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The Pandemic of Violence Against East and Southeast Asian Women in the US

From the Current Events Editorial Staff: Chris Fong Chew, Lillian Han, Leila Wickliffe, Jiaying Zhang

On the morning of Sunday, February 13th, 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee was stabbed to death inside her Lower Manhattan apartment in Chinatown by a man who followed her into the building.

Surveillance video showed Lee being trailed into her building on Chrystie Street by a man later identified by police as Assamad Nash, 25, who catches the door and follows her inside. Neighbors called the police a short period later when they heard screaming from her apartment. When police arrived at the scene, Nash had tried to flee down a fire escape and eventually barricaded himself inside her apartment; Lee was found dead with 40 stab wounds.

Lee was a Rutgers University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Art History, a Senior Creative Producer at an online platform for digital music called Splice, and worked on many photo and video campaigns. She did not have any connection with Nash prior to the attack.

Nash was taken into custody and found to have a history of misdemeanor arrests dating to 2015 in New Jersey and New York, including assault, burglary, and drug possession. In January, he was charged with criminal mischief and unlawful escape but was released under supervision. Many believe that, given his history of arrests, he should not have been allowed on the streets.

Lee is just one of the most recent people of Asian descent to be killed or injured in random, unprovoked attacks in New York City. However, police have yet to call this killing a hate crime.

This incident happened just weeks after another woman of Asian descent, Michelle Alyssa Go, was killed by a man who pushed her in front of an oncoming subway train in New York City. The suspect was identified as 61-year-old Martial Simon, who was unhoused and charged with second-degree murder. He too has an extensive criminal history and was on parole.

These attacks have left Asian American communities across the country feeling defenseless. Asian American women, in particular, are targeted. Michelle Go’s death was never investigated as a hate crime, but authorities are still investigating whether or not Christina Lee’s murder was racially motivated. But to some Asian American women, what authorities call it doesn’t matter. Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition formed to track and respond to reports of hate, violence, and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, reported that national trends show that women make up 62% of all reported hate incidents.

These murders link to a wider narrative of placing blame on East and Southeast Asians for the COVID-19 pandemic, in which scapegoating solely based on appearance has provoked hate crimes as insidious as racial generalizations and as brutal as full-blown escalations into violence. Indeed, the six Asian women that died in the Atlanta spa shootings of March 2021 is a stark example of this—a culmination of months of heightened Sinophobic hysteria in which anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. spiked by 150%.

The Atlanta spa shootings, which occurred almost a year ago, brought Asian women in the United States to the forefront. Between racism and hypersexualization, Asian American women are disproportionately attacked, largely due to archaic stereotypes that they are submissive and easier to take advantage of since they won’t fight back. Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said, “There is a big difference between how white women are treated versus how people of color are, even in terms of believing our stories.”

However, one must not see the pandemic-fuelled scapegoating as an isolated wave of anti-Asian racism. The pandemic has stirred and inflamed existing discrimination, not created it. The U.S. has had a ‘long, ugly history’ of sinophobia and anti-Asian initiatives; exclusions of Chinese immigrants in American civil society occurred almost as soon as people of Asian descent set foot in the U.S., such as with People v. Hall of 1854 that made their court testimonies negligent, or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned Chinese immigration for more than 60 years. Violence against the Asian community has a long history dating to the Chinese massacre of 1871 and the Rock Springs massacre of 1885.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 361% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. since December 2020, a staggering increase. These two recent attacks exist as a haunting reminder that the need for the Stop AAPI Hate movement is not over.

Though brutality against Asian American communities predates the pandemic, people are only just beginning to pay attention. However, Choimorrow recalls situations when bystanders would watch as attackers yelled racial slurs at her. “People just stand there and watch what’s happening. It’s this sense of, ‘Wow, we really are alone,’” she said. Choimorrow expressed that only recently there seems to be an increased interest addressing hate against the Asian community.

A vigil was held for Lee outside of her apartment. The community united and mourned over her loss. Mary Wang, an organizer of the vigil, reflected on the incidents, “Should we be fearful every time we take a subway or every time we get on the street?” Go and Lee’s deaths have left the Asian community wondering: “what’s next?”

