With reports of bigotry against people of Asian descent on the rise, Democratic state lawmakers including state Senators Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) and Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) are calling to address hate crimes in Pennsylvania.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which was first reported in China this past winter, reports of anti-Asian bigtory have increased. During a call with reporters on Thursday, the legislators urged their colleagues to take up a number of House and Senate bills first introduced last fall to address such acts. The bills would implement stricter punishment for those who commit hate crimes, provide training for law enforcement and create an anonymous system for reporting hate crimes at colleges.
Costa's district includes the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, both of which draw students from a variety of countries and ethnic backgrounds.
"We know that things are going on there [college campuses]," Costa said. "But folks don't have a mechanism to monitor what's taking place there. That's why this particular piece of legislation are very important."
Also on the call was Marian Lien, president of Pittsburgh's chapter of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates. She said since the pandemic, she has also experienced discrimination.
"During a visit to the market last week, I was told that I should go shop with my own kind, that I should take the virus and be shipped back to China," she said. "We've been made to feel that we don't belong."
Pennsylvania State Police Sergeant William Slaton said that while the state police were not currently investigating hate crimes, local departments within the state have received complaints. “Any report of hate or bias will be thoroughly investigated, and nothing will be dismissed,” he said
State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat, noted that threats can escalate into acts of violence. He noted that the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting, which took place in his district, appears to have been motivated by accused gunman Robert Bowers' anti-Semitism and hatred of immigrants.
"Asian-American communities are being attacked and maligned as somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic," Frankel said. "While ridiculous on its face, this line of thinking is dangerous. And we, unfortunately, know very well in my district what can happen when a community is made to be a scapegoat for society's problems."
Costa said legislators do not expect these bills to pass within the next month, but they are prioritizing the legislation because of the pandemic.
"I do believe we can make a clear case that this is COVID-19-related, particularly among the Asian community," he said. "I do think that puts it in the realm of measures that we've agreed to look at for at least the next couple of months."