Victim No. 3 told the Pacific Citizen, “I think that everybody should be concerned by the fact that they only took action months after the battery she committed back in October. I think the public should be asking a lot of questions, like why did it take so long for them to take action for the initial battery back in October 2019, as well as why there are no charges for the 6/10 event, which was fully captured?
“I think the public should be concerned that the [Torrance] city attorney, in his statement, said ‘insufficient evidence’ to bring any charges for the 6/10 attacks. I think the question is, ‘Is he not seeing what the public sees in these videos? If these videos are not sufficient, then what is sufficient?’”
The reasons given by the Torrance City Attorney’s Office for not filing criminal charges against Hernandez were found in a statement on the city of Torrance website that reads: “After a careful review of all the evidence available at this time, there is insufficient evidence to support filing any criminal charges against Ms. Hernandez. A prosecutor in a criminal case shall not institute a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause. Currently, there are critical gaps in the evidence regarding how each incident unfolded that result in the lack of necessary certainty required to initiate criminal prosecution against any suspect.”
However, in a new development after the July 11 rally, Roxas told the Pacific Citizen that she might have new evidence that could change the status quo.
“At the [July 11] rally, though, there was a female individual who approached me and said she had witnessed the verbal and physical attack of Sherry, the second victim who was on the stairs, so I have her information and she told me to forward her information to the city attorney,” Roxas said. “The city attorney has indicated that there is insufficient evidence to move forward, but if there is new evidence that can be presented to him that potentially could have an effect on the case.”
After posting bail on July 3, Hernandez was released by about 4:10 p.m. The City of Torrance website states: “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles County Courts have set bail for most misdemeanors at $0.00.”
An email with questions regarding Hernandez sent by the Pacific Citizen to a Torrance Police Department public information officer was unanswered. An arraignment date for Hernandez has been set for Oct. 5 at the Torrance Courthouse.
Roxas told the Pacific Citizen that she has discovered that Hernandez has three other incidents that occurred in 2020.
“In February, she was arrested for battery,” said Roxas. “That case ended up being dismissed. In April, she was arrested for battery and for hit-and-run. She received two convictions for that and was sentenced to only five days in county jail for the battery. For the hit-and-run, she was sentenced to zero days in the county jail. She’s currently on probation for those two cases that arose from April. This is someone who has a violent history.”
Regarding speculation that Hernandez may be suffering from mental illness, which could be used in her defense, Roxas said, “Because she has those prior convictions and they’re so recent, she can’t claim mental illness as a defense … because she just was convicted and she pled out on two very similar cases, battery and hit-and-run.
One of the speakers at the July 11 rally was Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat whose district includes Torrance, who said, “I’m here to support the victims. I’ve talked several times with the city attorney of Torrance. We will continue to explore all the legal as well as political [and] legislative angles for the victims.”
Another speaker was South Bay JACL Chapter President Kent Kawai, representing JACL’s Pacific Southwest District, who said, “We are here to support justice and, more importantly, have the City of Torrance take measures to make sure that all the parks and recreational facilities are safe from hate and racism.”
Other community groups with representatives at the rally included Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress and Media Action Network for Asian Americans. Also present to show support for the rally was Torrance City Councilman Tim Goodrich, who told the Pacific Citizen that he was “sickened” by the news of the two Wilson Park incidents.
“There is no room for that in our city,” he said. “I think that you’re going to find that 99 percent of the people here in Torrance are good people,” he said. “It gives our city a bad name, and the woman doesn’t even live here.”
Torrance has a population of more than 145,000, nearly 40 percent of which is of Asian descent; about 9 percent of the population claims Japanese ancestry. Torrance is also home to more than 200 U.S. offices of Japan-based businesses.
(Editor’s note: To view the two smartphone videos taken by the Wilson Park victims, use the following links. Please note that the videos contains offensive language; discretion is advised. Wilson Park incident No. 1: tinyurl.com/y4zm6w2s. Wilson Park incident No. 2: tinyurl.com/y487jpnq.)
The alarming rise of numerous verbal and physical incidents of anti-Asian racism that have occurred nationwide in the wake of the spread of SARS-CoV-2, sparked an online news conference that was held on July 1 to address the results of an initiative that tracked that alarming trend.
Over the many the weeks preceding the news conference, the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center — sponsored by A3PCON, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University — collected more than 800 incidents of anti-Asian discrimination and harassment, including 81 assaults and 64 potential civil rights violations across California.
