Asian Americans grapple with tide of attacks: ‘We need our safety back’
By Jeffery C. Mays, Dana Rubinstein and Grace Ashford
She was attacked as she swept up in front of her Queens home in November, beaten in the head with a rock so viciously that she was in a coma for weeks.
As GuiYing Ma battled for her life, other attacks on Asian women followed. A mentally ill man pushed Michelle Alyssa Go to her death at a Times Square subway station in January. The next month, Christina Yuna Lee was followed to her apartment in Chinatown and fatally stabbed more than 40 times.
After each instance, Asian American groups and elected officials from across the political spectrum came out in force, demanding that more be done to address violence against members of their community.
But when it comes to strategies for fighting crime against Asians, unity has been much harder to find.
Many traditional organizations, including the merchant associations that once dominated community politics, have demanded more police officers on the streets, tougher prosecution and more restrictive bail laws. But liberals, including many of the city’s younger Asian American elected officials, have taken the opposite tack, arguing against tougher policing and endorsing more progressive measures to address mental illness and homelessness.
“Half our community said, ‘We don’t trust the police,’ but the other half said, ‘We want a cop attached to every Asian,’ ” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation.
That dynamic was seen again last month, when it was announced that Ma, 62, who had immigrated from China four years ago, had succumbed to her injuries after nearly three months in the hospital. At a news conference Tuesday, her husband, Zhanxin Gao, wiped tears from his eyes as he spoke of his wife, his high school sweetheart, and how the city needed to do more to prevent similar tragedies.
Gao, 62, called for a multipronged approach. The city should help homeless people find homes, he said, speaking through an interpreter, but he was also upset to learn that the man who was charged with beating his wife had been arrested numerous times. The Queens district attorney is weighing whether to upgrade the charge to reflect Ma’s death.
“When I walk anywhere, I look left and right to see if anyone might be attacking me,” Gao said. “I have been living in fear.”
His sentiment was echoed by Justin Chin-Shan Yu, 76, the outgoing president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, one of the oldest community organizations in Chinatown. He said that Asian Americans were afraid and urged city officials to take decisive action.
The violence is part of an increasing trend. In 2020, the New York Police Department reported 28 bias incidents against Asians and made 23 arrests. In 2021, police made 58 arrests and recorded 131 incidents — including the death Dec. 31 of Yao Pan Ma, a Chinese immigrant who was attacked while collecting cans in East Harlem last year.
Three weeks ago, a stranger punched a Korean diplomat in the face in Manhattan. Last Sunday, a man attacked seven Asian women within a two-hour period in Manhattan, police said.
The spate of violence has helped to unite and energize Asian Americans, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the city. But the divisions over how to combat such a challenging problem highlight the growing pains of a diverse and ideologically discordant community as it develops into a potent political force.
Five members of the Asian American community were elected to the City Council last year. The state Assembly saw its first two South Asian members elected in 2020. Most of these politicians tend to be more aligned with a progressive movement that has sought to reform the criminal justice and mental health care systems.
Julie Won, a first-term councilwoman from Queens who is one of the first two Korean Americans to serve on the body, pointed out that the recent violent incidents demonstrate that more police officers and tougher policing are not the answer.
“Is it going to help you to lock people up after you’re dead?” Won said. “Or is it about prevention and long-term solutions to what leads to these violent crimes?”
On the flip side are elders and recent immigrants, who see more stringent law enforcement as the solution and have sided more closely with Mayor Eric Adams in calling for an increased police presence and changes to state laws to allow judges to consider dangerousness when setting bail.
“Asian American women are paying the price. Asian American seniors are paying the price,” said Yu, of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
He called on Adams to place more uniformed officers on patrol and to continue to push the state Legislature to change the bail law, even though leaders in both the Senate and Assembly have rejected such calls from the mayor.
“We don’t care about your social experiment,” Yu said. “We need our safety back.”
The pandemic, too, is viewed as a driver of the uptick in attacks against Asian Americans; the coronavirus originated in China, and some, including former President Donald Trump, blamed the Chinese for the virus’s spread.
“I’m not going to let Donald Trump off the hook for the drastic increase in incidents that happened literally weeks after he began using words like ‘kung flu’ and ‘Chinese virus,’ ” said Rep. Grace Meng, a Queens Democrat who in 2012 became the first Asian American elected to Congress from New York.
Meng suggested that simply being tougher on crime was too facile an approach to addressing the violence against Asian Americans, a stance shared by state Sen. John Liu, another long-serving elected official.
Liu, who represents northeast Queens, said a rise in crime has not been credibly linked to the bail law and added that calls to change it only demonstrate that the Asian American community has been shaken by the attacks. “When people are scared,” Liu said, “they jump to conclusions in search of answers and protection.”