A demonstrator in New York holds up a photo of Christina Yuna Lee during a February 14 rally protesting violence against Asian Americans.
CNN  — 

What hit Hong Lee so hard about the killing of Christina Yuna Lee was how easily it could have been her.

Late one night in February, Christina took a car back to her New York Chinatown apartment, where a man followed her up six flights of stairs and forced himself into her home. She cried out desperately for help, but before anyone could reach her, she was stabbed dozens of times to her death.

Christina was an Asian American woman around Hong’s age. They shared a mutual friend. And Hong, too, had an experience that left her afraid for her life – a memory that has been fresh on her mind lately given the string of Asian American women who have been killed in recent weeks.

Michelle Go was pushed to her death on the New York City subway tracks. GuiYing Ma died from her injuries after being struck repeatedly in the head with a rock last year in Queens. Julia Li was killed while driving in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mary Ye, a spa worker in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was shot and killed during an attempted robbery. Fang Sihui, a spa owner in the same city, was killed under similar circumstances just three weeks earlier. All the while, the trauma from last year’s Atlanta spa shootings still felt raw.

Hong Lee became an advocate for victims of anti-Asian violence after her own experience with racism.

“It’s just odd to me that all these attacks are happening all at once,” Hong said.

The brutality and seeming frequency of these high-profile incidents have Hong and other Asian American women on edge. But making sense of the tragedies has proved especially difficult.

The victims have been from various class backgrounds – attacked on streets and subway platforms, at homes and workplaces. The perpetrators have been White, Black and Hispanic – their actions sometimes without expressing obvious anti-Asian bias. Meanwhile, rates of homicides and other violent crimes increased last year in cities nationwide.

As ​74% of Asian American and Pacific Islander women report having personally experienced racism or discrimination in the past year, community members are pushing leaders to do more to address public safety. But without a clear, identifiable pattern to the attacks, advocates, elected officials and citizens are divided about the root of the problem – and what’s needed to solve it.

Asian American women face a distinct threat

In August 2020, Hong was standing in line at a Los Angeles restaurant when she says a man handed her a business card and asked her to have lunch with him. When she politely declined, she said he snatched his card back and yelled at her to “go back to f**king Asia.” He proceeded to hurl profane and derogatory insults at her for the next several minutes. Effectively backed into a corner, Hong felt there was little she could do besides film the encounter while she waited for police to arrive.

“I honestly was preparing for the worst case scenario,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I walk out of this restaurant, what if he follows me? What if I get raped? What if I get murdered? What if he assaults me?’”

From the 19th century Page Act, which depicted the majority of Chinese women in the US as sex workers, to US military occupations in Asia to pop culture touchstones such as “Full Metal Jacket,” Sung Yeon Choimorrow notes that Asian women in the United States have long been stereotyped as sexual objects or as being submissive – making them especially vulnerable to harassment and violence.

This sign was seen at a March 19, 2021, vigil for victims of the Atlanta spa shooting in New York.

Racism and sexism against Asian American women intensified with the start of the pandemic as the community was scapegoated, said Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. With then-President Donald Trump referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “kung flu,” it seemed to her that others felt emboldened to act on anti-Asian sentiments.

She recalls how, early on in the pandemic, a man chased her down her neighborhood while she was on a walk with her young daughter. “Go back home with your China virus,” she remembers him yelling.

But while the pandemic might have heightened the violence and harassment Asian American women face, the underlying issue has always been there, according to Choimorrow.

“(There are) all sorts of crazy assumptions people make about how Asian women are docile and submissive and don’t stand up for ourselves or think for ourselves,” she said. “I think that makes us very easy targets.”

The scope of violence is hard to capture

It’s difficult to disentangle the racialized misogyny that Asian American women in particular face from the racism that has intensified for Asian Americans overall since the pandemic began. But two years later, Asian American women are still reporting incidents of violence and harassment.

