By Jessica Xiao, AsAmNews Intern
Last fall, Esther Lee was a victim of an anti-Asian hate attack. Now she’s taking her power back.
Lee, an anti-Asian hate victim-turned-activist, will tell her story at the inaugural AAPI-led Unity March in Washington, DC, on Saturday, June 25. She hopes to draw attention to anti-Asian violence in the United States, forty years after the murder of Vincent Chin, using her own experience of anti-Asian hate.
In October 2021, Lee was attacked after refusing to engage with a man on the New York City subway. The man verbally assaulted her—calling her a “carrier”—and spit on her. She recorded the incident on her phone. When she reported to the NYPD, they labeled the case “harassment,” not a hate crime, Spectrum News NY 1 reports.
“I read the report and discovered they hadn’t even included the word ‘carrier’ on my report. That was very alarming to me. Because if a victim says something, has video footage proving as much, and wrote it on their personal statement, you would think that the police in their filing would at least do due diligence and file it correctly,” Lee said in an interview with AsAmNews.
There has been an increase in anti-Asian violence and hate incidents following the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which East Asians have been profiled and stereotyped as “carriers” of the virus. Many AAPI community organizations assert this discrimination has been further fueled by former President Trump’s use of terms like “China virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and “kung flu” to refer to the coronavirus.
Seeking a way to reclassify her case correctly and get a proper investigation, Esther Lee turned to AAPI community organizations, reporting the incident with Stop AAPI Hate and anywhere else she could.
Eventually, her search for justice led her to a conversation with Jessica Corey, the Deputy Inspector of New York’s Hate Crime Unit. It was a dead end.
“She was very polite. I shared with her my case and that evening she called me and said I didn’t have a case,” Lee said.
According to Lee, Jessica Corey minimized her experience of racism with assumptions and hypotheticals.
“She said things like, ‘Well, you sat next to him. It would’ve been one thing if you were on one side of the subway car and he came all the way from the other side. That would be easier to prove.’ She said that I triggered him by filming him.”
Corey was later reassigned to a different unit.
This conversation was frustrating to Esther, especially having taken place in the aftermath of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee’s murders.
“Do we need to be bludgeoned, murdered, stabbed, thrown in front of a train—like, is that what it takes before you start taking me seriously?” Lee said.
Esther Lee immigrated with her parents from Korea to Brazil in the 1970s and then to the United States in the ‘90s. Having experienced xenophobia in both contexts, Lee knew what she experienced was a hate crime.
“It’s not like I haven’t been accosted in the subway. It’s not like I’ve had, you know, interesting people come up to me and say interesting things. It happens, but this felt different. This was different,” she said.
After hitting a wall with the criminal justice system, she turned to the power of her own voice. Since the incident, she has spoken with at least eight different media outlets and at rallies and events calling for an end to anti-Asian violence, hoping to mobilize energy behind seeking justice and accountability for hate crime victims.
“Going through an experience where your identity doesn’t matter is very painful, especially when I’ve done nothing to deserve this. And so, that’s why I fight,” Lee said tearfully. “The entire system, this agency that’s supposed to be there to protect and serve you, they turned their backs on you. They did not hear you. And that is incredibly frustrating.”
The Unity March, which organizers expect will turn out upwards of 15,000 people, aims to combat racism and build solidarity among communities of color.
“This is our shot to show people what we’re made of and also to not let the world move on from the issue of anti-Asian hate and violence while also pointing to the need for more cross-sectional sustainable responses and solutions to the underlying factors that perpetuate that violence to begin with,” said Tiffany Chang, lead organizer of the march and director of Community Engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Chang believes Esther’s story will be a “single point of consciousness that we can rally around but then complicate the narrative about what it means to stop Asian hate and what it means to stand with Asian Americans.”
To Chang, Lee’s story is one example of why the Unity March’s platform elevating policy issues from racial and economic justice, cultural equity, and democratic participation is so necessary.
“Violence comes in many forms, not just interpersonal devaluation. The devaluation of our bodies happens when we’re deprived of access to healthcare, when we are departed, when we are incarcerated, when we are depicted in stereotypical and pernicious ways by the media—these are all forms of violence or at least things that can lead to or enable acts of violence,” Chang continued.
Emceed by journalists Joie Chen and Richard Lui, the lineup includes over 35 speakers, artists, and performers.
“We wanted to center folks who wouldn’t have had a voice otherwise and to offer a platform to other communities of color to be heard by our community, too,” Chang said.
Lee is honored to be included in the lineup.
“It makes me giggle a bit when I look at the speaker list because it’s like, wow, Geena Rocero, wow, Al Sharpton. I’m really honored to be a part of this because I’m a nobody, I’m just an educator quietly living my life here in New York City and the only thing that makes it so interesting is the fact that I got through into a situation that I didn’t ask for,” said Lee.
She hopes to raise attention to the issue on behalf of victims who may have less access to resources or are unable to speak out.
“[I speak out about this issue] because I know I am so lucky I speak English. I know that I have resources that I can tap into,” Lee said. “I was brave enough to do this and I felt like, okay, I have nothing to lose. But what if I was an 80-year old, Chinese grandmother in Flushing, Queens, who doesn’t speak English? She goes home and deals with the trauma.”
She believes there are many who haven’t reported, given the limited recourse victims have.
“When you hear that anti-Asian hate crime statistics [in New York City] rose something like 361% – I think it’s more, because frankly, incidents like mine are happening more frequently and women like me are reporting, but they’re not being labeled correctly or they’re not being treated justly,” she said.
Although it can be retraumatizing to share her story, again and again, she sees the utility in the possibility of reaching a wider audience:
“The only way we’re gonna continue to put pressure on the people out there that have the ability to change laws, people out there that have the ability to make real change and make impact,” Lee said. “Or potentially even the young people out there that are gonna be in a position in the future to be those movers and shakers. So I’m okay with that. If that’s my legacy, I’m okay with that.”
In the hardest of times, she turns to family for inspiration.
“I’m so excited that my 13-year-old niece is going to be attending,” Lee said. “She’s flying all the way from California with my sister and her nine-year-old brother. And it’s when this gets really hard, I just remember that she said to me via text, ‘you’re my superhero.’”
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