An Asian-American teen was attacked in Bensonhurst. She says the cops never came

asian with mother
Sixteen-year-old Vanessa Chen (left) stands with her mother, Fiona Lam (right), following a March 14 attack she believes was racially motivated.
Photo by Arthur de Gaeta

By Rose Adams

A man spit on and shoved an Asian-American teenager in Bensonhurst in mid-March, prompting her to call the police. But according to the victim and an eyewitness, the cops never arrived.

“We called 911. An hour went by, and the cops didn’t show up,” said Gina LaDelia, who witnessed the March 14 attack. “I happened to see cops just driving by. We flagged them down, and she filed a report.” 

Vanessa Chen, 16, said she was walking near the corner of 18th Avenue and 68th Street sometime that afternoon when she bumped into the mask-less assailant, who yelled at her and spat in her face. 

The middle-aged man then grabbed her neck and shoved her into the street, Chen said at a March 29 rally about the incident. 

“As I was walking away, he pushed me from behind using his arm on my neck,” she said. “I do believe he was aiming for me to fall in the street, where there were cars.” 

LaDelia was passing by when she saw the attack, she said.

“I was walking with my seven-year-old, and we were crossing the street, and I happened to see a guy up in the young girl’s face,” she said during the rally held by local state Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Councilman Justin Brannan. “They exchanged words, and he literally spit in her face, a lot.”

Chen said she believes the attack was racially motivated.

“I believe I was targeted because I’m Asian-American, because I’m an easy target as a minor, someone who can’t really defend herself,” she said. “I’m scared to think that the cops never arrived, I’m scared to think that the guy got away, and I’m scared to think that someone else may get hurt by him.”

A police spokesperson contended that cops responded to the scene after Chen called 911, and that they filed a report for harassment. The attacker, whom Chen described as a Latino man in his 40s, has not been arrested, according to the spokesman. The rep said there “is no indication at this time that this is a hate crime.”

An uphill battle

Unfortunately for victims, charging an attack as a hate crime is no easy task. Prosecutors must use hard evidence to prove that a crime was racially motivated, either by pointing to racist symbols worn by the attacker or to racist language and slurs used during the attack. Because expressions of racially-motived violence are often less overt — and because victims don’t always come forward — many hate crimes go unreported.

Still, New York City has seen a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic larger than any other city in the country. In 2019, only three anti-Asian hate crimes were reported in the Five Boroughs, compared to the 28 reported in 2020. As of March 29, five anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City have been reported this year. 

Southern Brooklyn, which is home to a large Asian-American community, has seen its fair share of anti-Asian hate. Last week, a man spat on an elderly woman named Maureen Ki while she was walking to a senior center near the corner of 18th Avenue and 68th Street, she said at the March 29 press conference. That same week, cops cuffed a homeless man in Gravesend for allegedly assaulting and shouting a racial slur at a 62-year-old man who was reportedly trying to stop the assailant from bothering an elderly couple. 

The vicious attacks date back to last summer, when two teenagers set an 89-year-old Asian woman on fire on 77th Street and 16th Avenue on July 13. The attack spurred a large group of protesters to demonstrate outside the 62nd Precinct after the local officers declined to categorize the attack as a hate crime, since there were no obvious markers of prejudice. Following the outcry, the NYPD formed an Anti-Asian Task Force that investigated the incident and arrested two 13-year-olds for the crime. 

More recently, southern Brooklynites fought back against the rise in anti-Asian hate during a March 21 rally in response to the Atlanta shootings that killed six Asian-American women on March 16. There, locals spoke about the racism they’ve faced since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“Just two months ago, a bunch of kids walked by laughing at me, saying, ‘Go back to China,’” said Dr. Tim Law, the founder of the Chinese-American Social Services Center in Bensonhurst. “It’s very unfair to us … I have been living in the neighborhood for 50 years. My son’s a doctor helping patients. We are contributing to the country.”

Dr. Law told rally-goers that to fight this increase in hate, locals must “come together to fight back” — a call Chen echoed during her March 29 remarks. Other than LaDelia, no other bystanders stood up for her, she said.

“It was wonderful for someone who had the power to assist actually assisting. Because there were other people around and they sort of just didn’t care,” said Chen. “They allowed the assault to happen. Because if you are witness and you allow things to happen, you are also an accomplice in that assault.”

This article first appeared on our sister site, www.brooklynpaper.com

Additional reporting by Arthur de Gaeta