Rob Bonta, California's new AG

One on One With New Calif. AG Rob Bonta, Who is “Reeling” from Spike in Asian Hate Crimes

There’s always a learning curve, even when there’s no margin for error, let alone the time to cram CliffsNotes. Painfully, for California’s new attorney general, Rob Bonta — the first Filipino American to serve as the top cop for the expansive state — his learning curve has coincided with the racial reckoning America seems to be (or at least, is pretending to be…) having right now.

While the Infotainment networks have been spotlighting anti-Asian racism since the spring, Bonta’s known it intimately — and not just the staggering statistics he released this week, including one showing hate crimes targeting Asians shot up by 107% between 2019 and 2020. The numbers are troubling and new, but the victims’ stories, pain and even the faces behind the statistics are old news to Bonta. Since he was a kid, he’s periodically endured pointed, disgusting racism delivered through the ignorant, if sharpened, tongues of his fellow Americans.

He’s surely ambitious. But it’s more than that. Decades of quietly rising above the hate is now the driving force behind his ambitious agenda. His efforts to aggressively combat Asian hate crimes are mirrored by his promises to blunt climate change, permanently shutter for-profit prisons, end the federal prohibition on marijuana, along with the one inhibiting research into psychedelics. While that’s a list fit for a king, it’s not entirely unrealistic for the attorney general of the world’s fifth largest economy. Still, his path forward is littered with impediments and potential pitfalls — something he’s clear-eyed about, partly because as an Asian American politician, this nation never afforded him the luxury of pretending racism is some liberal construct.

“We’re reeling, and we’re in pain”

Before President Joe Biden filled his cabinet and simultaneously reshuffled the ranks of the Democratic Party — even tapping a Health and Human Services secretary whose razor-thin confirmation inexplicably (or could politics have been involved?) opened up the attorney general post in America’s most populous state — the year was marked by racism, unrest and sorrow. After kicking off with bands of white supremacists joining a temporary siege of the U.S. Capitol, a mere three months later six Asian sex workers, along with two others, were methodically slaughtered by a Christian extremist in Atlanta. Not even a month later, Bonta was thrust into his historic new role. 

“We’re reeling, and we’re in pain,” Bonta — in a hushed, hurt voice — recently told The News Station in a long, exclusive phone interview. “This moment is personal.”   

While this spring’s targeted, racist massacre in Atlanta sparked a national conversation about anti-Asian hate crimes among talking heads, some politicians and too many white people, it was some five decades overdue for Bonta and his family. In 1972, his parents fed, burped, changed and carted the then two-month-old on their trek from the Philippines to California. It’s the only true home he’s ever known (no, temporary academic excursions in Oxford and New Haven don’t count back here in reality). Once his parents transplanted the family to America, they felt the sting of the nation’s sordid racial past and present. They don’t need the lesson many are learning–they’ve lived it. Over the years, Bonta and his family members have all been forced on the other end of a one-sided ‘conversation’ about the role Asian Americans play in, well, their own country. While many Asian Americans have– at least until this year, for many– naturally kept quiet about the rejection, stigma and outright racism they’ve endured, Bonta’s been systematically climbing the political ladder he Made in the USA. It’s working — especially now that he’s equipped with a new megaphone to deploy from his lofty perch.

All told, Bonta’s personal experiences of discrimination combined with his stint at that exclusive English university and two Yale degrees (seems he likes Connecticut, because he racked up both his BA and law degree surrounded by the state’s majestic foliage, pretentious bros and overpriced everything) have been transformational. While he’s often leading the conversation these days, it’s a new development.  

“Going to public schools, feeling the sting of hate throughout my upbringing. Growing up in a not particularly diverse suburban neighborhood in Sacramento, you know, hearing words regularly — you know, like, you might expect…”

Rob Bonta remembered.

When pressed on the specifics, the list of verbal daggers he recounted having thrust into his heart over the years was long and disturbing — hate-filled words we’re happy to leave buried here.

But it’s not just the words and idiotic nicknames polo-clad northern California kids lunged into his young heart. This is America, after all. Just three years ago, after he first made history as the first Filipino state Assemblymember he was “birther-ed,” as he calls it, by a fellow elected official.  

“Told that I wasn’t eligible to be a California state Assemblymember — [which] I had been for the last eight years — because I was apparently not eligible to be a U.S. citizen according to this white conservative who was leveling the charges at me,” Bonta recalled through a muted, though unmistakable, grimace.

Even with his audible grimaces revealing his tangible scars — permanent scars tucked just under his polished politician veneer — and raw wounds, Bonta’s realizing, even through the sorrow, adulthood is grand sometimes. He’s now charged with the duty, power and prestige to not take any racist shit in California anymore — and by many calculations, he’s got at least four years’ worth of steaming piles of shit to shovel.