Participating in the news conference were California Assemblymen Muratsuchi and David Chiu (D-17th District), also the chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus; Manju Kulkarni, executive director of A3PCON; Russell Jeung, chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University; and Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
One shared observation among the participants was that antagonistic statements and verbal cues by President Donald Trump — who continues to call the novel coronavirus “kung flu” and place blame on China for the global pandemic — have exacerbated the situation and are partly responsible for prompting attacks on Asians in the U.S. over the last three months, especially on women and the elderly.
In her introductory comments, Kulkarni provided the backstory behind the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center.
“On March 19, we developed Stop AAPI Hate, the nation’s leading aggregator of COVID-19 hate-related incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” she said. “Since then, we have received over 2,000 incident reports from 45 states and the District of Columbia. Forty-two percent of those incidents come from the state of California.”
Kulkarni also said that Stop AAPI Hate has urged Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state to establish a “racial bias strike team to further investigate the widespread and growing problem of COVID-19-related hate against the Asian American community in California and take immediate action to identify the most effective policies to reduce and end those unacceptable attacks.”
Muratsuchi listed several anti-Asian incidents, including the ones at Wilson Park, and said, “We need to send a message that racism against anyone, against any group, is simply not acceptable.”
Chiu, who provided a Northern California perspective, noted that before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S., business in San Francisco’s Chinatown began to drop — and incidents of anti-Asian violence began to rise. He cited a video of an “elderly Chinese man in our city’s Bayview-Hunters Point district beaten just for collecting cans, the woman who was robbed and dragged in the Stockton Tunnel just next to Chinatown.
“I would submit that the documented incidents are … just the tip of the iceberg for what is actually happening in our country,” Chiu continued.
Jeung, who was experiencing a poor connection, concurred and noted that since its launch, Stop AAPI Hate has logged about 10 incidents per day.
Choi, who credited Jeung for being “the engine” for compiling the data, shared a litany of incidents that could be categorized as verbal harassment, avoidance/shunning, physical assault and incidents that have taken place at retail stores, the workplace and online. She then introduced Donalene Ferrer, who described an April 1 incident in Oceanside, Calif., that involved a neighbor who drove past them and yelled, “You started the corona!” at her, her mother and 17-year-old daughter as they walked their dog.
Ferrer said when she saw the neighbors, who “lived literally three doors down from my mom’s house,” getting out of their car, she saw two males, a female and two young kids and a baby. Ferrer decided to confront them and told them that she was a nurse and that her father had served in the military and “fought for this country” and that “you really shouldn’t be teaching your kids racism.”
Ferrer said the young woman started yelling at her and her daughter and said, “F*** you,” and “Come over here and say it to my face” as she held her baby.
Choi concluded her statement by pointing out that a recent state audit shows that local law enforcement has failed to respond appropriately by prioritizing such incidents compiled by Stop AAPI Hate as hate crimes, “as well as the issue of not proactively engaging with the community about what constitutes a hate crime and that they failed in appropriately reporting and responding.”
Kulkarni concluded by saying, “I think for us what’s really important is looking back to, again, the collective action and what our government can do and should do to address some of these issues. It’s not incumbent simply on each of us to come up with solutions, but also for our elected officials to do so. That’s why we are urging the governor to come up with not only the task force or strike team but to also look at very specific measures.”
Other recent hate-speech, violent, threatening and related incidents that have occurred recently include:
- In June, a Japanese cookware store in Torrance received a letter with a bomb threat. The owner, a Japanese national, declined to give the name of his store.
- On July 4, an Asian American family hiking near Mt. Tam was confronted by a White American woman who was upset that they had their dog with them and told them they “can’t be in this country.” The father, identified in news reports as Hiroshi, recorded the incident on his phone. The woman was later identified as Beth Taska, formerly the VP of human resources at 24 Hour Fitness and, more recently, the chief people officer at Topa Equities. She has since resigned.
- Also on July 4, an Asian American family celebrating a birthday at Bernardus Lodge & Spa in Carmel Valley were recipients of a vulgar gesture and verbal harassment by a man later identified as Michael Lofthouse, CEO of cloud storage firm Solid8. He was recorded on a video saying, “Trump’s going to f*** you! You f******* need to leave! You f****** Asian piece of s***!” He has since apologized for his behavior and has resigned.
[Editor’s note: Since the publication of this article, the Torrance City Council on July 21 unanimously approved a resolution rejecting “xenophobia and anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander sentiment.”]