Now, remarks made at a recent meeting of the North Miami City Council have led two council members to speak out against anti-Asian attitudes in the North Miami-Dade suburb.
"At our city council meeting last night, a resident made comments which I found to be xenophobic and demeaning," Councilman Scott Galvin wrote in an email newsletter last week. "I write today to say that our community cannot tolerate such insensitivity."
The incident stemmed from the city's plan to construct a Chinatown district along a 16-block stretch of NW Seventh Avenue. The idea, years in the making, has been somewhat controversial in North Miami, where less than 3 percent of the population is of Asian descent. But city leaders who are courting investors contend the development could drum up tourism and international interest in North Miami.
Jessica Alston, a North Miami resident and former city council candidate, has been one of the plan's most vocal opponents, arguing that black business owners and residents could suffer. At a city council meeting February 11, Alston invoked coronavirus as the latest reason she believes the Chinatown project should be shelved.
"Given the coronavirus crisis in China, I want to stand and request — demand — a freeze on all Chinatown initiatives or attempts to bring anything related to that here to North Miami because of the worldwide health crisis," she said.
Galvin says he bit his tongue at the meeting to avoid a "shouting match." But a day later, the councilman wrote an email condemning Alston's "anti-Asian" comments so residents would know where he stands.
"North Miami does not have many Asian residents, but that doesn't matter," Galvin tells New Times. "Even if we only have one, we can't let stuff like that just fly by without being addressed. That's unfair for any minority."
Galvin, who has served on the city council for more than 20 years, says the rhetoric surrounding coronavirus reminds him of the 1980s panic over HIV/AIDS, which in many ways was characterized by homophobia.
Thank you Councilman Galvin.— ADL Florida (@ADL_Florida) February 14, 2020
ADL recently published a blog focused on the use by extremists of the discussion and focus on the coronavirus to advance racist and conspiratorial agendas: https://t.co/NzYJoShs1H https://t.co/pPWhlUyXvs
"I immediately went to AIDS — there are so many similarities," Galvin says. "We don't know what's causing [coronavirus], we don't know how it's transmitted, we don't know how it originated, but let's just single out a nationality because they might be carrying it. That is just, like, a total parallel."
Councilman Alix Desulme, who has been spearheading North Miami's Chinatown plans, tells New Times he too regrets not objecting to Alston's remarks at the meeting.
"We should have really addressed it right there and then," he says. "I thought those comments were not only irresponsible but just ignorant."
Alston did not respond to a phone call or a text message from New Times.
Desulme says the Chinatown project is still viable and that design plans are expected to be ready at the end of the summer.
"Things are moving forward fast as we plan," he says.