“We’re still suffering from that and it’s sort of the coattails that we’re still living with even though he’s out of the White House,” Bonta said of the traveling Trump reality show. “So we’re still suffering, and, while not the president, his specter looms large.”

With Maturity Comes Power

Adulthood, even when it comes with newfound stature, isn’t easy. To Bonta, American racism is something you can’t help but be clear-eyed about: It surely didn’t start with Trump. But, if this rising Democratic star gets his way, it will end with him. Even adults are supposed to dream big. While it seems like an impossible goal, it’s not — it’s a generational goal. And it’s undeniable that California has often been the first proverbial domino to fall — pushing public policy beyond the accepted political ‘wisdom’ of the day. Forget those naysayers, because, historically, fall they do. Sure, there’s been suspense — it’s California folks — and advocates have needed special reserves of patience, but the state is a trend setter, with many of its homegrown public policy trends now a part of life nationwide. 

Take smoking bans. That’s California. They helped usher in a relatively steep decline in a habit that’s killed millions of Americans. The Golden State ban didn’t just save lives, it also helped change American culture. Who wants to smoke alone outside when someone else can snag the one you have your eye on? Nuff said.

Air quality? Sure, a Trump-sized wrench (the tiny one) was thrown in California’s effort to curb the pollution emitted daily by millions of tailpipes spewing toxins and carbon into our lungs and atmosphere. But don’t forget, the state implemented cap-and-trade back in 2013. The effort never took hold here in Washington, because oil and gas giants — along with their fleets of martini-powered lobbyists — established stronger, more intertwined and deeper roots in the Swamp of late.

But Washington’s always perpetually behind. There were hiccups after the effort died in the Exxon-BP-Mobile-Chevron sponsored halls of the U.S. Capitol, but the state did what states are wont to do: Many followed California’s lead and just bypassed Congress. Across the Northeast, 11 states have teamed up for their own regional power cap agreement, while in the last 10 or so years more than half of states were actively partners in developing their own regional carbon exchanges. Most of which were scrapped when the Trump administration rolled into the nation’s capital. 

Photo by Joseph Barrientos

The point isn’t that California should be a climate leader — after all, in 2019 ProPublica found “the state’s biggest oil and gas companies have actually polluted more since it started.” The crux is, California is a leader, even when it’s been a poor leader.  

Then there’s cannabis. In most states, people have been smelling more marijuana as they go about their daily lives. Here in Washington, D.C., I surely have. So have many federal lawmakers, but those discussing the pungent, if sweet, odor tend to be complaining about the wafts of smoke that became common after voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. Thanks California (not necessarily for the smell, but at least for paving the way for locally disenfranchised residents to annoy the nation’s pampered, hypocritical political class)!

Are California Values Coming to Your Town Next?

None of California’s clout and stature is lost on this lawyer-turned-politician-turned-AG. The Golden State is the perfect perch to not merely impact the lives of its 39.51 million residents — it’s a chance to change U.S. policy and American’s habits. And what happens in in the state is often then mimicked internationally. California’s basically the state felt round the world. Bonta knows this, and he’s not prepared to squander his shot.  

“For too many, 2020 wasn’t just about a deadly virus, it was about an epidemic of hate,” the attorney general told reporters in California on Wednesday. “The facts here are clear: There was a surge in anti-Asian violence correlated with the words of leaders who sought to divide us when we were at our most vulnerable.”

Don’t miss The News Station’s new Lit. pages — a funky and fun art and culture journal tucked inside our new site

In the wake of the Atlanta massacre and a spike in reported cases of anti-Asian (often, American) hate crimes, at his first press conference in his new role, Bonta unveiled a new Racial Justice Bureau. While the plan has been panned by many activists for only devoting six attorneys and a deputy AG to oversee it, he says unlike state leaders who proceeded him — including some from the gold rush days who pre-dated California formally becoming a state in 1850 — he’s not acting. That’s why he says the new bureau is intended “to put a stake in the ground” by signaling he’s all business.

For the attorney general, being all business means being laser focused on the law all the time. When it comes to hate crimes, he’s bullish and wants to use every legal statute — a good lawyer’s weapon of choice — to prosecute perpetrators of hate.   

“We are going to put resources into our work to combat the forces of hate,” Bonta told The News Station a few weeks back.

He can come across as a remnant of the ‘tough on crime’ days of old while discussing racially motivated attacks, but– just like he’s trying to teach white folks about Asian Americans–looks are deceitful and humans are more complex than any box we confine ‘the other’ to.

