A group of lawmakers are calling on the NYPD to classify a “heinous” attack on an elderly Asian-American woman in Bensonhurst as a hate crime — saying the violent incident was just the latest in a string of anti-Asian incidents across the city spurred by the outbreak of COVID-19.
“The COVID pandemic has unleashed a tsunami of violence and xenophobic hate directed towards our Chinese-American community,” said the area’s councilman, Justin Brannan, at an Aug. 10 press conference. “I will continue to stand with the Chinese-American community and seek justice for the victims of this heinous crime.”
Authorities say two men approached the 89-year-old Bensonhurst resident on 77th Street and 16th Avenue on the evening of July 14, before the assailants slapped her in the face and lit her shirt on fire with a lighter.
The victim managed to extinguish the fire by rubbing her back on a nearby wall quickly enough to avoid sustaining potentially-deadly injuries, she told ABC7. Police have not yet made any arrests in the case, and an investigation remains ongoing, according to an NYPD spokesperson.
The assault spurred outrage throughout the Asian-American community and prompted Queens-based rapper China Mac and actor William Lex Ham to lead several hundred protesters through Bensonhurst on Aug. 1 — where they descended on the NYPD’s 62nd Precinct to denounce cops for failing to classify the attack as a hate crime.
Police have pointed to the lack of evidence regarding the attackers’ motives, such as use of racial slurs, to claim they don’t have adequate information to classify the incident as a hate crime — which could extend the minimum sentencing requirement if it’s deemed a violent felony offense.
However, Ham argued that the random nature of the attack suggests it was racially-charged, and said that the woman’s inability to speak English may be the reason she reported no racist slurs.
“[Police] said it wasn’t a hate crime because there were no racial slurs that were said,” Ham told Brooklyn Paper. “The woman doesn’t even speak English, so how could she know? This was an unprovoked attack.”
Locals leaders added that recent anti-Asian incidents around southern Brooklyn in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak also indicate that the assault likely had racist motivations.
“Though it has been shown that COVID came to New York City through Europe, our president insists on calling it a ‘Chinese virus.’ This top-down embrace of racism and hatred has been affecting Asian New Yorkers’ lives and livelihoods since January,” said Democratic state Sen. Andrew Gounardes at the Aug. 10 press conference.
Citywide, attacks on Asian-Americans have surged since the start of the pandemic, with 11 racist assaults between March and April, according to an NBC report.
Other non-violent racially biased incidents have also consumed Kings County since the outbreak — including when anti-Chinese flyers cropped up across Bay Ridge, and a pair of Coney Island community leaders were dismissed for sharing social media posts spreading anti-Chinese conspiracy theories.
On Aug. 6, Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis also denounced the crime — though she blamed the attack on bail reform and the release of some inmates during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Make no mistake, the lawlessness we are seeing is due to the far-left policies and laws coming from City Hall and the New York State legislature,” she said at an Aug. 6 press conference in Bensonhurst.
Meanwhile, Democratic councilman Mark Treyger, whose district includes Gravesend and Coney Island, has asked the 62nd Precinct and the District Attorney’s office directly to investigate the attack as a hate crime, a spokeswoman said.
In response to the politicians’ belated denouncements, Ham — who is organizing another march on Aug. 15 in Manhattan in response to the attack — said he has mixed feelings.
“They should have been on it when the attack happened. [It] speaks to how in or out of touch they are with the community,” Ham said. “And on the flip side, happy that the Asian-American community is no longer silent, standing up and fighting against injustices, while demanding more from elected officials and local leaders.”