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‘Long way to go’: Residents speak out after racist attack

david-wolfe-bender.jpg

David Wolfe Bender of IU Student Government speaks before the Bloomington City Council on Wednesday, Jan. 18 in reference to an apparent racially motivated attack against an IU student. (Courtesy of City of Bloomington)

Members of the community are calling for action following an apparent racially motivated attack against an Indiana University student last week.

University and city government alike have been united in their condemnation of the attack — and for the first time on Wednesday, citizens voiced their concerns in a public forum to members of Bloomington City Council.

Among those who provided commentary was David Wolfe Bender, the director of city and local government relations for IU Student Government. He said it’s now up to the community to advocate for new policies and change minds.

“Bloomington and Indiana University should always be a place for all,” he said. “Unfortunately, the events of last week suggest our communities have a long way to go to achieve that promise.” He called the attack on an IU Asian student “a harsh reminder that hatred exists in our communities.”

Read more: Bloomington mayor condemns apparent racist stabbing attack 

Bloomington police said the victim of the attack, an 18-year-old woman, was stabbed in the head several times Jan. 11 as she was getting off a Bloomington Transit bus on Fourth Street at the B-Line Trail.

The suspect, 56-year-old Billie Davis, told police she stabbed the victim because she appeared “Chinese” and went on to say, “it would be one less person to blow up our country,” according to a probable cause affidavit.

Police have said the attack was unprovoked. Footage showed Davis and the victim had no interactions prior to the stabbing.

Bender said the fact the attack happened on a city bus is particularly concerning because no one should live in fear of utilizing a vital service.

“Public transportation is a ubiquitous need for students in our city. Our bus system unlocks a student's ability to get involved in our city’s off-campus events, work or shop at local businesses and volunteer with city nonprofits,” he said. “Public transportation can tie our on-campus and off-campus communities together and it promotes the social fabric between students and non-students in our city. Nobody should ever be scared to get on a Bloomington bus.”

Bender also noted the attack is not the first of its kind against the Asian community, referencing an increase in reported hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. beginning in 2020.

Read more: Bloomington woman charged with stabbing 18-year-old says attack racially motivated 

Also in attendance at Wednesday’s city council meeting was Eric Spoonmore, president and CEO of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and former Monroe County Council member.

“The quality of life we all want is dependent upon our residents and visitors feeling safe in our community — and when I say safe, I don’t mean ‘relatively’ safe,” Spoonmore said. “We need people to feel very safe.”

Spoonmore was referring to a remark made earlier in the night by Deputy Mayor Mary Catherine Carmichael while she condemned the attack.

“Bloomington is a relatively safe place, but we are not immune to issues with which our entire nation is dealing,” Carmichael said. “This senseless incident is a reminder that we should all look out for each other, be aware of our surroundings and seek to combat racism and prejudice in all its forms wherever and whenever we encounter it.”

City council members similarly spoke out against the attack, reaffirming a 2020 resolution condemning white supremacy, white nationalism, bigotry, racism and hatred of all kinds.

Spoonmore said he’d like to see representatives go a step further and invest in new crime prevention strategies city-wide and focus on hiring more police officers. He suggested that the city distribute a weekly report showing progress on hiring new officers.

“I cannot emphasize this enough: the business community is not just concerned, we are gravely concerned that we do not have enough employed police officers protecting the safety of our community,” Spoonmore said.

Read more: Indiana transgender girls school sports ban to take effect

Spoonmore also encouraged the city to consider increasing police visibility, especially in high-traffic pedestrian areas.

“Let’s do everything we can to prevent these kinds of reprehensible violent crimes that occurred just last week in the city,” he said. “If we want people to use public transportation and we want people to visit our city, to spend their dollars here, to support our businesses, and if we want residents to enjoy our downtown and parks and facilities with their families, they need to feel safe when engaging in these activities.”

On Thursday, the IU College of Arts and Sciences hosted an on-campus conversation about the attack and race relations. Leading the discussion were Asian American and Latin American faculty members, including associate professors Karen Inouye, Sonia Lee and Sylvia Martinez. The panel spoke about the history of white supremacy and racism in the United States.

Some panelists said they had been victims of racist harassment and encouraged attendees to make a report privately if they had gone through a similar experience.

“Sadly, this is not an isolated incident, neither here in Indiana nor nationwide,” said Rick Van Kooten, executive dean of the college of arts and sciences. “According to Stop AAPI Hate and other groups, bias and hate attacks against Asians and Asian Americans have increasingly often tragic and deadly consequences.”

Read more: Bedford man sues police, city over assault by officer in his home

Inouye, who is Asian-American, said she has encouraged people to not only express their support for the Asian community but also consider becoming involved in direct action.

“Thoughts and prayers only go so far, as we have seen with gun violence,” Inouye said. “I think we really need to extend these sentiments into things that are action-oriented.”

Lee, who is also Asian, said the attack affected her on a personal level — not only because of her background but because she is a mother.

“My seven-year-old kid asked me, ‘Is this going to happen to me?’ And I tell her a half-lie, saying ‘No, this won’t happen to you because it happened on a bus,’” Lee said. “But we all know this could have happened anywhere.”

Lee added, “It’s just really exhausting to know that these things happen over and over again.

An Asian student who attended the meeting expressed frustration over messaging in response to the attack and a perceived lack of substantive action by IU and the city.

“The thing I’ve been waiting to hear for years is an email or a message that says, ‘I’m sorry, but sometimes you’re going to have to be on your own and you’re going to have to be able to speak up for yourself,’” he said. “It’s something I’ve been waiting to hear for so long, other than thoughts and prayers and ‘Oh, if a student harasses you, send us an email and we’ll look into it.’”

Lee sympathized with the student’s comments but said she still has hope because of many female authors of color who have written about a vision for the future in which people operate outside a racial hierarchy.

“(The assailant) is most likely never going to change her mind about this,” Lee said. “Things are not going to change for a very long time, but that doesn’t mean we can give up on hope.”

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