On a chilly Friday evening, the everyday bustle of Union Square dissipated, and all attention funneled toward a podium on the north side of the park, just off the steps on 18th Street. Hundreds gathered along with local and international press to hear religious leaders, artists, activists, community leaders, and politicians speak out against anti-Asian racism.
“Make yourself be heard,” Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of Asian American Federation, told the crowd. “Six of our sisters were murdered on Tuesday. Whether their murders are classified as hate crimes or not, our communities know hate.”
The event was organized by the Asian American Federation, a nonprofit that advocates for Asian American and Pacific Islanders, in response to the mass shooting that took place in Atlanta earlier this week. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York State Senator John Liu, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams were among the many attendees who used the moment to denounce racism and show their support for Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
“This Asian American community is the best of America,” Senator Schumer said. “Unfortunately, over the last four years, we have had a president who too many people when they listen to him thought bigotry was okay, even violence was okay.”
Friday’s gathering comes as the national dialogue surrounding anti-Asian racism has increased in the past year. The recent shootings have also brought the issue back into the spotlight. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta Friday to draw attention to the issue and advocacy groups around the country have hosted digital discussions to address the problem.
A research and reporting group advocating for the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community called Stop AAPI Hate found 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian since March last year. Women report incidents twice as often as men, according to the report. The latest incident has yet to be classified as an Anti-Asian crime by authorities and leaders and advocates are not happy about it.
“There’s a question as to whether this is a hate crime?” said State Senator Liu. “That is absolutely outrageous. This is the kind of thing that continues the violence and attacks against Asian Americans all across this country.”
The vigil began with words from Pastor Charles Ryu from Morningside United Methodist Church. “We call upon God to help the perpetrator of this heinous crime, to acknowledge his sin, and repent,” he said, “So that even he could receive the grace of reform, become a new creature and no longer under the bondage of sins of hatred, racism, misogyny, white supremacy, and cowardice of gun violence, may he repent.”
Not every speaker received a warm welcome. When Mayor Bill de Blasio approached the podium, he was met with criticism and shouting from the crowd. In his speech, he voiced his solidarity with Asian Americans and urged victims of hate crimes to report them to the police. “We must confront it,” de Blasio said. “The City of New York stands as one with all Asian Americans here in New York City and around the country, but we need people to come forward who have been victimized and attacked.”
Additionally, the event featured poetry, singing, and traditional Korean drumming. Several audience members also shared their stories about being harassed and discriminated against.
Jayne Ng, a New York City resident who attended the rally, said it resonated with her experiences of the past year being harassed on the subway and on the street. Ng said she has had to rethink her safety when going about her daily life. “Recently, Asian women are definitely a target,” she said. “I’m definitely concerned, a little more wary of going outside now. It doesn’t make any sense.”
In an interview with NY City Lens, Jo-ann Yoo, the executive director of Asian American Federation, said more people turned out than she expected. She also explained that she had a feeling a violent event like the one in Atlanta was brewing. But Yoo says she will not accept anti-Asian racism in silence and vows that she will continue to speak out.
“I am not going to wait around for the next shoe to drop,” she said. “As advocates, we’re not going to take this shit laying down.”