Charged with assault, the other man, Benjamin Snodgrass, pleaded not guilty. His lawyer denied any racist motivations or comments. But Nguyen said it was a hate crime, bringing national anguish over anti-Asian attacks home to Arkansas — at the time, one of the last three states without a hate-crimes law.
The case in Hot Springs, Ark., fueled calls for change, as Nguyen and many others argue that authorities can discourage attacks and reassure targeted communities by taking allegations of racist assaults and threats more seriously. Last week, the Senate gave resounding approval to legislation that would more forcefully investigate hate crimes, focusing on bias against Asian Americans as new polling shows pervasive fears of violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
But Nguyen’s case underscored rifts about what should spur hate-crime charges and resistance to the concept itself, even as prosecutors and lawmakers around the country turn to stiffer criminal penalties as solutions. And as the statewide action Nguyen hoped for stalled, another debate over how to fight hate unfolded far from Washington and state capitols — in rattled local communities.
In Bentonville, an increasingly diverse city where the defendant worked as a fire captain, people were split. Was this an isolated incident for the courts to sort out? Or a call to action?
Bentonville City Council member Bill Burckart called it “a personal incident that’s four hours away with an inebriated individual.” As for the kind of attacks targeted by hate-crime laws, he said, “we haven’t had the problem.” Many people believe there was a racist motive, Burckart acknowledged, but “how do you know that? Your gentlemen can’t be drunk and just be stupid?”
Others saw deeper problems and a moment to root out racism in their communities: the taunts, strange looks and cruel attacks that are nothing new but have suddenly become newsworthy, elevated by politicians’ rhetoric about the pandemic, a relentless stream of assaults and a year of racial reckoning.
“I don’t want something bad to have to happen for us to move the needle on this,” said Bea Apple, an Asian American business owner in Bentonville who spent more than two hours Zooming into a city meeting late last month, waiting to speak her mind. “I don’t want to wait for a disaster for us to actually try and fix this issue.”
Nguyen immigrated to Hot Springs as a child and says he always knew it as a welcoming place. A small tourist town, it thrives on visitors. “Never had any situation before,” Nguyen said. “Never had any problem with anybody before.”
But returning to his workplace, a nail salon, after the attack, he said, he felt compelled to warn his boss, a Vietnamese man like him.
“We have to be careful in this town,” he said.
‘We can’t not do something, right?’
“Northwest Arkansas looks nothing like it did 30 years ago,” begins a recent report from a nonprofit that works to boost the region’s economy. The area has jumped from 5 percent minority in 1990 to nearly 28 percent in 2019 — the result of “an influx of dynamic, diverse talent,” the report says, to a corner of the country where Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods are all headquartered.
Gayatri Agnew moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Bentonville for her job at Walmart about seven years ago and found lots to like. The city of about 50,000 had a “small-town feel” with a “global culture.” It’s 12 percent Asian. It was a nice place to raise kids where she and her husband could afford a house.
Last year, Agnew, 39, won a neighbor’s old City Council seat while vowing that everyone should feel at home in Bentonville. An Indian American woman, she said she hears the same questions she’s encountered all her life: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from? Do you go by a nickname? Can I call you something else?”
With Bentonville still overwhelmingly White, she said, “you have to go out of your way to create that sense of inclusion.”
As George Floyd’s death brought Black Lives Matter protests — and counterprotests — to town last summer, the city created a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” task force to hold listening sessions. Then, last month, Agnew and her family were on their way to the community center swimming pool when she got a text from a friend about a disturbing incident reportedly involving a Bentonville firefighter. She told her husband to go ahead with the kids.
“I have to deal with this,” she said.
As the news spread, Agnew said she started calling people, trying to figure out what happened. The details were still emerging, but already people were telling her they felt unsafe.
A dozen people reached out that day, and half a dozen the next day, many of them Asian Americans, she said. They wanted to know: What was happening? Why had the firefighter not been fired yet? Can I feel comfortable calling 911? One man said his family had already pondered moving and that this might tip them over the edge.
It was the most Agnew had ever heard from her constituents on one subject, she said, though she’s only been in office since January.
“There are no communities that are immune to racism, but we all like to believe it’s not happening in our community,” she said.
Scapegoating of Asian Americans for the coronavirus has fueled concerns about attacks nationwide and brought anti-Asian racism into the spotlight. A Pew survey released last week found that 32 percent of Asian American adults said they feared during the pandemic that someone would threaten or physically attack them because of their race or ethnicity — far higher than any other group. Twenty-seven percent of Asian Americans said they faced racial slurs or jokes. Sixteen percent said they were told they should “go back to their home country.”
Agnew had been talking vaguely with friends about doing “something” to stand against attacks on the Asian American community. With the Atlanta shootings still fresh, Friday was billed as a nationwide “Day of Action” against anti-Asian hate.
She was used to hearing about rallies in New York, San Francisco and D.C. But after the firefighter incident, she said, she told a friend: “We can’t not do something, right?”
Ever since Floyd’s killing last year, she said, she’d been realizing that “silence is an action.”
“To me, the worst thing we can do is to just say, well, either it wasn’t that big a deal or there’s no point in talking about it because there’s a criminal case, we don’t know if he’s guilty,” Agnew said.
That Friday, she said, 60 or 70 people of all races came out to a Bentonville Stop Asian Hate vigil on the grass outside an art center. Agnew also shared a city statement on her Facebook page: The fire captain, Snodgrass, had resigned.
A hate crime?
A police report says that the fire captain acknowledged confronting Nguyen about “not being American,” a line that made its way into local news coverage. In the hard-to-prove world of hate crimes, the initial facts seemed remarkably clear-cut.
But Snodgrass’s lawyer would argue his client was the true victim on March 13 — first when someone slipped him the psychedelic drug methylenedioxyamphetamine, popularly known as MDA, then later when he got “clocked” by Nguyen.
