People participate in a protest to demand an end to anti-Asian violence on April 04, 2021 in New York City. The group, which numbered near 3,000 and was made up of activists, residents and local politicians, marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. After a rise in hate crimes against Asians across the U.S. and in New York City, groups are speaking up and demanding more attention to the issue. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Hate incidents in the U.S. targeting Asian Americans have risen sharply since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite calls for more local and federal law enforcement to improve community safety by preventing further hate incidents, several progressive Asian Americans have taken a strong stance against the recent COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and other carceral solutions in addressing anti-Asian violence.

Recently, over 100 Asian American and LGBTQ+ organizations came together to sign a joint statement opposing law enforcement-based hate crime legislation. The statement argues that the act “ignores that police violence is also anti-Asian violence, which has disproportionately targeted Black and brown Asians.”

“The bolstering of law enforcement and criminalization does not keep us safe and in fact harms and furthers violence against Asian communities facing some of the greatest disparities and attacks—sex workers, low wage workers, people with disabilities, people living with HIV, youth, women, trans and nonbinary people, migrants amongst others,” the statement says.

Coordinated by Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), a New York City-based community organization focused on empowering queer Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the statement represents a large collective organizing effort between Asian American and LGBTQ+ groups, both in New York City and nationwide. Rohan Zhou-Lee, the founder of The Blasian March, a co-signer of the joint statement, cites the history of police violence toward the LGBTQ+ community, including the Stonewall and the Compton’s Cafeteria uprisings, in discussing the impetus for the joint statement.

“I think [the joint statement] resonated with a lot of us because we are also already speaking and thinking about how policing affects Black and Indigenous communities,” Zhou-Lee explained. “When we are working on being actively anti-racist and [co-conspiring] with Black and Indigenous communities, it means that we have to find solutions that work for all of us.”

Zhou-Lee says that by calling for more support for policing, the bill and its proponents elide a very long and violent history Asian American communities have with the police, such as the vicious police beating of Peter Yew in 1975 that sparked a massive street protest in New York City’s Chinatown. Zhou-Lee also points to the death of Yang Song in 2019 during a police raid of the Flushing massage parlor where she worked, as well as the killings of Christian Hall and Angelo Quinto at the hands of police. 

Rachel Kuo, co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective, which signed onto the letter, adds that responses to anti-Asian violence need to clearly reject relying on policing and the carceral system. 

“State and government responses to anti-Asian violence have focused on expanding law enforcement responses through data collection and analysis – more reporting, more training,” Kuo said. “However, state investment in data collection about Asian and Asian Americans, such as through special registration and national quota exclusions, has also historically racialized Asians as criminal, dangerous, and unwelcome.”

Researchers with Stop AAPI Hate report that victims of anti-Asian hate incidents are largely comfortable self-reporting their experiences to the community-based group and that doing so led to a significant reduction in racial trauma symptoms. However, AAPIData found that only about one-third of Asian Americans would feel comfortable reporting a hate crime incident to law enforcement. While the COVID-19 Hate Crime Bill aims to make the reporting process to law enforcement more accessible through the creation of hotlines and an online reporting system, it doesn’t address how to make Asian Americans more comfortable interacting with law enforcement, or how to ensure their safety when they do so.

Zhou-Lee, who identifies as both Black and Asian American, is also concerned that the inaccurate framing of anti-Asian violence as primarily involving Black perpetrators also reinforces dangerous anti-Blackness. 

“For myself, apart from being aware of how police treat Asian Americans, I’m also very aware how police treat Black Americans,” Zhou-Lee said. “I think this bill will make things even more dangerous for Black Asians.”

That history of police violence and the risk more policing poses to Black, brown, and other marginalized people still hasn’t stopped prominent Asian Americans from doubling down on calls for more police. Former New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, for example, campaigned on his support for increased funding for the NYPD Asian Hate Crimes Task Force. That task force has responded to the city’s recent rise in anti-Asian hate attacks by increasing the presence of police patrols in NYC’s Chinatown. And earlier in the year, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 bounty to try and identify a suspect in an Oakland Chinatown assault. After the bounty sparked a social media backlash, Kim and Wu announced that the money would instead go to Chinatown-based community organizations. 

