By Gabriele Holtermann
Hundreds of New Yorkers filled Columbus Park in Chinatown on March 21, protesting the wave of anti-Asian American hate crimes within the past year and the tragic event on Tuesday, when eight people, including six Asian women, were shot and killed by a 21-year-old white gunman in Atlanta, Georgia.
Senator Chuck Schumer opened the rally by holding two moments of silence. One moment of silence for the eight victims killed — another moment of silence for the Asian American victims of violence and bigotry in the past year.
He called out former President Trump for not speaking out against hate but encouraging racism in many ways. The Senate Majority Leader encouraged everyone to speak up when they witness discrimination.
“I will join you every moment as long as God gives me breath in my lungs, we can speak out to fight against anti-Asian hate. We will not tolerate it any longer. Keep up the fight. You are the best of America, and the haters don’t even belong in America,” Schumer said.
MC Jin, the first Asian American solo rapper to be signed to a major record label, admitted that the past year has been emotionally exhausting. He urged everyone to use their social media platforms to share their stories and feelings, no matter the size of their followers. But Jin also warned that they would encounter resistance from those who do not want to hear the truth, and he encouraged his Asian brothers and sisters to stand proud.
“Not everybody out there that you engage with wants to have a civil discourse. Not everybody wants to have their mind opened. There are people right now at this very moment, just to further divide because they see we are coming together,” Jin said before performing one of his songs, “Learn Chinese,” which starts with the words “Yeah, I’m Chinese and what!”
Jack Liang, the founding organizer of the event, felt compelled to make the voice of the Asian American community heard and jumped into action planning today’s rally. He secured Columbus Park hoping to raise awareness of the racist attacks on his community and spread an uplifting and empowering message.
“Today, we celebrate what our future could look like when we stand united. New York City, we are golden! And we are worthy, worthy of love, worthy to feel safe in our own skin, worthy of protection, worthy of recognition,” Liang passionately pleaded.
His co-organizer Ben Wei reminded the crowd that discrimination was nothing new to the Asian American community and pointed to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and the brutal murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 in Detroit.
Wei also demanded to label the mass shooting in Atlanta as a hate crime. Drawing cheers and applause from the crowd, he said, “There was no coincidence that six out of the eight victims were Asian. And to pretend that it wasn’t is gaslighting. We are here to say to all the deniers out there; we will not let you steal our voice.”
Wei then introduced NY State Senator John Liu from Queens, joking that his parents hoped that one day he would be as successful as Liu, who served as the first Asian American on the New York City Council.
Liu began his speech telling the crowd that more than a year ago, before the statewide COVID-19 shutdown, Chinatown had already experienced its unofficial closure because people stopped visiting the lower part of Manhattan, out of fear they would catch the Coronavirus.
“Now, a year into the pandemic, the Asian American community has seen one hate incident after another,” the State Senator said, listing a number of crimes that range from spraying members of the AAPI community with disinfectant, vandalizing Asian homes, and boycotting restaurants and businesses.
“We’ve seen this so many times in our country. When something goes wrong, they’re going to scapegoat somebody, and who gets scapegoated? We do!” Liu proclaimed and added, “Some people call insensitivity. I call it hate. I’m Asian. And I’ve been Asian my whole life. It’s not insensitivity. When somebody is doing this to you, you know, you know how it feels inside. I know hate when I see it.”
Performer & educator Alice Tsui, a teacher at an elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, called for action to change the current education system that acknowledges and teaches Asian American history and arts beyond Lunar New Year. She also demanded a space for AAPI educators and children to process their experience with racism and heal from it.
“To my fellow Asian American educators, take up space. True equity work does not exist in the black and white binary. And to all educators, we must work towards the collective liberation of all black, brown, indigenous, and Asian people and visually minoritized people,” Tsui pleaded.
Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang appeared on stage with his wife Evelyn, who talked about the time they spent in Atlanta, Georgia, getting out the vote for the two U.S. Senate races. For Evelyn Yang, the mass murder in Atlanta hit home, not only because they spent a lot of time with the Asian American community in Atlanta but also because she recently became the victim of racial bias. She reported that a woman told her to stay away from her because she didn’t want “any of her disease.”
“Now, some people who hear this might think, well, that’s not so bad. But as we know, when you cast people as dirty or disease-ridden, that’s the first step to making them out to be subhuman,” the former L’Oreal executive explained, going on to say that this kind of frame of mind caused Robert Long, the Atlanta shooter, to regard Asian women nothing more than sexual objects.
“Our struggle matters. The Asian American experience has to be part of the conversation. Our struggles have to be part of the conversation. We need to be at the table. And yes, we deserve to lead the table,” Evelyn Yang said before introducing her husband, Andrew Yang.
Yang, a former Democratic candidate for president, was greeted with loud cheers from the crowd. However, he also drew jeers from the anti-police fringe when he called for more funding for the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crimes Task Force.
He expressed that the staggering racism against Asian Americans was a precursor for the heinous event that unfolded in Atlanta on Tuesday, which was deeply personal to him since he had spent weeks there last year.
“It has been staggering to see the racism against our community morph and metastasize into something dark and virulent, and increasingly dangerous,” Yang said.
The entrepreneur announced that the first two items on his agenda as the next mayor of New York City are to fully fund the Asian Hate Crimes Task Force and the NYPD and label a hate crime a hate crime. His announcement was greeted with mixed emotions from the crowd. Some applauded while others chanted, “Defund the Police.”
But he explained, ” This is not an issue that you can have volunteers addressing if crime against a community goes up 900%. You don’t say, oh well, let volunteers take care of that. You dedicate resources until that problem feels like it is going down, not up.”
Addressing the anti-police crowd, Yang underlined, “I know there are people that are very passionate about this, but the fact is when someone gets stabbed, you need the police to follow up. That person should not be on the streets.”
Before leaving the stage, Andrew Yang asked every New Yorker to commit to looking out for each other and say something if they witnessed a bias attack.
“If something is happening in our vicinity that we can do something about, we’re going to damn well do something about it. Am I right in New York? So let’s help each other. Let’s care about each other. And let’s rebuild our community, which will include everybody together.”
Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, the first Asian American woman elected to the NY State Assembly, shared what she felt when she saw the photos of the women killed in Tuesday’s massacre.
“They look like me. They look like my aunties. They look like my mom. They look like the people we see every single day. And, and that’s what’s important. That’s why it’s important to make sure that we give their existence room,” she tearfully said.