After a white man shot dead six Asian women at three spas in Atlanta in March 2021, unprecedented interest fell on grassroots organizations serving New York City’s Asian communities. Mainstream discussions about violence against Asians in America have rarely focused on migrant workers, who face aggressive policing, unfair housing policies, garnished wages, and other discriminatory actions. But New Yorkers sympathetic to the Atlanta victims suddenly inundated organizers like Yves Tong Nguyen with queries about how to help. In response, Nguyen would repeat a blunt message: “I want you to care when people are still alive.”
And people did care—just not always as hoped.
After the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, grassroots organizations like CAAAV (founded in 1986 as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) ushered in a new era of Asian American activism. Nguyen organizes with Red Canary Song, which was created in 2018 after Flushing massage worker Yang Song died during a police raid. Shortly after the Atlanta shootings, Andrew Hsiao, a book editor who has been engaged in Asian activism since the 1980s, told me he wondered if the tragedy could be another flash point to galvanize Asian Americans to uplift the most vulnerable members of their communities.
Instead, in an age when slogans are engineered to trend rather than inspire change, a new brand of protest emerged in New York City—what I call aesthetic Asian activism. Influenced by more middle-class or white-collar environs, novice demonstrators shouted for representation and demanded carceral solutions to combat anti-Asian violence. This represented the antithesis of the kind of work that has anchored Asian American organizing in New York City for decades.
Almost a year and a half since the deaths in Atlanta of Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng, aesthetic activists haven’t achieved much to decrease anti-Asian violence. But politicians, media, and influential Asian American organizations have latched onto their conservative-leaning messaging, creating a sense that tough-on-crime responses are what Asian communities are prioritizing. (Surveys indicate that health care and jobs and the economy are the most pressing issues for Asian Americans.) Meanwhile, popular interest in gendered and racialized violence against Asian women has dissipated.
“People who have money and power are going to be able to leverage that for more,” said TD Tso, a grassroots organizer with Asian American Feminist Collective. “What’s happening in the mainstream Asian American advocacy space is very much upholding the status quo.”
At rallies and on Zoom panels, aesthetic-activist talking points rely on studies with broad definitions of “hate crimes,” including name-calling, or on surveys gauging opinions of relatively wealthy Asian Americans. On the rare occasions when aesthetic activists mentioned Atlanta, it was as an argument for hate-crime legislation. These messages have then been amplified by groups like the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY), which wants to change what constitutes a hate crime to include “a presumption of hate and/or higher penalties during high stress periods.”
“Everyone runs after the shiny theatrical response and claims that will be their measure of caring about the community,” said Hsiao. “If you were to address this deeply exploitative, very difficult area where many, many Asian American women struggle to get by in this city, you would be addressing a much slower burning violence. If we’re concerned about the struggles that Asian American women face in this society, you ought to be looking at things that could structurally alter their situation.”
After the Atlanta shootings, a wave of mostly young rookie activists were energized, but their ideas for action were often calls for more representation and Band-Aid solutions to protect Asian communities, like spending a weekend afternoon holding a self-defense class, walking elders to the subway, and handing out whistles and pepper spray. The performative acts were dutifully captured for Instagram with hashtags like #stopasianhate.
This blueprint was widely copied. In spring 2021, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs held a Stop Asian Hate block party. The group God Loves AAPI (i.e., Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) canvassed the streets dispensing personal alarms with flyers reading: “We are giving you this device for free because we want to help keep you safe from an anti-Asian attack. God loves you! God loves AAPI!” Another organization rewarded children with Skittles if they sat through a Bible lesson. Surveying the scene, Deborah Lauter from the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes told a crowd, “This is what New York is all about.”
Another rally held by Asians Fighting Injustice was funded through a $20,000 donation from the Joseon “imperial family of Korea,” descendants of the country’s last dynastic kingdom. According to a group spokesperson, a volunteer connected the organization with Andrew Lee, a tech entrepreneur who in 2018 proclaimed himself crown prince after supposedly discovering royal lineage. (The ceremonial family holds no official power in South Korea.)
