By Rachel Kim
An enormous, globe-shaped metallic structure stands before a group of adults and kids gathered in a square formation. Within the perimeter are a few instructors clad in black hoodies, demonstrating a polished Muay Thai move followed by off-balanced airborne kicks and swift jabs.
Those who practiced self-defense techniques on a chilly autumn morning attended an all-day AAPI Self-Care event at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York –– home to the Unisphere. Next to the ongoing combat action are tents where attendees pick up yellow whistles, self-defense kits, and more. Hosted by a grassroots organization “They Can’t Burn Us All” (T.C.B.U.A), the event is joined by a collective alliance of organizations whose missions coincide to fight back against anti-Asian violence while providing community members solution-based methods that aid in self-defense and situational awareness.
While the family event emphasized self-defense techniques, de-escalation demos and confidence-building workshops for kids and adults, the day itself had another undertone – one that arose from a call for action against anti-Asian violence.
“We’re tired of seeing people that look like us be targeted, and being able to walk home at night – it shouldn’t have to be a luxury. The only way we can do that right now is by supporting them and giving out something that might make them feel a little bit safer, build confidence, and also to create a community where you are not alone. We’re all experiencing this unfortunate feeling, to try and work together to remind ourselves to heal, to be able to absorb the tragedies that keep coming out of this anti-Asian hate, to cope with them, and to hopefully come out of them,” said Casey Chan of Angry Asian Womxn.
A system of support the community needs
T.C.B.U.A was formed after a racially-motivated attack against an 89-year-old Asian grandmother who was set on fire in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in July 2020. News of the hate crime prompted TCBUA founder, rapper, and activist Raymond Yu, also known as China Mac, to lead a series of rallies – “Asian Unity Rally” and “They Can’t Burn Us All – in New York and Los Angeles where he was also joined by MC Jin, William Lex Ham, and others. Over the summer, TCBUA partnered with several organizations like NYC Filipinos, Asians Fighting Injustice, and more to organize a music street event in Chinatown that celebrates hip-hop culture in Asian American communities.
An alliance of other nonprofit organizations joined the scene, some of whom handed out community resources like subway safety booklets and self-defense kits by Angry Asian Womxn, tactical flashlights by Dragon Combat Club, whistles for personal safety by The Yellow Whistle, and more giveaways.
“We [grassroots groups] all just came together during the pandemic, and collaborated on a lot of things throughout the pandemic as well,” said Fulton Hou, Vice President of TCBUA.
In addition to organizing national rallies, TCBUA also advocated for language accessibility on community safety apps like Citizen.
“We’re not like a big organization. We’re just people who live in Flushing. We’re like from the community. And I think, people see that there’s different groups out there from the community, putting on these events and coming together – also letting the next generation know that we’re, as a community, we’re here for each other,” said Hou.
More Than Self-Defense
During the interview, Hou and TCBUA special events coordinator Elizabeth Amber Gomez briefly alluded to a recent incident of a 13-year-old boy who was allegedly attacked by an adult and his younger relatives at a schoolyard as one of the motivating factors that brought forth the self-care event. 52-year-old Lei defended his son from his attacker who allegedly visited their family home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn two days later. Charges against Lei for assault were later dropped.
Despite the total number of hate crimes against Asian Americans decreasing last year, the attacks are still taking place across the five boroughs. In March 2023, a Filipino American mother and her son were assaulted and called anti-Asian slurs by three people in a neighborhood in Queens.
“It’s [attacks] not as talked about anymore, even though it’s still going on. But when ‘in the heat of it’, I would say, a lot of community members relied on apps like that [Citizen] to be notified of what’s going on in their community. And, in general, that wasn’t something available in different languages.”
Queens County is home to three of the largest ethnic groups, the highest being Asian residents. In Brooklyn, a 2021 census showed a 43% growth in population of Asian residents from 2010 – exceeding the 9.2% increase in the area’s total population.
An inclusive fight for next generations
Gomez organized the event because she wanted to offer a self-defense class as a family event where kids also join the martial arts scene.
“A lot of kids are getting bullied, no one’s really doing anything about it, and I wanted to have an event to show that we all come together as not just for adults but for everyone to have the support, and I think more importantly, for more families to come together”.
Gomez also believed in the significance of the location of the event.
“I wanted people to see that we’re not afraid, and we wanted to pick a location where it would be amazing – the Unisphere, so all the worlds coming together – so that we could show that we’re all united under the Unisphere fighting back for everyone to see us in, like the spotlight, in front of the world.”
Gomez also emphasized the need for unity and a support system among Asians in general.
“We need to be able to talk to each other and console each other and just have this open conversation and the support. We don’t have the support. That’s why I think that’s missing from our community and that’s why we need to do these things.”
When asked what she hopes people take away from the event, she hoped attendees felt inspired to fight back and to feel motivated to take an MMA class.
“It’s very important to know, especially at the young age, to talk back – even if you can’t fight back, to even just speak up for yourself. It’s most important just for the kids to do so, so that they’re not scared and they’re not afraid to walk the streets, and that they feel like they’re comfortable in their own skin. It’s not to be ashamed of who they are. Because this is about pride.”
United under the Unisphere – and anywhere
Events like these are what many grassroot organizations hope the Asian American community can get more out of: fighting back in unison to strengthen the community’s support system. The AAPI Self-Care event echoes a collective sentiment that grassroots organizers and community members share: the need for continued events like these so individuals can fall back on a network they feel safe and can rely on. In this case, self-defense combat was one of the conversation-starters these grassroots had found.
“We’re all here because we’re proud of who we are. And we should never forget that. I just want them to be able to speak up for themselves and not be victimized. I don’t want to see another kid being victimized on the news,” said Gomez.
AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.