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'Nowhere is safe': Asian women reflect on brutal New York City killings

Asian women who live in New York City say they’re standing back from the subway edge and walking home with pepper spray in their hands after the killings of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee.
Photo illustration of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee, who were both killed in New York City.
Michelle Go (left) and Christina Yuna Lee (right) were both killed in violent attacks in New York City.NBC News; Getty Images

Two brutal killings in the span of less than a month have left Asian American women in New York City on edge. And in metropolitan areas around the country, they say there’s constant reason to be looking over their shoulder. 

“I don’t feel like anywhere is safe for me,” said YouMe Lin, 27, a Chinese American woman who has lived in New York City for over six years. “I feel very suffocated.”

Around 4 a.m. Sunday, 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee was found dead in her bathroom stabbed 40 times after a man, Assamad Nash, allegedly silently followed her up six flights of stairs into her lower Manhattan apartment. When police arrived on the scene, they heard Lee’s screams, but by the time they broke down her steel door, it was too late. Nash was found hiding under her bed, police said. 

Her death follows the Jan. 15 killing of Michelle Go, 40, who was pushed in front of an oncoming train at the Times Square subway station. At a vigil held to commemorate her, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said, “I’m recommitted to ensure that this will not happen in our city.”

Several women who live in the city told NBC Asian America that statements like that have felt increasingly hollow. With Lee’s death in her own home, they say their safe spaces around New York are rapidly disappearing.

"It's never been to this point where, 'Hey, I might get pushed in front of a train.'"

A New York City commuter said

Authorities are investigating if Lee was the target of a crime due to racial animus or belief. Go’s attacker was not charged with a hate crime. But for women who say the incidents deeply impacted them, the labels don’t make much of a difference.

“The sense of panic wasn’t quite as present,” said Audrey Lew, 28, who commutes to the city for work. “People may be creepy and try to talk to you, but it’s never escalated past that. It’s never been to this point where, ‘Hey, I might get pushed in front of a train.’” 

'All of a sudden, there's interest'

Impacts of violence and racism are disproportionately felt by women in targeted groups, said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and the brutality endured by Asian Americans long predates the pandemic. But with footage of attacks circulating over the last two years, hate against Asians has become viral. 

“When the pandemic-related violence against particularly East Asians started happening, people were talking about it as if it’s the first time we’re experiencing this,” she said. “Now people are paying attention. Now they want to know. All of a sudden, there’s interest.” 

The Atlanta spa shootings brought to the forefront the intersection at which Asian women have always existed in this country, she said. In the crosshairs of hypersexualization and racism, they face more aggression but are believed less. Out of the 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and March 2021, 68 percent were by women

“There is a big difference between how white women are treated versus how people of color are, even in terms of believing our stories,” Choimorrow said. “Because we are invisibilized and not paid attention to, we are easier victims. Especially Indigenous and Black women. Because perpetrators feel like, 'Oh no, one’s going to care.' The way we move and navigate safety is different than how white women have to.”

Choimorrow herself has had rocks thrown at her while on runs near her Chicago home, and she says bystanders have often watched as attackers yelled racial slurs. 

“You see some of these attacks, there are people around,” she said. “People just stand there and watch what’s happening. It’s this sense of, ‘Wow, we really are alone.’” 

Chung Seto, 57, has lived in New York City's Chinatown for more than 40 years. The local organizer says that for decades, she’s been struck by how the national and local governments have deprioritized Asian Americans.

“Our community has long been neglected,” she said. “Chinatown didn’t get the financial help after 9/11, Sandy and even during this pandemic when our businesses were shut down long before others did in the city. Couple this feeling of abandonment with the recent killings and you get an enraged community.”

A renewed anxiety

Asian women and femme-presenting individuals say the fear they’ve started to experience after the attacks on Lee and Go is a familiar one. It’s one that they’ve carried around since childhood when their parents would warn them to stay inside after dark and never walk home alone. 

