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At a press conference in Times Square on Wednesday, New York mayoral front-runner Andrew Yang, addressing Tuesday night’s mass shooting in the metro-Atlanta area, called for more funding for the NYPD Asian Hate Crime Task Force. Currently consisting of 25 Asian American detectives, the task force was first announced by the NYPD last August in response to a rise in hate crimes targeting Asians and Asian Americans. Yang, who has no government experience, clearly meant to project an action-oriented image, but for many in New York’s Asian communities, his prescription — more police funding — reads like a glib response to a deep-seated societal ill.
“God fucking damnit,” journalist Sarah Jeong tweeted in reaction to Yang’s comment. “Andrew Yang out there single-handedly dismantling the stereotype of Asians being smart.”
Jeong was not alone in her frustration. After the NYPD announced the Asian Hate Crime Task Force’s formation last year, it was immediately criticized by organizers and activists who, in part, saw it as contradictory to the nascent defund-the-police movement, which has been gaining momentum since the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. In September, the Asian American Feminist Collective published an open letter signed by 27 community organizations denouncing the task force and detailing the long history of violence and mistrust between police and New York City’s Asian communities.
“Even the most well-meaning calls for more safety aren’t taking into account that the police are making these people less safe,” said Salonee Bhaman, a member of the Asian American Feminist Collective, the group behind the letter. “Massage-parlor workers, street vendors, and working-class Asian people are most vulnerable to racist violence, and those are also the same people that the police arrest, rough up, detain, and report to immigration detention.”
Activists have been quick to point to the story of Yang Song to illustrate the threat police can present in Asian communities. In 2017, Song, a 38-year-old sex worker from China, died after she fell from a four-story window as officers were trying to arrest her during an NYPD raid on a massage parlor. There are other examples, though. During a surge of anti-immigrant violence in the 1990s, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a grassroots organizing group based in Chinatown, documented 71 incidents of anti-Asian violence in the city, almost half of which were perpetrated by law enforcement. In 2014, NYPD officers beat Kang Wong, an 84-year-old man who didn’t speak much English, for jaywalking on the Upper West Side.
“The police don’t stop violence. They get called after something has already happened. It’s not actually preventative,” said Sasha Wijeyeratne, the executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. “Our members know that the police are who get called when their landlords want to evict them, and yet it’s not who they call when their bosses are keeping their wages.”
Still, Yang’s statement has not been universally condemned by leaders in Asian communities, where support for the NYPD is prevalent. Sharon Lee, the former acting Queens borough president, praised the creation of the task force at the time. “There were pro-NYPD rallies in Flushing around the same time as the BLM rallies because they thought defunding the police was going to be bad for their communities,” said Tiffany Tso, another member of the Asian American Feminist Collective.
In 2020, the hate-crime task force recorded 28 anti-Asian attacks compared with two in 2019. Following the violence in Atlanta, Mayor Bill de Blasio yesterday announced that the NYPD would send additional officers to neighborhoods with large populations of people of Asian descent. Identifying the root cause of any crime surge is tricky, but former President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” has undoubtedly stoked an anti-Asian atmosphere, which is one reason activists say that putting more cops on the street is not the solution.
“The NYPD police unions stood behind the previous administration and endorsed [Trump], publicly agitated for him, all while he was promoting a lot of this anti-Asian sentiment and messaging,” said Fahd Ahmed, executive director of the South Asian community-organizing group Desis Rising Up and Moving. “Now we expect those same forces will come to the protection of Asian communities? It’s absurd and ungrounded … People who don’t have a history of doing this work, and haven’t had to deal with these sorts of incidents and work with the impacted people or families, come up with solutions that don’t make any sense. We haven’t seen police anti-hate task forces be useful or effective in actually improving safety and preventing hate crimes.”
Both Ahmed and Bhaman say the response to recent attacks, which have mostly targeted people of East Asian descent, should be informed by the response to the violence perpetrated against South Asians after September 11. In that case, the post-9/11 boom in law-enforcement task forces only exacerbated the distrust between the police and South Asians.
“I know that Yang has been pressured or pushed to adopt more progressive politics,” said Tso. “He’s met with community organizers who have been trying to push him on decriminalization of sex work, and he has been made aware of these issues. So this feels willful. It feels like a political move.”
Correction: Sarah Jeong is no longer at the New York Times.