This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
The security videos of the March incident stunned New Yorkers and resonated far beyond. They showed an older Asian woman, shoved to the ground, then kicked in the body and stomped in the head by an assailant.
The criminal complaint from the Manhattan district attorney that charges Brandon Elliot, 38, with assault as a hate crime alleges he screamed at 65-year-old Vilma Kari: “F—k you, you don’t belong here, you Asian.” It’s one of at least 66 anti-Asian bias cases currently under investigation as a hate crime by the New York Police Department (NYPD), eclipsing 2020’s year-end count of 28.
Yet the NYPD’s official tally does not capture the thousands of incidents in which Asians were reported as targets of harassment last year — even as harassment cases with non-Asian victims declined during COVID lockdowns. Nor does it capture the increased number of those Asian targets who, like Kari, were age 65 or over.
While the total number of harassment incidents reported to the NYPD decreased by nearly 10% from 2019 to 2020, the number went up when the victim was Asian. The contrast is especially striking when it comes to people over age 65. The number of harassment incidents against Asians of this age group went up by 11%, while reported harassment against older Black and white New Yorkers decreased when compared to 2019.
Among the harassment incidents targeting older Asians in public places that were logged in NYPD reports and 911 calls, from a sampling of cases in eastern Queens: A shoe thrown at the head of a 74-year-old woman walking inside a hotel in East Flushing. Shelving pushed over and cleaning fluid poured over the floor of a 65-year-old man’s Flushing store. A 72-year-old man kicked in the chest outside a Kennedy Fried Chicken in Jamaica. A neighbor throwing water on an 82-year-old woman near her East Flushing home.
“There is a whole wave of attacking elderly people in different ways. With comments, with physical attacks, people on the train,” said New York state Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat who represents Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
Community advocates say that older Asians’ fears of going outside have intensified throughout the pandemic, as the reopening of New York City, increasing vaccinations and warming weather all mean more people will be out in public.
“The senior population is already really afraid of COVID-19 because it disproportionately affects seniors,” said Alice Wong, chief of staff of the Chinese-American Planning Council. “Now, there’s the fear of getting attacked.”
Queens and Chinatown Clusters
Many of the 303 harassment reports involving older Asians clustered around heavily Asian neighborhoods, such as Ozone Park and Flushing in Queens and Chinatown in Lower Manhattan.
The race of reported suspects varied. In nearly half of last year’s incidents with older Asian victims, the NYPD reported the suspect as Asian, while 15% of the cases had Black suspects, 12% had Hispanic suspects and 10% had White suspects.
Harassment occurs when a person physically contacts or threatens to physically harm another individual, follows them, or repeatedly engages in unwanted and alarming behavior, state penal law reads. Harassment can include verbal attacks like threatening racial slurs as well as actions like being spat on or being struck, multiple attorneys said.
Under New York penal law, second-degree harassment is not a crime but a violation, punishable by up to 15 days of jail. Under New York criminal procedural law, violation offenses must be witnessed by a police officer in order to make an arrest.
At an Upper West Side community board forum about hate crimes in March, Deputy Inspector Jessica Corey of the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force said reports of harassment are often closed and not investigated because they are violations rather than crimes. She added that reporting was still valuable because it could help police establish a pattern.
But some harassment does amount to a crime.
First-degree harassment — a misdemeanor — includes “intentionally and repeatedly” harassing another individual by following them around in public or repeatedly behaving in a way that could cause them fear of physical injury. When harassment is accompanied by comments that show race-based intent, an offense up can be elevated to aggravated harassment, punishable with jail time.
Hard to Prove Hate
In New York, an individual can be charged with a hate crime if he or she “intentionally selects” the victim or commits the act based on their target’s race, age, gender, religion or other protected status — intentions which multiple attorneys said can be difficult to prove.
As a result, some violent acts that community members view as hate crimes — such as a July incident in Bensonhurst where two teenagers set an 89-year-old’s shirt on fire and slapped her in the face — are not investigated as such. One case is now closed and the other is pending in family court, said the city Law Department’s spokesman Nick Paolucci.
“For crimes against Asian Americans, it seems like there’s a default like we begin with ‘It’s not a hate crime’ and we’re going to have to look for things that prove it is,” said Chris Kwok, an attorney and board director of the Asian American Bar Association.
He also questioned why district attorneys are not elevating charges to more serious offenses, even if they don’t meet the bar to be designated as hate crimes. He pointed to a recent incident in which a 52-year-old Asian woman was shoved to the ground after a conversation outside a Flushing bakery, causing a head injury requiring stitches.
The Queens District Attorney’s office charged the 47-year-old Hispanic defendant with assault in the third degree and harassment in the second degree. Elevating the charges would send a message to the community that the violence was being taken seriously, Kwok said.
