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Xiao Mei couldn’t even go to a protest against Asian American racism without being confronted by a racist.
“Just ten minutes ago, going into the Barnes & Noble, a white, middle-aged woman said a racial slur to me and my friend,” said the 25-year-old illustrator, who traveled from Sloatsburg to Union Square for the protest. She gestured tiredly with her handmade sign, which read “Not Ur Exotic Fantasy.” “This happened right next to the rally. And it happens too often to all of us.”
Xiao was one of thousands of people to gather on Sunday at a pair of rallies in downtown Manhattan to honor the eight people killed in Tuesday’s Atlanta-area spa shootings and condemn the alarming recent rise in violence against Asian Americans nationwide. The rallies oscillated between rage and grief: Protesters screamed “Asian lives matter,” waved signs reading “Hate Is a Virus” and “Stop Asian Hate,” and paused for moments of silence to honor the lives lost in Georgia.
“Tuesday night, I saw the news alert on my phone and the minute I saw ‘massage killings,’ my heart just dropped,” said Katie Wang, a 45-year-old resident of Clinton Hill. “I just kept thinking of these women who were so vulnerable, who had so little to begin with, and their poor families. The next day I thought, I can’t work. This is too hard. It was a physical pain.”
The larger event, at Columbus Park in Chinatown, was called “Rally Against Hate” and included speakers Andrew Yang and his wife Evelyn, Senator Chuck Schumer, State Senator John Liu, and rapper MC Jin. Organizer Jack Liang estimated it drew at least 3,000 people. Across the lawn, dozens of people raised signs with the names of the eight people killed in Georgia. Many condemned the accused killer and his denial to police that the attacks were a hate crime.
Yang, who is running for mayor, was one of the speakers to rebuke the denial of racial motivation. “It is madness to question a 21-year-old lunatic as to his motivations when we can see clear as day that this was a hate crime,” he said to cheers from the audience. “Everyone who is Asian American knows that these women were targeted on the basis of their race, that if you go to an Asian-owned business in an Asian community and you open the door, you know exactly who you’re going to find.”
Yang was enthusiastic about the event, calling his audience “the most incredible assemblage of beautiful Asian and Black and brown and white human beings I have seen in quite some time.” His joy seemed tempered slightly when his call to fund the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crimes Task Force was interrupted with cries of “Defund the police!” from the crowd. He responded, “I know there are people who are very passionate about this, but the fact is, when someone gets stabbed, you need the police to follow up. That person should not be on the streets.” The exchange echoed a recurring tension between progressive activists and politicians.
A common topic of discussion at the rallies was anger that racism against Asian Americans was ignored by the media as it rose steadily over the past year, abetted by fear of COVID-19 and Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric. It left many New Yorkers with new fears for their safety.
“I’ve been living in New York for 20-plus years and I’ve never felt unsafe or harassed at all. But just in the last six months, I’ve been harassed multiple times on the subway and the street,” said Henry Chan, a 48-year-old attorney who lives on the Upper West Side. “It feels like if we don’t stand up together now as a community, it’s only going to get worse.”
The NYPD recently said nine times as many anti-Asian hate crimes were reported to police in 2020 than the year before. On Tuesday, hours before the Atlanta shootings, the nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate released a report detailing the nearly 3,800 hate incidents against Asian Americans reported to them between March 2020 and last month.
Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, told the audience that the statistics are grossly underreported. “I know the stats are undercounted because our community never complains,” she said. “It is time to start complaining.”
Offstage, Yoo elaborated. “I’ve been told by law enforcement, ‘Oh, we only have X number of cases,’ and I’m thinking, I have double that sitting in my inbox right now,” said Yoo, 58. “But unless we tell people what is happening, they won’t come to our aid. We feel really vulnerable.”
“I feel like I’ve been screaming into the void since last January, when I heard there might be a virus and they found something in Wuhan. I thought, ‘Oh my God, here we go. The minute it gets here, our communities are gonna get it. They’re going to scapegoat us and it’s going to be horrific,’” said Yoo.
Esther Kao, an organizer for Red Canary Song, a grassroots group that advocates for Asian and migrant sex workers, said recent violence against Asian women is shining overdue light on longstanding, harmful stereotypes. “There has been a lot revealed in the way that Asian women are hypersexualized and the way that other people who are not Asian women see that hypersexualization,” said Kao, 25, who lives in Manhattan. “For a very long time, it is something that has been ingrained in the way that the United States structures legislation around Asian femme bodies, specifically. It’s coming to the surface.”
The Union Square event was organized by Running to Protest, a group that has staged protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, and their rally stressed Black and Asian solidarity.
Kelvin Coffey, who had been planning the protest for over a month, said the Atlanta shootings instilled an even stronger need to stress solidarity between marginalized communities.
“We want Asian Americans to know that Black America has their back,” said Coffey. “Because they had our backs last June and July. I saw the marches they led for Black Lives Matter.”
Leaders of both events agreed strongly that their rallies and advocacy must only be the start for Asian American activists.
“Protesting and marches are great. They connect people to each other, but that’s just the first step,” said activist Will Lex Ham, who spoke at Union Square. “We have to organize nationally to push forward legislation that protects us long-term. And we need to push ethnic studies so our kids learn about the contributions of our people to this country and have pride in them.”
Jack Liang, a 29-year-old Flatbush resident who organized the Columbus Park rally, said he just turned in his two-weeks’ notice at Instagram, where he worked in the advertising department, to focus on organizing full-time.
“Today’s goal was to empower our community and show people what community looks like,” he said. “Our community is strong, and we want to bring power to the people back to Chinatown. I want to show that people who look like you and I can make a difference.”