The lawyer, Brent Miller, said police misquoted his client in their report. The firefighter was condemned for ramblings while drugged and so distressed he called 911, Miller said.
Body camera footage shows Snodgrass repeatedly telling police that something strange is going on; pressed on what happened between him and Nguyen, he says people are “pumping” a substance into “that place” — apparently referring to a nearby bar — and says, “I walked out, and I’m like, ‘Dude, this is not f—–g America. This is not the way we treat . . . ’ ”
“He’s just not a racist dude at all,” Miller said.
Hot Springs police declined to answer questions about the case, saying they are still investigating with the help of the Little Rock office of the FBI. Early this month, citing new awareness of attacks on Asian Americans, the bureau urged people to sign up for its course on hate crimes.
But when Nguyen’s case hit the news last month, the Arkansas legal system could not call what happened a hate crime, no matter what the evidence showed.
Leaders in the state were still divided over a hate-crimes law, the tool so many officials nationwide viewed as a way to combat a wave of highly publicized anti-Asian violence. Every attempt to date to create harsher penalties for bigoted attacks in Arkansas had withered in the face of conservative opposition — bogged down in politically thorny questions about how to legislate against hate and whether it was even necessary.
“There’s been efforts to pass hate-crimes legislation for 20 years in Arkansas and they’ve all met the same fate,” said state Sen. Jim Hendren, a longtime Republican who recently left the party.
Hendren embarked on his own effort last year, as protests over the killings of Black Americans lent the cause new momentum. He introduced a bill months after Georgia finally passed a hate-crime law, spurred in large part by the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man chased and fatally shot by three White men. The Arkansas effort ran into the same old stumbling blocks, Hendren said, as critics framed protections for the LGBTQ community as a threat to religious liberty.
Nguyen’s case joined a litany of alleged assaults on Asian Americans, fueling appeals for a new law. On April 1, a Hot Springs city board member told a crowd at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock — gathered in support of Hendren’s bill on hate crimes — that what happened to Nguyen was “shameful” for the community.
But Republican lawmakers filed their own bill that same day. Critics called it “hate crimes lite.”
Forgoing words like “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” or “race,” the bill said offenders should serve at least 80 percent of their sentences for targeting “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.” It made false reporting of hate crimes a Class D felony. And it stuck to the most serious violent offenses, rather than the lower-grade assaults and vandalism that make up so many allegedly hateful attacks — like Nguyen’s case, a misdemeanor.
“You need to nip these problems in the bud early,” said Joshua Ang Price, a county election commissioner who also leads a statewide group for Asian American Democrats.
Lawmakers are “just satisfying some national need for correctness,” Rep. Josh Miller (R) said on the state House floor.
“We still cannot admit or say that there are certain folks that are targeted. … The words matter,” said Tippi McCullough, a Democratic member who is gay.
“If you look at cases in California, cases in New York, where there’s a rise of hate crimes and hate incidents against the Asian American community, both of those states have hate-crime laws,” said Ken Yang, who heads the GOP in the nearby Saline County. He says he puts more stock in the everyday interactions that chip away at bigotry, like the Facebook post that persuaded a friend to stop using “Kung Flu.”
‘What are you going to do?’
In Bentonville and beyond, the next steps were unclear. Some, like City Council member Burckart, are not convinced that the firefighter episode demands more action.
Existing laws cover “misdemeanors, felonies that are taking place out there by any party, no matter the color,” he said, when asked about hate-crime laws. “So we haven’t had that discussion, and we haven’t had the need for it here.”
He said he condemns racism but argues that Bentonville, with its new diversity task force, is ahead of the curve.
“I know the city of Bentonville has nothing to do with it,” he said of Snodgrass’s motive in any alleged crimes. “He wasn’t even in our town.”
At a City Council meeting, Apple, the Asian American business owner, had urged Burckart and his colleagues to take a very different view.
“As much as the city may want to look at this as an isolated incident, those of us who understand the history of Asians in America know this is just another footnote to a long-standing pattern of hate towards Asians in this country,” Apple, 41, told them late last month.
She didn’t tell the council about growing up a town over in Rogers, where kids made fun of her last name at the time, “Yang.” She didn’t mention the White man who walked up to her at a coffee shop and called North Koreans “suspicious.” Other Arkansans had their own stories, from the children who threw rocks in elementary school to the couple who confronted them this year at the grocery store, saying they were “in the wrong country.”
Apple told the council that racism was a fact of her life and that the past year’s violence has left her more worried than ever.
She posed a question for the city’s leaders: “What are you going to do to ensure that the Asian American community is supported through this?”
Solutions — that’s where “this starts to get really hard,” Agnew said.
A hate-crime law? Advice and more listening sessions from the diversity task force? More training for city employees?
“Maybe, but I don’t think that training works as an answer to address underlying issues of systemic racism in America,” Agnew admitted.
Last week, Agnew spoke with a friend about urgency — how does one keep up pressure when things fade from the headlines? More than a month had passed since a man gunned down eight people at Asian spas in Atlanta. Bentonville’s firefighter uproar had receded, too, although Nguyen’s supporters from far beyond Hot Springs had plans to show up to his court hearing. And the case of Derek Chauvin, just convicted of murder in Minneapolis, had Agnew thinking about the way broader issues linger past one explosive moment. “These things are not done,” she said. “They don’t finish.”
“I’m very cognizant of the fact that not everyone agrees with me that A, racism is a problem and B, it needs to be addressed,” she said. “And so I think it makes it hard to move a community forward, when those two statements are not universal truth to a community.”
It’s not a fire department problem, Agnew argued. Or a northwest Arkansas problem. But an American problem playing out everywhere, and it’s difficult to solve.