To Combat Anti-Asian Attacks, New Yorkers Join Neighborhood Watch Patrols

Alarmed and outraged by a surge in racist violence, citizens band together to make city streets safer.

Handing out fliers last month in Manhattan’s Chinatown about the SafeWalks NYC program, which offers to escort people from subway stations.
Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

One recent Saturday afternoon, Teresa Ting passed out purple medical masks — the same color as the 7 train that connects Flushing, Queens, to Manhattan — among a group of 14 volunteers gathered on the steps of the massive Flushing post office on Main Street. A spreadsheet on Ms. Ting’s phone detailed the day’s watch routes in the neighborhood. One team would monitor Main Street, another would take Prince Street and 37th Avenue.

A third group would patrol the blocks between Union Street and College Point Boulevard on Roosevelt Avenue, where a man violently shoved an Asian-American woman to the ground outside a bakery in February.

The attack galvanized Ms. Ting to form Main Street Patrol, a volunteer safety group that casts a watchful eye over downtown Flushing, equipped with little more than safe intervention strategies and a walkie-talkie app on their phones.

Ms. Ting, an actress and Queens native, works with a rotating cast of volunteers from different parts of the city and walks of life, all driven by outrage at unprovoked assaults against Asian-Americans and inaction by bystanders.

“This past year has taken a toll,” Ms. Ting said. “Something needed to be done.” As it happens, that Saturday was Ms. Ting’s 30th birthday — her second celebration in a pandemic but her first in her new role safeguarding the community.

ImageMain Street Patrol volunteers in Flushing, Queens, this month.
Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Asian-Americans are grappling with fear, rage and anxiety brought on by attacks against people of Asian descent, particularly older men and women. In an especially egregious episode a little more than a week ago, a 65-year-old Filipino woman was brutally assaulted in broad daylight outside a luxury apartment building in Midtown Manhattan. Two lobby staff members who witnessed the assault but failed to intervene have been fired.

After each case, Asian-Americans express shock and pain but point to a long history of bigotry that has been magnified during the pandemic. Advocates also attribute the current climate to former President Donald J. Trump and his use of damning and inaccurate phrases like “the China virus.”

The New York Police Department has received 35 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes already this year, compared with 28 in all of 2020 and only three in 2019. Officials say the data fails to paint a full picture, as many incidents go unreported or are not categorized as hate crimes.

As the attacks mount, Asian-Americans and their allies are hoping to make their streets safer.

In addition to Main Street Patrol, whose volunteers take weekend shifts in downtown Flushing, at least three other similar groups have formed during the pandemic. A series of assaults against women in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in January led to SafeWalks NYC, which offers escorts at train stations in various neighborhoods, including Manhattan’s Chinatown.

And in February last year, Karlin Chan, a community activist, formed the Chinatown Block Watch, whose participants keep watch over an area that is the birthplace of Chinese culture in New York City. Mr. Chan, who is in his mid-60s, is aware of the risks he faces as he roves the neighborhood.

“With my beautiful crop of gray hair, there is a target on my back,” he said. But the urgency of the moment attracted Mr. Chan, who experienced racism as a child growing up in Chinatown in the early 1960s. He leads volunteers along Mott Street and Grand Street, as well as the blocks under the Manhattan Bridge, to check in with the neighborhood’s residents and business owners.

Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Civilian patrols have a long and mixed history in New York City. Most notable is the Guardian Angels, founded in the late 1970s, when economic blight helped fuel a wave of violent crime across the city. Known for their red berets and bullish presence, the Guardian Angels emerged as a crime-fighting patrol on the subways, acquiring a kind of hero status while simultaneously drawing the ire of politicians and transit officials for their vigilante justice.

After a prolonged period of low crime in New York City, the Guardian Angels have re-emerged with the sharp increase that has coincided with the pandemic, and they have spent time on the ground in Chinatown this past year. The group’s founder, Curtis Sliwa, announced in March that he was running as a Republican in the city’s 2021 mayoral race.

But Main Street is quick to stress that it focuses on intervention rather than deterrence. “We want to remain a little more covert, so we blend in more and we can actually run into catching more situations rather than suppressing them,” Ms. Ting said.

The one incident the group has run into got hairy after a patroller started recording two young men who were overheard making racist remarks and threatening to harm an older man. The men became agitated and knocked the patroller’s phone out of his hand, eventually fleeing. The group later revised some of its protocols, stressing that volunteers should record episodes only if they can do so from a safe distance.

While civilian patrols do not have official approval of the Police Department, they work in concert with officers by being “an extra set of eyes and ears,” said Capt. Paul J Zangrilli in Chinatown’s Fifth Precinct. Earlier this year, for example, when teams of pickpockets were targeting older women, Mr. Chan’s Chinatown Block Watch provided the police with information that ultimately led to the apprehension of both groups.

“They have added to our success in their heightened vigilance and heightened awareness out in the community,” Captain Zangrilli said.

As Main Street Patrol was winding down its Saturday tour in Flushing, another group was assembling in Confucius Plaza in Manhattan. Ricky Yang stood behind a folding table with a sign that read “Protect Chinatown,” the group he established in February as a chaperone service, which got off to a slow start. Now the group was setting out on foot patrols, in part to raise awareness about its services and to monitor the streets. As volunteers mobilized, one older man of Asian descent stopped to ask a question, not about safety measures but about the Covid-19 vaccine.

Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Before sending teams out, Mr. Yang, 27, emphasized hypervigilance. Like Main Street, Protect Chinatown is focused on safe intervention.

“If someone was punching me in the face, I would want someone to step in,” Mr. Yang said. “Now all anyone does is take out their phone and record.”

Among those patrolling that day was Ian Tan, a 24-year-old who works in commercial production. Mr. Tan has volunteered as a chaperone and also attended Protect Chinatown’s first patrol the weekend before. “I wish I didn’t have to do this,” he said, sounding exasperated, “but it feels like no one else will.”

Mr. Tan led a team of five east along Division Street to patrol the Two Bridges neighborhood. Other groups took on the north and east side of Chinatown.

“The world shouldn’t have to have initiatives like this,” Mr. Yang said, adding that he hopes that one day, people will again feel safe in their communities and services like Protect Chinatown’s will be unnecessary. “The whole goal is that it can be dissolved.”