Vigilante Formations Strengthen Asian American Community

Rej Joo has taught self-defense workshops online several times, but he’s seen how the recent increase in anti-Asian attacks across the city has increased demand.

“It happens everywhere and everywhere,” said Joo, program manager for the Center for Anti-Violence Education. “I think there’s a kind of paranoia and fear, rightly so, because these attacks are unjustified.”

Unprovoked assaults like the beatings that relatives say put 61-year-old Yao Pan Ma into a coma last month. Police say he was jumped from behind without warning while picking up cans in East Harlem.

Joo and other CAE trainers also work to teach people what to do if they witness a hate crime or even just verbal harassment. This is called Upstander training.

“That’s a fancy way of saying active spectator,” Joo said. “We train people to intervene or disrupt in a safe way.”

“In these situations, how can we just let people know it’s not OK [and that] we care instead of doing this thing that I think is easy for New Yorkers to do and say, “Is that none of my business?

Organizations like CAE are finding ways to build on the Asian American community solidarity movement, with community leaders and social justice groups like Black Lives Matter standing up against Asian hatred.

“It’s because we know the history of oppression, so we can relate to people who are being exploited, who are being attacked by white supremacy,” said Hawk Newsome of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York.

And with a number of black suspects arrested in connection with some recent attacks, the effort also aims to counter notions of division between the black and Asian communities.

“There is a lot of pain in various communities,” Joo said. “So how can we hold that, but also think at the community level that the real work is through solidarity?”

They hope that through education and by bonding allies, no community will be left vulnerable to hatred.