In the first in-person event Fletcher has held since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she asserted that “public safety is the first responsibility of government.”
“People across our community and across the country are concerned about safety in our communities and the developments we’ve seen in recent years,” Fletcher said in her introduction. “We’ve seen an alarming rise in crime generally and we’ve seen a really frightening rise in hate crimes specifically.”
Fletcher listed several violent incidents beginning with the 2017 attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, and vaguely referenced Atlanta, Buffalo, and attacks in Colleyville and El Paso, Texas.
“We know these events are on the rise, but we also know that bigotry and hatred more broadly are on the rise again in our country.”
Although there have not been any high-profile hate crimes in the region, Wu suggested that many incidents are not reported. He added that the Asian community in Houston is relatively “new” and often unwilling to call the police.
“There are a lot of things that happen that are hate ‘incidences’ but it doesn’t become a crime statistic until it gets reported,” said Wu.
Wu pointed to jokes and terminology he claims fueled hate crimes, such as referring to COVID-19 with Chinese terms, comments about “those people controlling media,” or references to crime.
“Like violent crime; violent crime is always ‘those people,’ right?” asked Wu. “And whether it’s stated openly or not, it puts a target on the back of those being labeled.”
Earlier this year, residents in two Harris County communities reported finding racist flyers depicting Adolf Hitler and cartoons of black Americans titled “2026 A Race Odyssey.”
Houston Police Department (HPD) Assistant Chief Yasar Bashir, the first Muslim to reach that rank in the department, reiterated that some ‘hate’ incidents are not a crime and are constitutionally protected as free speech. He also said that violent crime in the city was down by 8 percent.
Last week, HPD data showed 173 homicides in Houston for the first four and a half months of 2022, up from 160 in the same period last year and 125 in 2020.
Both Fletcher and Bashir pointed to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s One Safe Houston plan as a positive development in combating hate crime, with Fletcher noting $52 million for the city’s program came from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) approved by Congress in 2021.
Fletcher also touted the passage of the 2021 COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in response to rising hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The law expedites a Justice Department review of hate crimes and allocates funds for local law enforcement agencies to investigate bias-driven incidents.
Last week, candidate for Harris County Commissioner Precinct 4 Ben Chou accused his Democratic Primary runoff opponent Lesley Briones of invoking racist anti-Asian images in a recent attack mailer. The Briones campaign blamed altered images of Chou on the flyers on a filter used by either the printer or the graphic artist designing the flyer, but has not acquiesced to Chou’s demands for a public apology.
None of the panelists assembled by Fletcher addressed the Chou-Briones conflict, and only five audience questions were taken during the one-and-a-half-hour event Monday.
One audience member representing the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a Taiwanese American grassroots organization, asked the panel to also condemn the attack by a pro-China extremist against a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna, California this month that left one dead and five injured.
“I absolutely condemn it,” said Wu. “The hate is the same, hate is hate is hate; only the names of the victims change.”
Another audience expressed fear after seeing a billboard advertising a National Rifle Association meeting taking place in Houston this weekend and asked what the HPD would be doing to protect the community.
Bashir said the city would increase police presence to counter any counter-protests at the event.
“As far as law enforcement…that puts a lot of burden on us. We have to have additional officers that could be out fighting crime but [who] are providing additional manpower for that specific event.”
Panelist James Dixon, Branch President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Houston, urged the audience to participate in elections and urge consideration of ‘red flag laws’ and gun control legislation.
“The fact that we have permit-less carry in this state to me is beyond scary,” said Dixon.
In his opening remarks, Dixon said, “For hundreds of years this country has maintained systems and apparatuses by which we continue to reproduce racists,” and condemned what he called unchecked racist rhetoric on radio, television, and “evangelical pulpits.”
Dixon later called on the community to reject divisive ideologies, such as theories that whites were being replaced by minority groups.
Following the event, multiple individuals expressed frustration that the panelists had not taken more questions from the audience, with some specifically expressing concerns about criminal justice in the region.
Houston resident John Anders said he had wanted to ask if recent vandalism of local Catholic churches in Harris County, following reports that the U.S. Supreme Court may overturn Roe v Wade, would also be investigated as federal hate crimes.
Bashir told The Texan that morale was a problem among HPD officers since often the county’s criminal justice system quickly or repeatedly released suspects while trials are delayed for three to five years, and that he had been prepared to discuss rising crime in general as well as hate crime.
The panel also included Dena Marks of the Anti-Defamation League and Niloufar Hafizi of Emgage, a Muslim civic engagement group.
Wu recently came under fire for calling a Parents of Murdered Children event hosted by Crime Stoppers Houston a “Republican political event,” but after Monday’s panel issued an apology.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.