Additional reporting by Ann Choi

Last year saw a record number of bias attacks against Asians in New York City, police statistics show — accounting for 10% of all hate crime incidents investigated by the NYPD in 2020.

NYPD Hate Crime Task Force records show 27 incidents in all involving Asians, with 24 of them classified as “Other Corona” — starting with the March 10 report of an attack on an Asian New Yorker in Midtown. 

That’s a ninefold increase over the three incidents probed in 2019.

Reported hate incidents occurred on the subway, during a walk to work, in grocery stores, even outside home while taking out the garbage, after China took center stage globally as a source of viral spread.

Arrests have been made for 18 corona-related hate crimes, according to the NYPD. But no one has yet been prosecuted, said Chris Kwok, an attorney and board director of the Asian American Bar Association of New York.

“We are just as shocked as anyone else,” Kwok said. “We think there is a lot of fear.”

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Lunar New Year, celebrated by many Asian New Yorkers, begins Friday. During a normal year, the occasion was marked with a massive parade in Lower Manhattan attracting tens of thousands of spectators, a lion dance performance, confetti flying in the air, and the streets festooned with red and gold decorations. 

This year, the celebrations are subdued, and mostly virtual. The annual parade is shelved until the spring. 

There was a pared-down Lunar New Year celebration in Chinatown Friday. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

There is the fear of contracting the virus. There’s also an undercurrent of anxiety about the rising violence, advocates said. 

“People are afraid about their everyday lives. It’s been this way since 2020,” said Joo Han, deputy director of the nonprofit Asian American Federation. “It’s really unnerving.”

Officials with City Hall said there will be extra police presence “around Lunar New Year celebrations and Asian communities across the city.”

‘This Is Not New for Us’

The City Commission on Human Rights, which investigates bias complaints, took in 205 cases last year involving anti-Asian incidents, a nearly sevenfold rise over the previous year. 

Carmelyn P. Malalis, Chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, said in a statement that when the commission first began receiving reports of anti-Asian discrimination, “we knew this was a harbinger of things to come.” 

“We all must now take up the mantle of this work in coalition, on the local level and across the country to stand up for our Asian brothers and sisters,” she said, adding that reports to the Commission are confidential and can be made anonymously. 

The statistics still fail to fully record the full picture, say community leaders.

“Is it an uptick? Is it the fact that more Asians are being attacked now or that there’s a way to document it that wasn’t there before?” asked Jan Lee, co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, referring to cellphone videos that help capture incidents and prove race was a factor in a crime.

“This is not new for us. It’s not like we were walking around for 50 years peacefully and suddenly because of the coronavirus, this started.”

To classify an incident as a hate crime, police must show it was motivated because of the identity of the victim — often by citing words used by suspects in conjunction with violence.

“The law as it is does set a very high bar,” said Kwok, who believes the absence of a hateful slur should not disqualify an incident from being categorized as a hate crime. “It can’t just be, ‘You don’t meet this bar, let’s just move on.’”

Many crimes experienced by undocumented Asian New Yorkers go unreported, advocates noted, while incidents that do reach the authorities don’t seem to be prioritized.

In July, when an 89-year-old Asian woman was slapped and set on fire by two teenagers in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the police concluded that the incident did not qualify as a hate crime. 

The perpetrators have yet to be formally charged with a crime, said Don Lee, a volunteer for Homecrest Community Services who said he was interpreting for the victim throughout the NYPD investigation. 

“We were told to be on standby to do a lineup. The call never came,” Lee said. “When I called back, they said it was already done.”

He said the victim has not been contacted by the authorities since October.

Self-Defense and Other Strategies

Since last March, there have been more than 2,800 anti-Asian incidents in the U.S., with most occurring in California and New York, according to an analysis by a national group tracking anti-Asian hate and discrimination during the pandemic.  

Activists and elected officials across the country have called on authorities to act swiftly and to bring perpetrators to justice. 

Last August, the NYPD formed a permanent task force of 25 Asian American police officers speaking a multitude of languages to investigate anti-Asian hate crimes. Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison said then that the department had seen “a spike in every borough throughout the city,” combined with a reluctance from victims to cooperate with police. 

The move has met with pushback from some within New York City’s Asian communities. In September, more than two dozen groups signed on to the Asian American Feminist Collective’s statement opposing the task force’s creation. 

“The creation of this task force is a thinly veiled operation to get more cops in Asian communities,” the statement said, asserting that survivors of anti-Asian harassment do not call the police because they fear the police. 

Lunar New Year celebrations in Lower Manhattan last year took place just over a month before the city was shutdown by the pandemic. Feb. 9, 2020. Credit: Steve Sanchez Photos/Shutterstock

Also opposing “the uses of hate crime legislation to further expand systems of criminalization,” the groups urged investing instead in increased language services and cultural competency training for business owners.

Community groups said they have been hosting training sessions for members on how to handle a hate crime as a victim or a bystander, even sharing self defense strategies

More information-sharing and collaboration between community groups, city agencies and authorities is needed, said Alice Wong, chief of staff at the Chinese-American Planning Council.

“Someone may report to the attorney general’s hotline but not report to the police,” she said. 

The Asian American Bar Association released a report Thursday recommending the ability to report to authorities online and through a hotline anonymously and in multiple languages, and for police and prosecutors to more consistently and rigorously consider evidence that would allow them to bring hate crime charges.

While safety measures in hot-spot neighborhoods and training are essential, says Han of the Asian American Federation, she wants more Asian New Yorkers to raise awareness and demand action.

“We need to have a steady drum of residents saying that this is a priority,” said Han.