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Asian American residents of New York City feel we're alone in protecting ourselves

So many Asian voices are screaming into the Twitter void, but it's unclear whether people are listening.

It’s happened again. This time in Yonkers, just north of New York City. A man punches a 67-year-old woman 125 times. She is also stomped on, spit on and called an “Asian b----.” It is a horrific scene. The woman suffers multiple injuries, including facial bone fractures, lacerations to the head and face and bleeding in her brain.

Even the most mundane of conversations, about the weather or work, will include some detail these days related to the violence — like how a friend is learning kickboxing or has bought a pocketknife.

My social media feed lights up: rage, confusion, despair. But when the headlines appear or when the videos unfurl on TikTok, I feel mostly fear. I have lived in New York City off and on since 1999. And for the first time, I don’t feel safe here. Of course, as a woman, I have a different baseline for what “safety” entails, as the fear of violence often simmers below the surface. But this is different. I’m afraid of my city. After Christina Yuna Lee, 35, was stabbed to death in her Lower Manhattan apartment in February, allegedly by a man who followed her into her building, I avoided Manhattan for a month.

Wednesday is the anniversary of the Atlanta-area shooting spree that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. It feels like little has changed. Last month, a 62-year-old Asian woman who was attacked in New York by a man with a rock died after having spent about 10 weeks in a coma. The month before that, Michelle Go, who had just turned 40, was fatally shoved in front of a New York subway car.

I now wait for the subway at the top of the stairs. When I walk with my son, I remind myself that even the mothers of young children aren’t spared. A year ago, a woman was spit on three times and called “Chinese virus” while out with her baby in Queens. The babies are getting attacked, too. Last week in another part of Queens, a stranger assaulted a toddler and flipped her stroller over. The child fell onto the pavement and cut her head.

After each incident, I receive text messages that simply ask: “Are you OK?” Context isn’t needed; I know the question is about the latest attack. Even the most mundane of conversations, about the weather or work, will include some detail these days related to the violence — like how a friend is learning kickboxing or has bought a pocketknife or refuses to take the subway. This is how we talk now.

Of course, violence against Asians isn’t new. To believe this is a recent, unique phenomenon is part of the problem. Yes, a former president made xenophobic remarks blaming a virus on Asian people, but it is the country’s history of systemic racism and misogyny that allowed that rhetoric to ignite a yearslong fog of terror for Asian Americans, particularly women. I’ve long had racist and misogynist insults hurled at me in New York. Once, in the early 2000s, my friend was attacked on the subway by a group of men as they shouted anti-Asian slurs. I covered my friend with my arm, then sat on him to serve as a shield. Seconds later, the group dispersed. As the chaos evaporated, I noticed that several other people had been sitting near us the entire time. None of them had helped.

Looking back, the experience speaks to the fears I see on social media about this moment: Asians are on their own. It is a historical anxiety for Asian people in this country, who are often left out of the national discourse, media attention and polling, even when our lives are threatened. So many Asian voices are screaming into the Twitter void, but it is unclear whether people are listening.

Which is why this week in Chinatown, a line for pepper spray stretched around the block. Similar scenes for whistles and personal alarms were caught in Queens a year ago. Some of my friends have waited in these lines. Other friends of mine are purchasing guns, a development that leaves me just as queasy as imagining a grandmother protected only by a whistle. For now, the only protective measures I’ve taken are to remove my headphones and look over my shoulder more often than I did before.

The day after the Georgia shooting spree, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat running for secretary of state, noted on the floor of the General Assembly that some Asian Americans have been taught “to keep our heads down because our parents believed it was safer.” Yet the violence has exposed what a failure that strategy is in these times.

A year ago, President Joe Biden called the shooting spree wrong and un-American: “It must stop.” But It hasn’t stopped. For certain, the attacks and shootings spurred a movement. At the federal level, the president signed an anti-Asian hate crimes bill into law last May. For some, this signaled progress, while others believed the focus on policing and punishment would only harm communities of color. But either way, as with all complicated, deeply ingrained social problems, the solution requires a holistic approach, as well as radical imagination, to confronting crime. That includes education and measures to address mental illness and homelessness.

On the anniversary when we remember the Georgia victims and survivors, rallies throughout the country are calling to “Break the Silence.” We can’t allow this moment to once again fade like yesterday’s news.