Police released surveillance footage Monday capturing an incident from last week, in which a woman in New York was shown being punched dozens of times in the head and face and stomped on seven times by a man who had allegedly called her an “Asian b*tch.” The continuing reports are a testament to how persistent racism and sexism against Asian American women is, said Connie Chung Joe.

“That was just the sparkplug that ignited so much of this hatred,” said Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, referring to the pandemic. “What’s kept it sustained is deep-seated racism and gender violence and misogyny.”

A police officer in New York's Chinatown hands out leaflets with information on how to report on hate crimes on March 17, 2021.

Capturing the true extent of violence and harassment against Asian American women, however, has been complicated.

Statistics from advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate suggest that women are disproportionately affected in a surge of anti-Asian hate incidents, but the organization’s data is crowdsourced, self-reported and not independently verified. Further, researchers started collecting it after the start of the pandemic (notably, to combat what they deemed incomplete data from police departments and government agencies), making it hard to assess the scope of anti-Asian hate in previous years.

Hate crime and bias incident data collected by law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, are notoriously unreliable and underreported. Still, the FBI’s annual hate crime statistics report found that attacks motivated by bias against Asians jumped 73% from 2019 to 2020 – the most recent year for which data is available. Researchers at Cal State San Bernardino found that hate crimes against Asians reported to police in 24 of the nation’s largest cities and counties were up 189% in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. While those numbers don’t disaggregate hate crimes against Asian American women, findings from community groups are noteworthy.

A crowd gathers in New York at a vigil for Michelle Go, who was killed in January after being pushed in front of an oncoming subway train.

“It’s notable that women are reporting (more hate incidents than men),” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “And we also have very detailed stories about what is happening to them.”

When police arrived at the restaurant where Hong had been harassed, she said an officer told her encounters like the one she experienced happen all the time. She said they informed her the incident wasn’t a crime, so nothing could be done.

Hong’s experience underscored how law enforcement can be ill-equipped to respond to incidents that might not rise to the level of an arrest or prosecution. When officers dismiss such reports instead of recording them as hate incidents, victims might be less likely to turn to the police in the future, said Joe.

Hong struggled with whether to go public about the harassment. Part of her wanted to forget the whole thing. But reports of anti-Asian racism seemed to be rising, so she posted the footage to social media to raise awareness.

Soon after she gave a local TV interview, Hong said another woman came forward saying she had a similar encounter with the same man. Several other victims followed with their own stories, LAPD Detective Orlando Martinez confirmed to CNN. And in the meantime, Hong said the police department reached out to apologize and document her experience as a hate incident.

The attacks lack a clear pattern

Recent attacks on Asian American women have raised some big questions: What factors led to the violence and how could they have been prevented?

Answering those questions, though, has been challenging because there isn’t an obvious pattern to the attacks, beyond the race and gender of the victims. Some lack a clear motive.

In the high-profile cases of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go, authorities have said there wasn’t evidence to suggest that the crimes were motivated by racism. (New York City Mayor Eric Adams later criticized police for being too quick to rule out that possibility, and the heads of the New York Police Department Special Victims Division and Hate Crime Task Force were soon reassigned as part of what WABC reported was a routine reshuffling.)

Commuters wait for a train at the Times Square subway station days after Michelle Go was pushed from a subway platform there and killed.

Neither of the suspects were reported to have used racial epithets, nor did they appear to have documented histories of anti-Asian bias. In the absence of such indicators, the conversation turned to the backgrounds of the suspects.

Assamad Nash, the man accused of killing Christina Yuna Lee, was homeless and facing other criminal charges. Martial Simon, the man accused of killing Michelle Go, was homeless and had at least three prior police encounters related to mental health issues, authorities said. He spent years in and out of jails, hospitals, outpatient psychiatric clinics and the streets, The New York Times reported.