While in the Assembly, he racked up a record as a reformist. He authored an overhaul of medical cannabis regulations and a bill to automatically expunge past convictions.  He didn’t stop there. He also took aim at immigration detention centers and pushed legislation to abolish for-profit prisons.

“That was a huge deal. Something I’m very proud of,” Bonta said of the measure locked in legal limbo.

He’s in it to win this battle not just for the prisoners — who he says often suffer at the hands of contractors tasked with cutting costs, not the rehabilitation the U.S. prison system is supposedly aimed at.

Bonta wants this case to reverberate further than California’s globally adored entertainment and cannabis industries.

“We’ll be a model for what other states can do,” he said through an air of optimism. “California often goes first, but others follow. And, you know, I think the hope and belief always was that it would start a movement throughout the nation, in other states.”  

With America still the world leader when it comes to the mass incarceration of its own citizens, Bonta knows the measure is vital when it comes to U.S. officials attempting to claim any moral authority with foreign leaders.

“We shouldn’t be profiteering on the backs of human beings,” Bonta said matter-of-factly. “There’s nothing right about it. And, you know, it was all wrong, all the incentives and the treatment and the lack of humanity and the brokenness of it in our criminal justice system.” 

Los Angeles. Photo by Mike Von

Bonta’s also been a leader on efforts to end pretrial incarceration for some lower-level crimes and, radically, helped spearhead a drive to refund people’s bail money if the charges against them are dropped. He’s also worked to upend California’s cash bail system, which he says allows immorally exorbitant demands to be placed on people’s income, perpetuating the cycles of poverty plaguing large swaths of America.

“It’s the same sort of predatory, inhumane, unjust, unsafe approach and, you know, based on dollars,” Bonta bemoaned.  

Walking a Democratic-Sized Tightrope

When it comes to ‘drug’ policy, Bonta is out of step with President Joe Biden — a prohibitionist who is riling the progressive wing of the party with his 1970s, ‘war on drugs’ mentality. He quietly sees disagreeing with Biden on these issues as a good thing, even as he desperately doesn’t want to alienate the administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris who held Bonta’s office in a past life. That’s why, like most rank-and-file Democrats, he’s giving the administration a pass on its near wholesale opposition to marijuana–even as he works back-channel diplomacy, California-style. His personal calls with his predecessor won’t dislodge President Biden. Still, he’s playing it patiently, even as millions of dollars in cannabis cash traverse the state daily because the federal prohibition on cannabis leaves firms locked out of the U.S. banking system.

“We’re in the middle of change. As more states move the way that we’re moving, you know, on the adult use side and on the medical side, towards legalization, I think you’ll see increasing pressure on the federal government to act as well.”  

AG Rob Bonta

He doesn’t stop there. Bonta supports new and growing efforts to study psychedelics — from psilocybin to LSD — because researchers are finding promise in their potential to combat PTSD, anxiety and depression. This is an area he’s not rushing headlong into, in part because he still wants to study the research himself before legalizing these formerly taboo substances.  

“It kind of feels like it’s at the state where cannabis was a number of years back,” Bonta said, “where the chorus of voices talking about it is growing. The conversation is deepening. And, you know, some folks aren’t sure what it is, but people are learning.”

With some states and a handful of localities now taking steps to decriminalize all drugs, the attorney general isn’t fully supportive or fully opposed. Rather, he wants to flip the current uniquely American system upside down so these 50-year-old debates can fade into a distant memory soon. Thus, he supports diverting federal funds from militarization to treatment, even as he doesn’t want these substances landing in the wrong people’s bodies, whether kids or those who can’t handle them.

“An issue of addiction and education, not of criminalization and of policing. It is a real issue,” he said, before blasting the current system, “not with policing and criminalization and mass incarceration and arresting and over sentencing. It should be treated with education and resources and programs.”

Real Pain, Grounded Optimism

Even as Bonta is aggressively implementing his agenda while trying to use his new post to leave lasting change in every American community, his first few months on the job have been heavy. He’s kept his head high and eyes aimed at the precise targets he’s abhorred for decades.

For now, the first Asian American attorney general of California remains focused on his community, which to him means caring for every pocket of his utterly diverse state — even if at the moment, he’s been compelled to try and pinpoint and eradicate the plague of hate that’s haunted him and his family since stepping foot on this supposed land of the free. And as tough as California’s top cop is, the pain is real. All too real.

“This was building over the last year,” Bonta told The News Station. “Atlanta really was a punch to the gut. And, you know, brought the hate and the violence to a whole new level. Unfortunately, it seems to only be rising in terms of the number of cases.”

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