By Sarah Moon and Claire Colbert, CNN
A 27-year-old Korean American man says he was physically assaulted in the heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown this month in an incident that police say they’re investigating as a hate crime.
The man, Denny Kim, told CNN he was waiting for a friend on February 16 when he was approached by two men who started yelling racial slurs and then struck him in the face.
“All of a sudden they just started saying very terrible things,” Kim said. He said he also heard the men say, “You have the Chinese Virus, go back to China,” before he was attacked.
Asked about the attack, the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed in a news release it was investigating a potential hate crime that took place February 16 on Kenmore Avenue between 6th Street and Wilshire Boulevard.
The LAPD’s statement did not name Kim, but said two suspects approached the victim at about 8:40 p.m. local time, “yelled racial slurs” and “then struck him in the face” before fleeing the scene.
Kim’s friend Joseph Cha was getting dropped off by an Uber to meet Kim when he witnessed the attack. Cha said he saw Kim on the ground with his arms around his face as he was kicked and punched by the suspects.
When Cha arrived, the suspects immediately fled in different directions. Cha said they yelled racial slurs as they ran away.
“This guy saved my life, if it weren’t for him I don’t know what would have happened,” Kim said, referring to Cha. “It’s definitely been traumatizing.”
The two suspects, described by police as Hispanic males in their 30’s, have not been found. One was described as being about 5-foot-7, 170 pounds, with a bald head and brown eyes and wearing a long-sleeve grey shirt. The other was described as being about 5-foot-6, 140 pounds and wearing a white hoodie.
Kim said he did not immediately report the incident because he feared for his life.
“For a couple of days, I did not want to report this to the police because I remember those guys telling me that they’re going to kill me,” Kim said.
Kim eventually decided to file a police report after encouragement from a woman he met at a rally to spread awareness for Asian hate crimes.
“She was the one that actually motivated me to speak out about this so we could ultimately spread awareness and possibly prevent this from happening to somebody else,” he said.
There has been a stark rise in hate crime incidents since the pandemic.
According to civil rights activist Connie Chung Joe, Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate has received over 3,000 reports of anti-Asian hate since the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Stop AAPI Hate was not formally tracking these incidents but another group, Stand Against Hatred, tracked only a handful of incidents in 2019.
“We went from 4 to 3000-plus between 2019 to 2020,” Joe said.
She told CNN that the previous administration referring to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan Virus,” “China Virus,” or “Kung Flu” gave people license to act out when the pandemic hit.
“It set a bullseye on the Asian American Community,” Joe said.
According to Joe, crimes against Asian Americans tend to tick up around the Lunar New Year but with the pandemic, it’s gotten worse.
“It’s easier to go after someone who doesn’t speak English well because you think they’re not going to fight back,” Joe said. These immigrants with limited English speaking abilities are the most vulnerable, she said.
While more than 3,000 hate crime incidents have been reported across the country, Joe calls this the “tip of the iceberg,” because many incidents are not even reported at all. The language barrier is a main cause of underreporting, she said.
California Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, who represents District 53 of Los Angeles where Koreatown is located, also addressed Kim’s attack.
“I am outraged and my soul is in pain upon hearing about the hate crime inflicted on Denny Kim in Koreatown. He was beaten and mocked with racial slurs,” Santiago said in a tweet.
Santiago told CNN, “It’s incredibly painful and terrifying” to know that incidents like this are happening “in our own backyard.”
He said the issue is “not something to be swept under the rug, it is a much bigger problem.”
About 245 incidents in Los Angeles County were reported from March 19 to October 28 to the Stop AAPI Hate website, he said, meaning “245 people figured out how to get to this website and have figured out how to report it.”
“What’s horrible about this is that we know that the amount is probably significantly much more than that,” he added.
Santiago plans to hold a press conference on Friday to condemn the assault on Kim and to discuss the increased attacks against Asian Americans in the community. He said creating awareness and educating people in the community is extremely important.
“We need our community leaders and our community members to be our ears and eyes on the ground,” Santiago said. “We’ve got to be able to teach people how to report.”
This week, lawmakers in California allocated $1.4 million in state funds to help Asian Americans report hate incidents after a string of recent violent attacks in the state.
“Racism and xenophobia have no place in California,” a spokesperson for California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “The governor urges people to stop their bigotry and bias and instead recognize that we benefit immensely from our diversity.”
Newsom’s office said it is working closely with local, state, and federal law enforcement partners “to vigorously investigate instances of anti-AAPI violence that has occurred in our state and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Newsom has invested in multiple programs like the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Program and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to help curb violence targeting vulnerable communities.
“The administration continues to support, local agencies, as well as AAPI communities and community-based organizations, to prevent discrimination, bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against AAPI individuals, and to expand collection of data and public reporting regarding hate incidents against such individuals.”
CNN’s Dakin Andone and Stella Chan contributed to this report.