A Year After the Atlanta Spa Shootings, Asians in America Are Facing a Different Kind of Abuse

Tanny Jiraprapasuke’s first encounter with pandemic-fueled racism happened just days after U.S. health officials had confirmed the novel coronavirus was in the country.

She was alone Asian-American passenger aboard a Los Angeles late-night train on February 1, 2020. A male rider then honed in and unleashed an expletive-laden 15-minute tirade blaming Chinese people.

Each time he used the phrase “China virus,” the man got angrier, says Jiraprapasuke, who is a Thai-American writer. He started to pace toward her, she said, waving his arms in her direction. She tried to establish eye contact with male passengers nearby to request help but they all turned away.
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“I really felt trapped in that moment,” says Jiraprapasuke, 46, who then started filming the man on her phone until he left the train.

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Jiraprapasuke was able to feel safe once again and had no clue what she should do. Do she need to call the police? The man didn’t physically harm her or threaten to hurt her, so what would she report? The man didn’t physically harm her or threaten to hurt her, so what would she report?

Nearly two years later, the victims of the Atlanta spa attack that killed six Asian women, thousands more Asian Americans are still being verbally harassed by others. Unlike the Atlanta spa shootings—which Fulton County prosecutors say should bring an enhanced sentence reserved for hate crimes, and which called attention to other physical attacks against Asians—verbal harassment remains harder to categorize. It is becoming more common, and affecting the way many people live their lives as they fear another encounter such as Jiraprapasuke’s.

According to Stop AAPI Hate’s updated statistics, more than 6800 instances of verbal harassment were reported against Asian Americans between March 2020 and December 2021. This is according to a report that was created in the wake of the pandemic. According to the organization, verbal harassment still accounts for the largest percentage of approximately 11,000 hate incidents reported in this time period. Yet most major cities don’t consider such nonviolent forms of discrimination a crime or have effective solutions in place to combat them.

Cynthia Shi embraces her boyfriend, Graham Bloomsmith, outside Gold Spa in Atlanta, one of three massage businesses where a gunman killed eight people, on March 18, 2021.
Chang W. Lee—The New York Times/ReduxCynthia Shi is seen with Graham Bloomsmith, her boyfriend outside Gold Spa, Atlanta. This was one of the three businesses that were attacked by a gunman on March 18th 2021.

‘It’s rude, but it’s not a crime’

In New York City—where most of the nation’s reported anti-Asian hate incidents have unfolded—verbal harassment based on identity is labeled a bias incident, and not a crime, when it does not involve a physical attack, a threat of an attack, or property damage, according to the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. Some bias incidents, according to the city’s Office for Prevention of Hate Crimes, may be protected under the U.S. Constitution’s freedom speech provisions. Similarly, in Seattle, which has seen increased attacks against Asians, verbal harassment is not punishable under the city’s hate and bias crime laws unless it puts the victim in a reasonable fear of harm to themselves or their property, the Seattle Police Department says. Where Jiraprapasuke lives in California, name-calling, insults and other forms of verbal harassment motivated by hate cannot be prosecuted if they do not interfere with the civil rights of others, according to the state’s Attorney General’s office.

“Expressing that you don’t like somebody and calling them a racial epithet is not against the law,” says Frank Pezzella, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “It’s rude, but it’s not a crime.”

Jiraprapasuke and others like her are left to endure the vitriolic abuse. “It dehumanizes us in a way that becomes really dangerous,” says Jiraprapasuke, who didn’t call 911 because she says it wasn’t an emergency by the time the man had left the train. However, Jirapasuke called 211 for community services to confirm that the incident had occurred a month later.

“I didn’t feel any better,” she says. “We’re really on our own.”

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COVID-19 is unfairly blamed, but Asian Americans have been subject to sustained racism over the last two decades. Stop AAPI Hate said that 57% of the hate incidents were reported by 2021 and nearly half occurred in public areas. “Our communities are continuing to experience hate,” says Manjusha Kulkarni, one of Stop AAPI Hate’s co-founders. “Unfortunately, there’s been no decrease or dissipation in that.”

According to the group, 62% (or nearly) of all incidents were recorded by women. Spa shootings of March 16th 2021 revealed the misogyny. Recent high-profile murders and assaults continue to put women at risk a year later. A man was arrested in March for allegedly attacking at least seven Asian-American women within a span of two hours in Manhattan. On March 11, another man was charged with hate crime and attempted killing after being accused of punching a Yonkers woman, 67 years old.

One woman of Asian descent died in New York City’s subway, while another was attacked and killed in her apartment. Police say the attack was perpetrated by a follower of her home. Neither incident has been determined by authorities to be hate crimes, but they’ve added to the anxiety facing Asians, especially women. According to a survey by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, 74% of Asian women reported experiencing racism or discrimination over the past 12 months, with more than half reporting a stranger as the perpetrator.

“Women in our community appear to be experiencing the brunt of the discrimination,” Kulkarni says.

People hold signs during a rally in response to the killing of Christina Yuna Lee in New York, Feb. 14, 2022.
Seth Wenig—APPeople held signs in protest to Christina Yuna Lee’s murder in New York on February 14, 2022.

