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New York Asian hate crime spike puts pressure on new mayor

Attacks on Asian American New Yorkers have become so prevalent since the pandemic began that a lawmaker is calling on the governor to declare a state of emergency.

One woman was shoved in front of a subway train. A senior citizen was punched in the face by an assailant who reportedly told police Chinese people “look like measles.” Another woman was stabbed 40 times in her Chinatown apartment — and a “Stop Asian Hate” memorial left in her honor smashed by vandals.

“The community feels a lot of anger, as well as fear, every time they leave the house,” Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Queens), the lawmaker proposing the state of emergency, said in an interview.

Kim and other Asian American leaders and elected officials say their community is at a breaking point. Hate crimes against Asian New Yorkers quadrupled last year and many other attacks went unreported — or simply weren’t classified as hate crimes.

Some are hopeful that Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who won his office with a tough-on-crime message, is taking the issue more seriously by implementing changes at the NYPD.

But the new mayor, a former NYPD captain, faces longstanding issues of trust between the police and the community with some critics saying the NYPD hasn’t taken hate crimes seriously enough. Adams is also up against a narrow legal standard that’s hard to prove in court because hate crimes require evidence that a perpetrator used a slur or demonstrated other blatantly racist behavior. Finally community leaders point to a lack of services for perpetrators, many of whom are homeless.

“Our community is so vulnerable at this point that we’re not sure if we can handle more. We’re just very afraid,” said Ben Wei, founder of the nonprofit group Asians Fighting Injustice. “Some of our claims have just not been taken seriously by law enforcement.”

There were 131 hate crimes targeting Asians in New York last year compared to 28 in 2020 and just one in 2019, according to NYPD statistics. The increase has continued so far this year, with ten offenses logged in January and February compared to four in the same period last year.

But for many Asian Americans, those alarming statistics do not capture the true scope of the violence that has rocked their community. Asian New Yorkers have faced a long string of unprovoked attacks by strangers, many of which were not classified as bias crimes. Even some of the most high-profile assaults and killings, such as the death of the woman shoved in front of a train, have not been designated as acts of hate.

Frustration has been building over the NYPD’s handling of the cases, with critics saying cops have been too quick to dismiss hate as a potential motive.

Adams agrees, and recently ousted the head of the NYPD’s Hate Crime Task Force, saying he wants to take a more aggressive approach.

“When I sat down with the members of the community, they were very concerned on how we were designating these crimes as hate crimes,” he said Monday at an unrelated press conference in the Bronx. “We took immediate action. I had new leadership over at the hate crime unit to send the right message. We’re not going to try to cover this up.”

In explaining the ouster last month, Adams said: “I thought we were too slow in designating, investigating something as a potential hate crime. And I wanted to make sure that someone was in charge of the unit that understood my vision.”

The overhaul followed the case of Esther Lee, who said a man called her a “carrier” on a subway train and spit on her twice in October after becoming irate when he tried to give her a fist bump and she declined. Police initially refused to investigate the incident as a hate crime despite her repeated complaints, until it was reviewed by a civilian panel and reclassified.

“How many more of us need to be sliced with a box cutter, bashed in the head with a rock, or more recently punched over 125 times before it gets labeled a hate crime?” Lee said last week at a rally in Times Square. “How many more cases like mine are taking place every day with the NYPD brushing it off?”

Lee said in an interview that, after the attack, she has experienced hyperventilating, shaking and panic attacks, and started seeing a therapist for the first time in her life. She still rides the subway, but stands on the platform with her back to the train so she can see who is coming.

“What it’s doing to the Asian community is that we’re all on pins and needles,” she said. “Everybody’s incredibly vigilant.”

Adams also cited the case of a Korean diplomat punched in the face in Manhattan in an unprovoked attack. The suspect said nothing. “If someone struck a Korean individual that was walking down the block in Manhattan, a dignitary, for no other reason than how he looked, and we don’t designate it as a possible hate crime, I’m troubled with that,” Adams said.


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