Asians Fighting Injustice also led a vigil in Times Square after a man shoved 40-year-old Michelle Go in front of a subway train on January 15. In an event meant to memorialize a victim of a heinous attack, the night served as a platform for political agendas. Mayor Eric Adams said Go’s name once during a six-minute speech in which he boasted about being tough on crime. Attorney General Letitia James called her Michelle Ho.
Asians Fighting Injustice founder Ben Wei, who also hosts parties for Asian alumni of Ivy League colleges, said he regretted that so much of the mic time went to politicians, but that rallies were essential for “giving voice to the voiceless” and to “show decision-makers there is public support for what we’re doing.” Five days after the vigil, his group had raised over $12,000 through its “Stop Asian Hate” GoFundMe after collecting $120 in the previous three months.
It also enabled the group to meet with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whom they’ve asked to support reforms to the Hate Crimes Act of 2000. A spokesperson said the organization’s goal is “to remove the word ‘substantial’ as it relates to a hate crime being committed and remove the ‘specific offense’ limitation of the Act” and to create a community-led task force to review bail reform.
Chris Kwok, who spoke at the mayor’s Stop Asian Hate Block Party on behalf of the Bar Association, wrote in an e-mail that “DA Bragg is on the right path, and has spent time listening to the Asian American community and its concerns, made hiring decisions in response and has implemented many of AABANY’s recommendations.”
(A spokesperson for the district attorney said the office’s Hate Crimes Unit “will continue to work hand-in-hand with community members and organizations as we expand the Unit in the coming months.”)
Working-class grassroots organizations have not been present at these meetings, and most of these groups vehemently oppose the expansion of hate crimes legislation. Citing a history of police raids against Asian migrant workers, systems of immigrant detention and deportation, and the targeting of Muslim and Arab communities after 9/11, Rachel Kuo, a leader of Asian American Feminist Collective, said Asian communities can’t rely on carceral tools to protect Asian Americans.
Many aesthetic Asian activist groups that popped up last year have disbanded; some of their members now devote their energy to claiming cryptocurrency or non-fungible tokens can uplift marginalized communities. Wei, for instance, recently stepped down as leader of Asians Fighting Injustice and began promoting a project to turn a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” into an NFT.
While the rallies and events to “stop Asian hate” largely vanished this summer, veteran organizers have continued their anti-carceral work. As Covid support dried up, mutual aid became an increasingly important tool to help residents facing eviction or food shortages. Organizer Ariel Hsu said she fields about six mutual aid requests per night, many from single mothers. She told me, “There’s just so much shit happening constantly, everything feels so tragic and life or death.”
In February, Red Canary Song introduced the Massage License Decriminalization Act. The state bill would provide protections for massage workers by abolishing criminal penalties for unlicensed work. Currently, it is in Assembly committee, the second of six stages in becoming a law.
Noncitizen Asian migrant women account for 87 percent of arrests for unlicensed massage, according to a 2017 report by the Urban Institute. Because of language, citizenship, and education requirements, many Asian migrant workers face huge (and costly) obstacles in obtaining licenses. If arrested, migrant workers can be subject to expensive bails, jail, or deportation.
Without the work of groups like Red Canary Song, people would otherwise forget the Atlanta victims, said Annie Tan, a volunteer with CAAAV. She pointed to how some Asian Americans wanted to erase the story of her cousin Vincent Chin because he went to a strip club the night he was killed and might not seem like a respectable member of the community. “People don’t want to talk about it because it makes our community look bad,” Tan said of the circumstances surrounding the lives of Asian migrant workers. “That’s why Red Canary Song is so important. We have to talk about it.”
Other ongoing long-term grassroots campaigns include fighting deportations (13 percent of the city’s Asian and Pacific islander immigrants are undocumented), fighting wage theft against Asian restaurant workers, and protesting a proposed jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown (plus calling out local organizations standing to benefit from its construction).
The interests of aesthetically inclined Asian Americans sometimes complicate this work, though.