“When you’re raised as a woman, you never have a good relationship with safety anywhere you live,” said Mars Nevada, a Filipino American who lives in the city. “Safety is something that’s never promised to you.” 

Nevada, who uses they/them pronouns, moved to the city from Nebraska in December 2021, when hate incidents had already become a common feature of city life. 

“You see yourself in these other women and you’re like, ‘God, it could be me,’” they said. 

As someone who takes public transit, Nevada said Go’s death instilled a deep fear in them. They say they’re hyperaware now when getting onto public transit, often making the extra effort to stand far from the platform edge.

“The other day, I got off at a train stop and my friend was with me. He was like, ‘This was the exact stop that Michelle Go was murdered on.’ I was like, ‘Why would you say that?’ and I made us stand near the stairs and hold onto the rails,” they said. 

Similar caution is reflected in the everyday lives of women of color across the city and the country. It’s a vigilance so constant that it’s tantamount to anxiety, Choimorrow said. 

“I used to carry pepper spray in my bag, now it’s in my hand while I walk the city streets to Penn Station,” said Glo Lindenmuth, 29, who is Filipina and white. “I traded up to heavy boots, not just for the weather, but another safety measure, and I frequently [FaceTime] friends or call my boyfriend if I walk at night.”

"Both women did everything right according to society. Christina took a cab home and Michelle was with friends. It feels hopeless."

A New York City resident said

But for many, even those measures don’t feel like enough. The arbitrary and sudden nature of the killings of Lee and Go make others wonder if safety devices, security alarms or car rides home would prevent an outburst directed at them. 

“Both women did everything right according to society,” Lew said. “Christina took a cab home and Michelle was with friends. It feels hopeless. It doesn’t matter what we do or what kind of weapons we have, this could happen to us anyway.” 

'Police aren't the solution'

Though the pain of the community might be biting and immediate, Choimorrow says short-term solutions like more cops on the streets aren’t the answer. She knows this because the past year has been a case study for the promises of elected officials, she said. 

“Whatever they’re doing, it’s not working,” she said. “When we started seeing all this increasing violence against Asian Americans, all these mayors came out and promised additional police presence in our communities. Many of us said that’s not the solution. They still went ahead and did it, and more than a year later, we’re right, it’s not the solution. It hasn’t curbed the violence in any way.”

She describes putting more cops in neighborhoods and subway stations to be a “whack-a-mole” approach that doesn’t address the root causes of violence for women or any communities of color. Despite promises by officials in 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes still increased by 361 percent in 2021. 

Elected officials don’t have the incentive to bring about systemic change because it’s not something they can put their name on, she said.

When asked to respond to claims of their ineffectiveness, an New York City Police Department spokesperson sent NBC Asian America the name of the man arrested in connection with Lee’s death.

“The police aren’t effective in keeping us safe. They’ve never done a good job of preventing crime of any sort,” Choimorrow said. “You need to address the broken systemic issues in our country around mental health, around economic gaps, around racial justice.”

While viral images and videos create a narrative that it’s Black individuals harassing and harming Asian women, looking at that media in a vacuum is misleading, experts say. Data from Stop AAPI Hate reveals most hate incidents reported by Asian Americans during the pandemic were perpetrated by white people. And experts like Choimorrow say it’s largely a result of racist messaging and slurs spread by elected officials and those in power, like former President Donald Trump and those who capitalize on anti-Asian fear-mongering. 

Attacks on Asian women reveal deeply-rooted race and gender biases that exist beyond an individual level, Choimorrow said, and addressing these biases along with the crises facing the mentally ill and homelessness isn’t mutually exclusive.  

“Even the way media covers it,” Choimorrow said. “Let’s dig into the past of the perpetrator. ‘Oh, he had mental illnesses, he had misdemeanors.’ It’s like finding a way to rationalize why that person did what they did, instead of looking at the system and saying, ‘What the hell is wrong with this city or this country that Asian American women are scared to leave their homes?’”