A string of recent assaults near campus, including an attack on an international doctoral student Tuesday night, prompted members of the campus community to band together to spread the message to #StopAsianHate.
Community responses were ignited after Wentao Zhou, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student from China, described the Tuesday night incident in a post on the Chinese social media app Weibo.
According to the post, which has been re-shared on the Reddit channel “r/UWMadison,” Zhou was walking home near University Avenue when he was surrounded by a group of men. The men, who Zhou described as wearing “fancy sportswear” and looking no older than 25 years, proceeded to punch him in the face and pull him to the ground, where they punched and kicked him repeatedly.
“The first guy ran towards me and punched me in my face,” Zhou told the Cap Times. “They kicked me and pulled me to the ground. They didn’t try to rob me at all, they just tried to hurt me.”
After shouting for help twice, the attackers fled, leaving Zhou bleeding from his left ear and from multiple spots on his head.
The entire attack lasted no more than 40 seconds, Zhou believed. He wrote that while he observed three attackers, witnesses at the scene said they viewed around five. Images obtained from security cameras at the scene showed four tall men in athletic wear, corroborating Zhou’s impression.
Zhou said the attackers didn’t say anything or attempt to rob him, fueling anger from students and community members who believe it to be a racially motivated attack.
One group may be responsible for three assaults, officials say
Other recent incidents around campus prompted fears among the Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA) community.
In a Friday email, the university said a student reported to the University of Wisconsin Police Department that a group threw a banana at him.
Yichen Wang, a Chinese international student, emailed the Cap Times to describe the event and said his back was injured — contrary to what the university stated.
In the comments section of Zhou’s Weibo post, other Asian students reported their own experiences being attacked in Madison.
“I was also attacked [...] at night and injured in my back,” read one of the comments.
“I was attacked [in] the downstairs of my apartment,” another user said.
These incidents come on the heels of anti-Asian attacks across the nation and locally. In two instances on campus last fall, a man was charged with a hate-crime after authorities said he spit on an Asian-American student while making claims about COVID-19, and another Asian student was called an ethnic slur and had his phone broken.
The Madison Police Department reported that the Tuesday night assault was the third of its kind to occur in the downtown area in the past week, though the two other incidents did not involve students and the “victims were from various backgrounds,” the university said in an email.
The department suspects the same group of people were responsible for these attacks, which appear to be random in nature.
In an incident report released Friday morning, the department stated that detectives do not have any evidence that leads them to conclude that the incidents were motivated by race. The university echoed this in the email to students.
“While we don't have evidence these incidents were motivated by race, we know that each time incidents like these occur, it has an impact on the well-being of all our students, and particularly our Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American students, faculty, and staff, and other communities of color,” read the email from three UW-Madison leaders. “We are committed to creating a safe community at UW–Madison where everyone feels they belong, and we know we have more work to do.”
Campus community rallies to #StopAsianHate
Still, many students are concerned that the incidents were racially motivated and have taken to social media to call out anti-Asian violence on a campus they say doesn’t do enough to support them.
“Many international students chose @UWMadison because we thought Madison was safer than other big cities. BUT we feel REALLY REALLY upset now,” Luhang Sun, a Ph.D. student at UW-Madison, tweeted.
“Where's the support you claim to have for us?” an Asian student commented on Instagram. “What are you going to do to protect your Asian students going forward? How many more times is this going to happen before you realize this is an issue you need to address and shut down.”
A statement posted to Instagram from members of Asian communities said they found the email from the university “deeply disturbing, extremely offensive, incompatible with the facts, and misleading.” They also found the recommendation to not walk, jog or bike alone at night to be “victim-blaming.”
“Having the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion as a signatory to a misleading and offensive email is the exact opposite of inclusion and diversity. We demand immediate clarification and apologies from the responsible administrators,” the students wrote.
The Associated Students of Madison put out a statement condemning “Anti-Asian hate crimes in our campus community and beyond.”
“The Associated Students of Madison believes the movement to #StopAsianHate is an imperative crucial to the safety of our campus,” the ASM statement read. “In our capacity as a representative of student voices and initiatives, we hope to work in tandem with university administration to further mitigate violence against minority groups on campus.”
A few dozen students attended a protest in response to the recent acts of violence on Friday. Another protest is planned for June 24 at 4 p.m. on Capitol Square near the State Street entrance.
The university’s email asks that anyone with information about on-campus incidents call the UWPD or the Madison Police Department for off-campus incidents. Individuals who want to remain anonymous can contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608-266-6014 or visit p3tips.com.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified LIbrary Mall as the June 24 protest location. This story was updated to list Capitol Square as the correct protest location.
Gavin Escott is a photographer and staff writer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal, focusing on city and state news. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.