Inside the growing movement to fight anti-Asian racism in New York and beyond

Group of people carrying a "unite against hate" banner at the anti-Asian racism protests in New York
All photos by the author
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Marching up 6th Avenue, also known as Avenue of the Americas, during an afternoon protest on Saturday, I experienced a collapse of time. Last summer, in sandals and shorts, sweaty behind my face mask, I walked uptown, downtown, crosstown, across the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, shouting “Black Lives Matter” into the cacophony of traffic and cars honking in both support and anger at the critical mass of bodies flooding the streets.

Now it is winter. I am tromping through snow in heavy boots, a down coat, still marching for justice. But this time I was protesting not in solidarity with other oppressed communities of color, but to protest violence committed against my own community.

Photo by the author

Beginning in Washington Square Park and ending three miles away in Columbus Circle, Saturday’s emergency rally and march was organized by five activists — Rohan Zhou-Lee, Jessica Tsui, Kalani Van Meter, Francely Flores, and Megan Watson — to address the alarming rise of violence and attacks against Asians in the wake of racist sentiment during Covid-19. Flyers that read “Justice for Vicha Ratanapakdee,” an 84-year-old grandfather killed by an attacker in San Francisco, and “Justice for Christian Hall,” a 19-year-old killed by Pennsylvania State Police, circulated online in the days preceding the rally. With signs stating “Pick on Someone Your Own Age” and “United Against Hate” and a diverse crowd of several hundred Asian Americans and allies chanting “Asian lives matter!”, the chilly, urgently organized event was a powerful expression of intersectional solidarity against racism at a critical moment in a national crisis.

“Anti-Asian sentiments did not start at the beginning of the pandemic. But it did heighten to threatening measures with politicians that uphold white supremacy openly or express their anti-Asian sentiment by calling it the ‘Chinese Virus’ and blaming it on the Chinese," East Asian student activist Jessica Tsui said to the crowd of protesters huddled around the Washington Arch. “A lot of this gave the green light to harass the Chinese,” she said.

If narrative is part of the problem, we as a society, as a unified community, have the responsibility and power to write our own narratives.

The reports over the past year are horrifying: Asian teens, elders, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and women have been burned, attacked at the stores they own or on the streets where they live, slashed across the face while riding the subway, shot dead by police. In response, local groups have mobilized to raise funds to support victims. On Capitol Hill, President Biden signed a memorandum condemning racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and lawmakers are pushing for the No Hate Act, a bill that would provide additional local government funding for tracking hate incidents. And on TikTok, users have hashtagged #StopAsianHate to the effect of over 74 million views.

Increased consciousness is a start, but more urgent work needs to be done. Stop AAPI Hate, a center documenting anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, received 2,808 firsthand accounts of such incidents across 47 states this past year. Violence against Asian Americans in New York has skyrocketed 1900 percent in the past year, no doubt fueled by scapegoating and racist rhetoric perpetuated by the former president, who branded the virus the “Kung Flu” in an attempt to gaslight the nation and deflect responsibility for his grievous mishandling of a global pandemic that has left America holding the trophy for the highest death toll in the world.

Language shapes ideas. Narratives form rhetoric. What we say matters. And the stories that are told create our political consciousness. Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen describes the Asian American as living in “an economy of narrative scarcity, in which we feel deprived and must fight against the stories that distort or erase us. Many Americans will take these Asian images — which are usually awful — and transfer them to any Asian-American they encounter.” The China Virus is one of these stories. If narrative is part of the problem, we as a society, as a unified community, have the responsibility and power to write our own narratives.

“I am in this space and I hope we’re all in this space to unlearn stigma that we were raised with,” Joel Rivera, an Afro-Caribbean trans activist and abolitionist, said at the rally. “One thing that is so beautiful about this Black Lives Matter movement is that it has opened the door to other forms of oppression. When we start acknowledging the most oppressed people in our society, we’re acknowledging all oppressed people.”

The overwhelming message of the rally that we have shown up for — in masks and heavy coats amid icy snowdrifts — is one of a united collective, an intersectional fight against racism and white supremacy. I saw signs that read: “We Are Not Your Scapegoat,” “LOVE OUR PEOPLE LIKE U LOVE OUR FOOD,” and “The ONLY way to survive is by taking care of one another," a quote from the prominent Asian American labor activist Grace Lee Boggs. A black-clad protester in front of me wore a button on their backpack that read, “Silence is complicity.” Organizers dispersed through the crowd chanted into megaphones: “Justice for Asian people” and “This is what Asian Power looks like!”

Rohan Zhou-Lee, one of the rally’s organizers, continued the message of solidarity, chanting: “Asian Power. Black Power. Asian Power. Black Power.” The crowd repeated the mantra, voices coalescing into an incantation. Embodying the mantra, Zhou-Lee is of Black and Asian descent. “Our histories are so erased, we don’t even know our own trauma,” they explained. “And because of that, this system taught us things like transphobia, homophobia, anti-Blackness, anti-Asianness.”

They continued, offering powerful stories that would begin to “undo the erasure”: how post-Katrina Black and Vietnamese communities came together to hold FEMA accountable, how Martin Luther King stood up for the Vietnamese people. “We have so much power when we come together,” they exhorted. “We can actually move this country, so why are we fighting? Why are we falling into these traps of anti-Blackness and anti-Asianness? Because we fell for that mistake already.”

Face-slashing, burning, chemical attacks — these are not assaults against people who are considered white.

The trauma of Black and Asian American histories in this country converged during the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. In the wake of the acquittals of Rodney King’s white LAPD attackers, lootings, shootings, arson, and assaults occurred in South Central Los Angeles. The victims and perpetrators were, predominately, both Black people and Asian Americans, pitted against each other in a race war whose ultimate catalyst was systemic white supremacy. From my home in Los Angeles when I was a child, I remember the double vision of watching news coverage of the riots on television and seeing the black haze of smoke hovering in the distance out the window — the horror of violence occurring both here and there.

The next speaker was Kalani Van Meter, an Asian and Native American student activist, who read a speech about erasure written by fellow student activist Kat Chen, who couldn’t attend in person: “When you tell me that I am white, which has happened recently, or experience the same privilege as that of a white person, you are erasing the racial experience not just of me but of everyone who came before me. We may be seen as assimilated, but we are not and have never been.”

Chen’s words recall the damaging myth of Asians as a model minority who benefit from our proximity to whiteness, or rather, the same honorary whiteness that has been bestowed upon, for example, Italian immigrants who were once seen as racialized pariahs. Yet go to Manhattan’s Chinatown, walk through the fish markets, see the Asian elders doing tai chi in slow motion at dawn, and Asian immigrants speaking local dialects crowded around tables in Columbus Park while the sound of erhus drift in the wind, and tell me we are assimilated. Or, just look at the hate crimes committed against Asians in this past year alone. Face-slashing, burning, chemical attacks — these are not assaults against people who are considered white.

But as Isaac Ortega, a current student at Harvard, said to the protesters, “We are not here to engage in oppression Olympics. We are here to express radical solidarity. Our antiracist work would not be truly antiracist if it was not informed by the experiences of Asian Americans. It is only in the power of our solidarity that we can bring about lasting change.”