As the Chinatown jail protests have grown, new voices are interjecting differing views on the resistance. While many grassroots organizers like Chinatown Art Brigade and Youth Against Displacement have long protested jails in Chinatown, many activists have recently joined under NIMBY arguments.
On April 13, hours into a protest, a group featuring social media influencer Jack Liang and Evelyn Lu—who is married to Andrew Yang—showed up and were arrested. Afterward, they posted photos on social media of being handcuffed and sent out a press release touting their participation. The release did not mention how Yang, while running for mayor, demanded full funding of an Asian hate crimes task force and supported many other carceral solutions to anti-Asian violence. Liang and Yang are also collaborators on a project to use Web3 technologies like blockchain and crypto to fight social injustice against Asian Americans.
People should be outraged at videos of elderly Asian Americans being attacked for seemingly no reason. Asian residents, regardless of economic or social background, have a right to feel safe walking the city’s streets. But we should not care about anti-Asian violence only when it affects wealthier people and the perpetrators are outside the community—sometimes the agents of oppression are Asian American, too.
On May 31, Lai Chan was protesting outside New York City Hall. Joined by about 100 home care workers, Chan demanded the end of their industry’s 24-hour workdays. Chan, 67, emigrated from China in 1988. When I met her in May 2021, she told me her long shifts have caused insomnia and weakened her nerves. She pointed to her right hand, legs, and back to show me where she’s in constant pain. Chan and coworkers say the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC)—a prominent Chinatown community organization that employs about 4,500 home care workers—not only supports 24-hour shifts but owes $90 million in unpaid wages. (The council denies these claims.)
Ron Kim, a New York assembly member, drew national media attention and praise from fellow progressive lawmakers when he challenged former Governor Andrew Cuomo on underreported nursing home deaths. Kim is also a public supporter of Asian home care workers and massage workers. Last January, led by Legislative Director David Lee, Kim’s office released a report analyzing CPC’s “legal tactics to exploit workers.” Local outlets in Kim’s base of Queens covered the document, but it was otherwise largely ignored.
“When our own treats our own workers as less than human, like scum who is not worthy of everything that human beings should be afforded in their life, why should we believe that the rest of society should treat us with any respect?” Lee asked me.
Kim’s office’s criticism of CPC hasn’t generated the same support from colleagues as the Cuomo inquiries. Kim said he’s received text messages from Asian politicians berating him for criticizing CPC, and telling him that if he weren’t Asian, they would accuse him of being a racist. The council is a major recipient of nonprofit and government funding for Asian communities. Kim told me, “I feel so angry when people from the left and progressives, some of the media, they just don’t seem like they want to shed light on what’s going on in our community and how important it is for us to get this right.”
Through the efforts of women like Chan, in April, New York City Council member Christopher Marte introduced a bill to reform working conditions for home care workers. Chan and colleagues are also disputing a recent $30 million arbitration ruling for back pay negotiated by their labor union, 1199 SEIU. A recording released by organizers seems to have caught an 1199SEIU spokesperson estimating that CPC actually owes home care workers $6 billion.
Nguyen of Red Canary Song relayed an example of how difficult it is for migrant workers encountering cycles of violence. After the Atlanta shootings, many massage workers lost jobs or were afraid to work. Lacking safety nets or access to government assistance, some explored home care employment where they’d face equal, if not more perilous working conditions. Nguyen said, “It’s really disheartening that people continuously need so much support, because they’ve been left out, are purposefully being erased.”
It’s unclear if any of the legislation aiming to improve the lives of migrant workers will get passed. Eighteen months since Atlanta, the gap in attention paid toward aesthetic activism and authentic grassroots work is widening.
On the same day as the home care workers’ protest, the White House welcomed BTS on the final day of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month to discuss “representation” and “anti-Asian hate crimes.” In a show of solidarity, President Joe Biden made finger hearts with the K-Pop megastars. After the BTS/Biden collab, the White House touted the event with a movie trailer–style recap that garnered 6.3 million views in less than a week.
Hours before the BTS snippet was posted, organizers uploaded a video of Chan discussing her hardships at the City Hall rally. It currently has 189 views.