“It underscores once again that we are not important and it doesn’t really matter,” Kwok said of how DAs often charge defendants accused of crimes targeting Asians.
In 2020, law enforcement authorities in the city made a total of 21 arrests for aggravated harassment in the second degree as a hate crime — the most common hate crime charge — in addition to 2,323 arrests for the same charge without the hate crime designation, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. That proportion is roughly the same as the previous year.
On March 25, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea announced at a news conference that the department would be deploying undercover Asian officers “to prevent New Yorkers from becoming victims in the first place.”
In three incidents this month, undercover Asian police officers were targeted in Manhattan, according to the NYPD. All three suspects were arrested and charged with hate crimes. In the most recent incident, on Saturday, police allege a man attempted to shove the officer into subway tracks, saying: “That’s why you people are getting beat up. I got nothing to lose.”
Without police witnesses, other cases go nowhere: Out of 17 NYPD harassment complaint reports for incidents in Queens last year that were obtained by THE CITY and The Marshall Project, all were closed without an arrest — including five instances in which the victim wished to prosecute and a suspect had been identified.
When second-degree harassment cases do make it to the courts, judges frequently dismiss them without requiring defendants to admit guilt, defense attorneys said. David Rong, a former assistant district attorney, said that during his tenure at the Bronx DA’s office in the 2000s, harassment failed to “make it to the list of important problems” for the NYPD.
Older and a Likelier Target
Advocates say these crimes are severely underreported. New York City’s Asian American Federation estimates only between 10% and 30% of anti-Asian violence incidents get reported to law enforcement. A 2018 survey by the city’s Commission on Human Rights found that 71% of people in often-targeted groups, including South Asians, do not report hate incidents.
On March 23, Maureen Ki, 73, was walking on 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn on her way to pick up breakfast when a man spit on her head. She kept walking to the senior center that she helps run a few blocks down, for fear the violence would escalate. While the other Chinese older adults at the Brooklyn center played pingpong, sang karaoke and ate milk buns in its main room, she went to the bathroom to wipe the saliva off her face.
She didn’t tell anyone until hours later.
“I don’t want to disturb them or make them nervous or scared,” she said, adding that she’d never experienced anything like this before in the decades she’s lived in New York City.
When she got home, she told her husband, who later notified local elected officials. She said because she didn’t feel she had been physically hurt, she decided not to call the police.
An analysis of harassment incidents that NYPD did record shows that older Asian New Yorkers became more vulnerable to harassment during the pandemic. Compared with the previous year, Asian victims between the age of 18 and 44 saw a decrease in reported harassment. That trend was reversed when the victims were older.
Even when victims do report incidents and a suspect is arrested, many decline to sign a form declaring they would like prosecution to proceed.
Attorneys said victims often cite the same reasons that others use to not report violence in the first place. Among them: language barriers, distrust of authorities, lengthy interviews involved in filing a report, skepticism over whether there will be consequences, fear of retribution, concern about immigration status and the desire to shield others from their pain.
“They don’t think anything will be done if it’s harassment or a comment,” Niou said. “These things just happen really quickly. It’s hard to report something when you have no recording of it, no picture of it and it just sits there in your mind and heart.”
Ki said she felt “only the shame.” Now, she said she remains “always alert.” She fears she might encounter the person again.
Local nonprofits, already working to get food and health care to Asian New Yorkers during the pandemic, have also been responding to rising fears of violence and harassment with measures such as bystander training and education on reporting incidents.
Leaders say the burden is falling on Asian groups and victims.
“It has to be a community-wide effort. It can’t just be us,” said Linda Lee, president and CEO of Korean Community Services.
New York’s new state budget earmarks $13 million in emergency funding for Asian American community-based organizations and improving data collection by the state Department of Health. The Asian American Federation hopes to deploy safety ambassadors, establish neighborhood safe zones, develop an app to report incidents, and provide mental health and victim support services in multiple languages.
Founders of Flushing’s Main Street Patrol and Manhattan’s Protect Chinatown said they were spurred to act by growing fears that their loved ones could be next.
“It’s insane an effort like ours has to even emerge,” said Protect Chinatown’s Ricky Yang, 27, who grew up in the neighborhood. “It doesn’t look like it’s ending. We wanted to reassure people in our community you can still live life.”
Both groups said they’re hoping to work alongside law enforcement by de-escalating tense situations and reporting violence when they see it.
Main Street Patrol’s Teresa Ting, 29, said older people in the community have been “thankful we’re being their eyes, their ears and their mouths because a lot of them have a language barrier.”
The civilian patrols have to avoid risks, including that patrollers can become targets themselves or engage in racial profiling.
Wong said that there is no time to wait for help to prevent future incidents.
“The discrimination, the harassment that the Asian Americans are facing are not only these visible beatings and killings,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ve been heard in the way in which we need to. The job now is to prevent other people from being hurt.”