Michelle Lee, Manhattan’s resident physician, claims that she has been verbally harassed and stalked by subway stations, on trains and buses, twice. Lee was raised in New York City and now worries about her safety more than when she worked at the hospital where the virus was at its peak. She was surrounded with potentially fatal patients. Even though she commutes longer, Lee doesn’t go out with her husband anymore.

“They’re not freak accidents,” Lee says. “There’s an ugly fog over Asian Americans.”

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The threat of serious physical injury is real, but statistics suggest that Asian Americans are more susceptible to non-violent verbal attacks. Stop AAPI Hate reported that 16% of incidents were physical attacks and 63% verbal harassments.

It is hard to hate.

Experts agree that both types of hate have the potential to cause psychological, emotional, or mental damage. “The idea is to isolate you, to make you feel you don’t belong,” Pezzella says.

Annie Vu (27 years old) was verbally harassed two times outside the New Jersey grocery store where she lived. Vu then spent $60 more on roundtrip rides to get to another Asian grocery store.

<strong>“There’s an ugly fog over Asian Americans.”</strong>Hong Lee, 36 years old, was shocked when the insults came as she waited to place her order at a Los Angeles taco shop. On Aug. 10, 2020, a man she didn’t know approached and invited her to have lunch with him. When Lee declined, saying she was married, the man screamed at her to “go back to Asia, followed by every single derogatory word you can imagine,” she says.

Lee began recording the man’s rant and sobbing till restaurant employees were able get the man away. Lee dialed 911. However, she claims that the responding officer saw the footage and informed her there had been no crime. “I understand that there’s freedom of speech,” says Lee, who for weeks couldn’t sleep and was afraid to go outside. “But there has to be some extent to that. There have to be consequences for your actions.”

San Francisco has the highest number of incidents to Stop AAPI Hate than New York. Human rights leaders are unanimous in their agreement. But they don’t fully know what those consequences could be, or how to enforce them, when the First Amendment protects hate speech. “Unfortunately, that is the challenge that we have,” says Sheryl Davis, the executive director of the city’s Human Rights Commission. “We’ve really been struggling.”

People march against anti-Asian violence and racism in Los Angeles, on March 27, 2021.
Mario Tama—Getty ImagesLos Angeles, March 27th 2021: People marched against anti-Asian racism and violence.

There is no one size fits all solution

Davis said that her group works with police and prosecutors to come up with an alternative to criminal prosecutions for hate crimes. The commission has a number of ideas, including holding hearings and imposing fines or mandating anger management therapy. It has been difficult to organize the proceedings. It does not possess the authority to subpoena an accused offenders to present themselves before it. The group will need to have legislation passed that allows it to impose any type of punishment. Davis states that it is still difficult to prove the incident occurred because of racism.

“Law enforcement is saying that they can’t do anything,” Davis says. “But we know, morally and ethically, and just in terms of people’s mental health and safety, that something needs to be done. This behavior can’t go unchecked.”

Many people are hesitant to turn to law enforcement as a solution, especially after the uprising against police brutality and racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Kulkarni was a civil rights lawyer who believes criminal prosecution and policing aren’t the right solution. She also points out that most hate incidents reported by her group don’t have any criminal elements.

<strong>“This behavior can’t go unchecked.”</strong>Kulkarni suggests that instead of focusing on hate crime legislation, Kulkarni recommends that the federal government pass legislation to expand victim resources. This includes mental health support. When applicable, civil rights laws should also be used as a remedy. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, she says, adding that public education campaigns, similar to those about COVID-19 masking and vaccinations, might also help.

It’s hard to say what would work when efforts to reduce hate-motivated behavior have been largely unproven to date, says Robert Cramer, the lead author of a November 2020 analysis on the impacts of hate-motivated behavior and interventions. The effectiveness of laws intended to deter hate crimes is not clear because there aren’t many reliable data. Still, Kulkarni says, it’s worth exploring and utilizing all the possible approaches. “Because what are we left with without it?” she says. “Whistles and mace?”

Many are hopeful that there will be a quick solution. But experts don’t think hate incidents will fade quickly, so long as COVID-19 is still a part of American life. The urgency is growing. Cramer states that verbal harassment is a form of non-violent hate and can lead to victims feeling helpless and hopeless over the long term. “Because they’re more common, and they’re more sort of everyday experiences, they can really just lead to that sense of defeat,” he says.

Those feelings of defeat—on top of language barriers, concerns about immigrations status and distrust of law enforcement—can often cause people not to report incidents, which blurs the true scope, severity and prevalence of the issue, experts say. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, underreporting can also be problematic as hate incidents such as verbal harassment could often lead to worse aggressions.

“We know that these incidents are precursors to actual hate crimes,” Pezzella says. “That’s why they’re so important. That’s why police need to know.”

Tanny Jiraprapasuke is concerned that the entire community will continue to be in danger if they fail to recognize the differences between hate speech and free speech.

“We’re all vulnerable,” she says.


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