A toxic stew of anti-Asian racism, anti-vaccine vitriol roils Orange County

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At an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting last month, some speakers called the coronavirus vaccine a “bioweapon.”

They suggested that if they refused the vaccination, public officials would prohibit them from buying food and water.

As Andrew Do, the board chairman, celebrated a milestone of 1.2 million vaccine doses in the arms of residents, they hissed and booed.

During the pandemic, such rhetoric has become increasingly routine at board meetings in a county where anti-vaccine, anti-mask activists are a strident voice.


But at this meeting on July 27, a man in a gray beanie and dark sunglasses crossed a new line when he addressed Do, who is Vietnamese American.

“You come to my country, and you act like one of these communist parasites, I ask you to go the f— back to Vietnam,” he yelled, identifying himself as Tyler Durden, the nihilistic lead in the film Fight Club.

Several attendees cheered.

Video footage of the man’s racist comments went viral, dismaying county officials increasingly at a loss for how to combat the vitriol and threats of violence hurled during public meetings.

Vietnamese-language radio and television shows aired the clip, which on top of the rise in anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic made people in Orange County’s Little Saigon anxious and angry. Far from being communists, many of them had fled Vietnam to escape communism.

Between anti-lockdown rallies, pushback against mask mandates and a restaurant catering to the unvaccinated, Orange County has seized the spotlight as a nexus of aggressive COVID denialism — even if the protesters are a small minority of residents.

The ratcheting up of incivility and racism comes at a time when pandemic fatigue is worsening and concerns about the Delta variant have prompted businesses and public officials to reconsider protocols like mask wearing and proof of vaccination.


Their efforts to keep the public safe are under attack by a small but vocal group that disrupts the supervisors’ Tuesday morning meetings, American flags in hand, sporting Trump T-shirts and hats — and, of course, no masks.

Month after month, the protesters have gathered outside the supervisors’ chambers, chanting and waving signs evoking Holocaust imagery and calling for the firing of Orange County Health Officer Clayton Chau.

They have also taken their fight to public officials’ doorsteps, protesting outside the officials’ homes and hurling insults at a supervisor’s college-aged son as he walked toward his parent’s front door.


Former President Trump’s statements demonizing immigrants, blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic and falsely claiming the election was stolen from him are a backdrop and an inspiration.

In a county that has evolved from mostly white roots to become majority Asian and Latino, and where Do is one of an increasing number of Asian American elected officials, racism is still an ugly undercurrent in politics and in daily life.

“Coming to a meeting and being passionate about an issue you care about — that’s America. I embrace that every day,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley, one of two Democrats on the five-member panel. “But coming to a meeting and telling people they better not stand between you and their gun ... or coming in accusing people of being communist traitors — that’s a dog whistle for people to hurt us.”

Leigh Dundas, a lawyer known for fighting against childhood immunization laws, sees it differently.


She has spoken out against mask mandates and digital vaccination records during Board of Supervisors meetings throughout the pandemic, though she has not attended in recent months.

Leigh Dundas, of Orange County, speaks against the continued use of masks and the continuance of a local health emergency at an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting on July 14 in Santa Ana.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

She says those who express similar views believe their freedom is at stake.

“It’s less anti-anything and more stay out of our hair and let people make their own decisions on it,” she said.


Dundas’ own tactics are sometimes in-your-face.

After Orange County imposed a mask mandate in May 2020, Dundas spoke during a Board of Supervisors meeting, calling for the resignation of the county health officer at the time, Nichole Quick, and publicizing Quick’s home address.

https://twitter.com/inminivanhell/status/1271270546148192256?s=20 at Quick’s home with a large U-Haul decorated with a depiction of Quick as Adolf Hitler.

At public meetings, officials who have instituted mask recommendations and promoted vaccination are sitting ducks for verbal abuse.


“We will fight tooth, nail and gunpoint,” a woman told the Board of Supervisors at its July 27 meeting. “You better hope that you’re willing to go all the way with blood on your hands, because I am.”

A woman wearing a shirt that says “Fauci is a fraud,” referring to the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaks during an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting.

(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

And it is not just the Board of Supervisors. Over the past year, meetings across O.C. have been increasingly punctuated by antisemitic imagery, conspiracy theories, racism and threats.

In July, because of concerns about violence, Huntington Beach City Council members were escorted by police into a meeting to fill the seat vacated by anti-masker and mixed martial arts fighter Tito Ortiz.