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act itself was sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng and Sen. Mazie Hirono. The bill’s passage follows a traditional pattern in which federal and state hate crimes laws have been historically passed in response to high-profile hate crimes targeting historically oppressed communities—including the killings of Vincent Chin, James Byrd, Jr., and Matthew Shepard. For example, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes targeting a victim’s race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or disability. The COVID-19 Hate Crime Bill expands upon this by establishing a new position at the Department of Justice to oversee review of hate crimes related to COVID-19, and to coordinate crime prevention and response measures, further entrenching the notion that more law enforcement is the only way to deal with hate crimes. 

For many Asian Americans, though, it seems like a lose-lose situation, where they must weigh the increased risk of police violence to their communities in exchange for a dubious sense of security from the perceived threat of street violence. AAPIData estimates that roughly one in eight of all Asian American adults have been the victim of a hate incident since the start of 2020. In a joint report with the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Stop AAPI Hate found that Asian American women are more than twice as likely to be targeted in anti-Asian hate incidents reported to the group, which includes both criminal and non-criminal activity. Furthermore, AAPIData found that 64% of Asian American men and 74% of Asian American women are worried about experiencing a hate incident or other form of discrimination—8% of Asian American men and 14% of Asian American women say they experience that worry “all the time.”

“[The rise in anti-Asian attacks] has stoked a lot of fear and paranoia,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation in a recent interview with The New York Times. “People are not leaving their homes.”

The signatories of the joint statement encourage people to consider how reinvesting funding, personnel, and support in community-based initiatives, health care, housing, and social services, instead of bloated police budgets can increase Asian Americans’ safety.

“We know that the root of the violence that we see in our communities is due to inequality,” said Jason Wu, co-chair of GAPIMNY to NBC Asian America in an interview last month. “The things that will keep us safe require us to think more long term and systemically about what the root causes of violence are.”

In Oakland’s Chinatown, where several of the recent anti-Asian attacks have occured, community organizers have vigorously pursued mutual aid programs as an alternative to increased policing. Forty Bay Area Asian American organizations issued their own separate joint statement, which also calls for non-carceral solutions to the violence. 

“We recognize that violence affects all of us and all of our communities,” says the statement, which was posted to Facebook by the Chinese Progressive Association of San Francisco. “We must invest in long-term community-centered solutions that create spaces for cross-racial healing that address underlying causes and create ways for all to thrive. We believe that our strength is in unity, not division, and that our histories and our futures are intertwined.”

Their statement also calls for better supportive services, enhanced intervention- and prevention-based programs, and improved cross-community education. These include volunteer-based community ambassador programs such as Community Strolling, which encourages volunteers to walk the streets of Chinatown to build better relationships with community members and engage in graffiti and trash clean-up. 

“It’s difficult to shove a senior citizen to the ground if you see yourself in them, if you have a relationship to them,” said Ener Chiu of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in an interview with KQED earlier this year.

Other groups in Oakland and around the country have organized free or low-cost self-defense and bystander intervention training, including some aimed specifically at Asian American women and elders. As anti-Asian violence combined with the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reduce foot traffic in Asian American ethnic enclaves, Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo has launched #LoveLT, a campaign to encourage customers to support the area’s legacy small businesses through shopping and meal donations. And efforts like The Blasian March aim to enhance cross-racial connection by organizing solidarity actions between Black and Asian American communities. 

“I really do think that it comes down to looking at the root causes,” Zhou-Lee said. “Lack of resources, miseducation, lack of opportunity for our community to economically thrive and flourish together. I think if we could take funding and put it into resources that address those problems, we could really reduce a lot of the crime rate from the very beginning.”

Jenn Fang

Jenn Fang