Since Lee’s death occurred in her home, Asian American women feel that their safe spaces within the city are shrinking and this has left them reeling. Jonathan Chang, a designer and artist based in L.A. who created the infamous social media portrait of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American man after he died from an attack has gone on to draw several portraits of Asian American victims of violence whose stories he believed needed to be amplified. “I think a lot of us put ourselves in her shoes. I know in a way Michelle Go was like all of us,” Chang said in response to Go’s death.

These stories of hate impact the Asian American community as a whole and leave many wondering if they could be the next victim. We see ourselves in these victims, and that only fuels the fear many of us feel. As a community, we are left feeling defenseless and invisible. Attacks like these are never isolated experiences, they can happen to anyone. Asian Americans should not feel unsafe in their homes and communities. Victims of hate can not be ignored any longer. Protecting Asian women and Asian lives is paramount to preventing unprovoked attacks like these from happening again.

In response to the crimes, there have been several calls for addressing the crisis from activists to politicians, and community members alike. The murders of Lee and Go both fit an unfortunately common pattern that has risen since the pandemic–a “seemingly” unprovoked attack perpetrated by an unhoused individual suffering from mental illness and not provided adequate support or assistance. The rise in attacks committed by homeless people speaks toward the systemic issue of the US’s refusal to address the moral obligation as a nation to provide basic services that cater to low-income people. The pandemic and the political gridlock in the world has also brought many challenges on the mental health of the already vulnerable homeless population.

Many activists are calling to address the mental health crisis in the city, citing that the justice system has already failed many of the victims of these attacks. Many jurisdictions fail to meet the needs of people with behavioral health conditions. Both perpetrators in the case of Lee and Go had cycled through the criminal justice system and were eventually let out again and again without adequate resources or rehabilitation to re-enter society. This highlights the need for state and local leaders to support coordination efforts between the justice and behavioral health systems. Through the implementation of comprehensive crisis response strategies and investment in community resources, we can ensure that people experiencing behavioral health crises are better served. This in turn will lead them to have less contact with the justice system while simultaneously increasing public safety.

Meanwhile, a community is left in shock. Yuh-Line Niou, a member of the New York State Assembly stated: “That’s exactly why it hurts so much, and also hits so close to home. The community is feeling a lot of the same things. There’s so many people who have just told me: They’re so afraid. They’re afraid for their sisters, they’re afraid for their grandparents, they’re afraid for their daughters.” Niou continues, “We don’t get resources, we don’t get help. Instead, people think, almost like, we deserve it…The community feels all these things at once, there’s the layers of it, the history of it, and then the exhaustion of constantly having to beg for our own existence.”

In the past several weeks, vigils were held for both Go and Lee, and speeches by politicians and community members were made. Flowers were also left at the sites of where these heinous attacks occured. Still, the somber memorials weren’t free from controversy as the New York Post reported that a memorial outside Christina Yuna Lee’s apartment was vandalized overnight where candles were smashed, and a sign stating “Stop Asian Hate” torn.

Politicians in California recently announced a bill to “curb anti-Asian attacks against women, vulnerable groups.” The proposed legislation hopes to “frame street discrimination and harassment as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one.” The laws will require the state’s 10 largest transit districts to study the types of harassment that commuters experience, and develop data-driven initiatives to promote safer ridership. However, such initiatives are yet to be implemented in California or or even proposed in other cities and states.

The murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee happened at a time when the Asian American community was already struggling to survive amidst the pandemic, racial scapegoating, and increased levels of harassment and violence. It also shows how Go and Lee’s murders are steeped in a long history of discrimination, racial scapegoating, and fetishization in the U.S. coupled with systemic failures to properly support the unhoused population from providing basic essentials, to adequate rehabilitation, and mental health services to help prevent individuals becoming violent in the first place.

The city, state, and federal government needs to come together to address this growing crisis. Unhoused communities need support and pathways to reenter society, and not cycle through a punitive system that locks them up and then releases them without actually helping them. It is unacceptable that these occurrences of harassment and violence have become a norm. The Asian community in the U.S. needs support in addressing violence and hate. The solution to this crisis must be multi pronged in addressing lack of support for unhoused individuals, and those suffering from mental illness, to reclassify hate crimes to better encompass the scope in which these events occur. When working to build solidarity within the Asian community and other POC communities, it is crucial for grassroots organizations to work together. The attacks of Go and Lee are yet another instance of systemic racism in the US that blames the country’s problems on POC.

Edited by: Amshu V., Rachel C., Blenda Y., Vishal P., Amirah A.


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