After the council appointed lawyer Rhonda Bolton as its first Black member in history, people shouted that those who voted in favor were part of the “deep state.”

They yelled that Bolton, who moved to the city about eight years ago, was a “transplant.”

A group calls “Save Surf City” immediately started a drive to recall her and other council members.

In Los Alamitos, protesters at school board meetings have decried a new ethnic studies class as “anti-white” and have encouraged others to confront school board members at their homes, businesses and churches, according to the Orange County Register.


Calling public officials communists has become a common tactic among groups opposed to what they see as infringement on their freedoms in the form of mask mandates, business closures and vaccinations.

Using the term to attack Do — the highest-ranking Vietnamese American elected to political office in Southern California — is particularly fraught, because much of the local Vietnamese community is vehemently anti-communist.

Some of the ugly rhetoric predated the pandemic and is not limited to O.C. or the fringe right-wing.

In Los Angeles, the civilian Police Commission’s meetings were long a forum for activists to not only rail against police violence but to aim racist and antisemitic slurs at commissioners.


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Do and other politicians who run these meetings must balance speakers’ free speech rights against standards of decorum and the feelings of spectators, including, sometimes, their own.

Do has largely maintained a hands-off approach. At times when the crowd refuses to calm down, he has threatened to clear the room.

But he has stopped short of calling on deputies who police the room to remove people who are disruptive, something that is permitted under board rules.


“We’ve seen hateful rhetoric in the hall of elected officials at so many levels locally here in Orange County. We cannot let this normalize,” said Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Peter Levi. “Every civic and elected leader must call out the hate, and do everything in their power to ensure it does not escalate even further.”

Quick resigned in June 2020 after weeks of defending a mask mandate and dealing with protesters who had gathered outside of the home she shared with her husband and children.

Her successor, Clayton Chau, who, like Do, is Vietnamese American, faced protesters outside his Fountain Valley home this summer accusing him of secretly vaccinating children without parental consent.

Public Health Officer Clayton Chau speaks during an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Ana on Tuesday.

(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)


Another protest at his home, which lasted for two days, included signs that said, “Go back where you came from,” along with placards showing a swastika and an image of him in the guise of Hitler.

When that group first assembled, Chau, 56, rushed home.

His 85-year-old mother, who lives with him, said not to worry — she had been about to go out and talk to them.

“I am just an American like everybody else,” he said. “For the racists out there, you need to stop it. I have probably contributed to this society more than you have.”


Chau, who often gives presentations about the pandemic at supervisors’ meetings, believes the “aggressive voices” are a minority.

The majority of residents are following the rules and the science, he said.

“For my own mental health, I don’t engage with them,” Chau said. “These are people who are ignorant, meaning they continue to live in their bubble. They don’t step outside. They’re not aware of what’s going on.”

Once in a while, Chau’s mother, who was imprisoned in Vietnam in the late 1970s after she attempted to flee communism, asks him: “Is it worth it?”


Irvine Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who is Korean American, said what happened to Do was “disheartening” but “not at all surprising.”

“This vile racism toward Asian Americans and Asian American political leaders, frankly, comes from both sides. It’s not only limited to Republicans. It’s not only limited to Democrats,” she said. “And unfortunately, it’s Orange County. You’ve got a fraction of people who do not believe the science and who come into public buildings not caring about safety.”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, the first Japanese American elected to the O.C. Board of Supervisors, sees the growing incivility as a manifestation of the frustration and despair that some people have experienced during the pandemic.

“Freedom of speech in all its forms is the hallmark of American liberty,” she said. “But with freedom of speech comes great responsibility. Those racist comments and threats toward anyone’s personal safety are completely unacceptable and highly inappropriate.”


Two weeks after the racist diatribe against Do, the O.C. Board of Supervisors met again.

Because of a rise in COVID-19 cases, members of the public addressed the board from a nearby room.

As they waited, the group shared debunked theories about the vaccine, including that it contains toxic metals and has sterilized women.

Two men had tattoos associated with the Three Percenters, a far-right militia organization.


During public comment, a woman addressed Do, 58, who came to the U.S. as a boy to escape communism after the fall of Saigon.

“You are a communist, sir, and I hope you go to jail,” she said, holding a sign that read, “Enjoying your Communism?”

Do, who typically remains silent during public comments, spoke up as the woman walked away from the lectern.

He underlined what he thought she really meant to say.


“I think the point was to tell me to go back,” he said.

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