“It’s just odd to me that all these attacks are happening all at once,” Hong said.
Asian American women face a distinct threat
In August 2020, Hong was standing in line at a Los Angeles restaurant when she says a man handed her a business card and asked her to have lunch with him. When she politely declined, she said he snatched his card back and yelled at her to “go back to f**king Asia.” He proceeded to hurl profane and derogatory insults at her for the next several minutes. Effectively backed into a corner, Hong felt there was little she could do besides film the encounter while she waited for police to arrive.
“I honestly was preparing for the worst case scenario,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I walk out of this restaurant, what if he follows me? What if I get raped? What if I get murdered? What if he assaults me?'”
She recalls how, early on in the pandemic, a man chased her down her neighborhood while she was on a walk with her young daughter. “Go back home with your China virus,” she remembers him yelling.
But while the pandemic might have heightened the violence and harassment Asian American women face, the underlying issue has always been there, according to Choimorrow.
“(There are) all sorts of crazy assumptions people make about how Asian women are docile and submissive and don’t stand up for ourselves or think for ourselves,” she said. “I think that makes us very easy targets.”
The scope of violence is hard to capture
It’s difficult to disentangle the racialized misogyny that Asian American women in particular face from the racism that has intensified for Asian Americans overall since the pandemic began. But two years later, Asian American women are still reporting incidents of violence and harassment.
“That was just the sparkplug that ignited so much of this hatred,” said Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, referring to the pandemic. “What’s kept it sustained is deep-seated racism and gender violence and misogyny.”
Capturing the true extent of violence and harassment against Asian American women, however, has been complicated.
“It’s notable that women are reporting (more hate incidents than men),” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “And we also have very detailed stories about what is happening to them.”
When police arrived at the restaurant where Hong had been harassed, she said an officer told her encounters like the one she experienced happen all the time. She said they informed her the incident wasn’t a crime, so nothing could be done.
Hong’s experience underscored how law enforcement can be ill-equipped to respond to incidents that might not rise to the level of an arrest or prosecution. When officers dismiss such reports instead of recording them as hate incidents, victims might be less likely to turn to the police in the future, said Joe.
Hong struggled with whether to go public about the harassment. Part of her wanted to forget the whole thing. But reports of anti-Asian racism seemed to be rising, so she posted the footage to social media to raise awareness.
Soon after she gave a local TV interview, Hong said another woman came forward saying she had a similar encounter with the same man. Several other victims followed with their own stories, LAPD Detective Orlando Martinez confirmed to CNN. And in the meantime, Hong said the police department reached out to apologize and document her experience as a hate incident.
The attacks lack a clear pattern
Recent attacks on Asian American women have raised some big questions: What factors led to the violence and how could they have been prevented?
Answering those questions, though, has been challenging because there isn’t an obvious pattern to the attacks, beyond the race and gender of the victims. Some lack a clear motive.
Neither of the suspects were reported to have used racial epithets, nor did they appear to have documented histories of anti-Asian bias. In the absence of such indicators, the conversation turned to the backgrounds of the suspects.
Other conversations have focused on better mental health and housing services as a solution to preventing violent attacks. But mental health specialists and racial justice advocates have challenged the notion that homeless people with mental illnesses were a significant contributor to homicides and violent crime more generally — and violence and harassment against Asian American women more specifically.
“There are so many additional cases where folks are not homeless. They’re not mentally ill,” Joe, of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, said. “There are unfortunately, many, many people who are committing these hate crimes and hate incidents, and they have none of those barriers.”
Still, many Asian American women feel unsafe going about their daily lives. And they’re calling on their leaders to take action.
Leaders are taking different approaches
“When I’m asked, ‘What do we need to do to address safety for Asian Americans?’ I tell them we need to have affordable health care, including mental health care for everybody. People need to be paid living wages, and no one should be homeless,” Choimorrow said. “We need to start thinking about finding solutions in much, much bigger, comprehensive ways than we’ve ever done because it’s really coming to that crisis point.”
Across the country, leaders and advocacy groups are trying different approaches.
The city acknowledged in the plan that “homelessness and violence do not equate and must not be conflated.” But it stressed that immediate interventions were necessary to support “a small minority of individuals who may be experiencing several compounding challenges at once.” The proposal also called for state and federal funding for more beds and shelters with on-site mental health treatment.
Ben Wei, founder of the advocacy group Asians Fighting Injustice, said his organization asked Adams’ administration to take this action. He views it as a step in the right direction, but adds that criminalizing homelessness and “throwing police at the problem” is not the answer.
In Georgia, where community members this week will mark the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings, advocates are calling for policies that address community needs, including language access in immigration services and access to the ballot box.
“We still see those as battles that we need to fight, that ultimately help create public safety and that will ultimately help to mitigate the conditions that lead to instances of interpersonal violence, including the spa shootings,” said Phi Nguyen, executive director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.
In California, advocates and elected officials are focusing on street harassment.
The initiatives aren’t a panacea, Choi said. But because the majority of hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate involve harassment in public spaces, she feels they could make a significant dent in the problem.
Hong, for her part, recognizes that addressing the complex factors driving anti-Asian violence and harassment will require a combination of efforts. But she’s doing what she can to equip vulnerable people with tools to keep themselves safe. Along with two friends, she started the organization Seniors Fight Back, which offers self-defense training to elders in the Los Angeles community. She’s also using her voice to advocate for victims of hate incidents and help connect them to resources.
But the anti-Asian racism and attacks of the last two years have affected her deeply — the threat of violence feels like it’s always looming. She says she always has pepper spray on her, and walks with her keys between her fingers.
And she’s looking over her shoulder, just in case.