Some said the suspects should never have been on the streets at all, given their previous criminal records. Many Republicans – and even a majority of Democrats – criticized New York’s bail reform laws, which ​allowed some suspects to be released from jail pending trial without paying cash bail. Some critics also blamed restorative justice approaches to crime championed by progressives, for threatening public safety. If the men had been behind bars, some reasoned, Lee and Go might still be alive.

A woman holds a candle during a January 18 vigil in San Francisco for Michelle Go.

However, The New York Daily News reviewed Nash’s records and found that bail reform laws and progressive prosecution policies did not explain why he was out on the streets. Manhattan judges could have set bail in Nash’s previous cases, which included allegedly punching a stranger at a subway turnstile, even with bail reforms in place, the Daily News reported, but did not – a common practice for misdemeanor offenses ​even before the bail reforms were enacted, according to the Center for Court Innovation. In fact, the majority of cities that have seen increases in crime have not eliminated cash bail, weakening the case that bail reforms were to blame.

Other conversations have focused on better mental health and housing services as a solution to preventing violent attacks. But mental health specialists and racial justice advocates have challenged the notion that homeless people with mental illnesses were a significant contributor to homicides and violent crime more generally – and violence and harassment against Asian American women more specifically.

“There are so many additional cases where folks are not homeless. They’re not mentally ill,” Joe, of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, said. “There are unfortunately, many, many people who are committing these hate crimes and hate incidents, and they have none of those barriers.”

Still, many Asian American women feel unsafe going about their daily lives. And they’re calling on their leaders to take action.

Leaders are taking different approaches

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to violence and harassment against Asian American women, advocates said. Rather, they see a need for changes on several fronts: among them, collecting better data, teaching Asian American history in schools and improving community relationships with law enforcement.

“When I’m asked, ‘What do we need to do to address safety for Asian Americans?’ I tell them we need to have affordable health care, including mental health care for everybody. People need to be paid living wages, and no one should be homeless,” Choimorrow said. “We need to start thinking about finding solutions in much, much bigger, comprehensive ways than we’ve ever done because it’s really coming to that crisis point.”

A law enforcement officer in New York is seen at a subway station on March 30, 2021, in the largely Asian American neighborhood of Flushing.

Across the country, leaders and advocacy groups are trying different approaches.

​In mid-February, a few weeks after Go was killed on a New York subway platform, Mayor Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a plan to remove homeless individuals from trains and subway stations by deploying law enforcement officers and outreach teams with trained mental health professionals.

The city acknowledged in the plan that “homelessness and violence do not equate and must not be conflated.” But it stressed that immediate interventions were necessary to support “a small minority of individuals who may be experiencing several compounding challenges at once.” The proposal also called for state and federal funding for more beds and shelters with on-site mental health treatment.

Ben Wei, founder of the advocacy group Asians Fighting Injustice, said his organization asked Adams’ administration to take this action. He views it as a step in the right direction, but adds that criminalizing homelessness and “throwing police at the problem” is not the answer.

New York Mayor Eric Adams joins local politicians, activists and residents at a vigil for Michelle Go.

Others are more skeptical that the plan will make Asian American women safer. Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the New York-based Asian American Federation, wonders where homeless people will go after being removed from subways. She feels community organizations are best equipped to respond to social problems, and welcomes the state’s recent $10 million investment in Asian American advocacy groups, ​of whom her group is one.

In Georgia, where community members this week will mark the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings, advocates are calling for policies that address community needs, including language access in immigration services and access to the ballot box.

“We still see those as battles that we need to fight, that ultimately help create public safety and that will ultimately help to mitigate the conditions that lead to instances of interpersonal violence, including the spa shootings,” said Phi Nguyen, executive director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

Flowers adorn Gold Spa after a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas that left eight people, six of them Asian women, dead.

In California, advocates and elected officials are focusing on street harassment.

State lawmakers, in partnership with Stop AAPI Hate, recently introduced legislation that treats street harassment as a public health issue. One bill requires the largest transit agencies to study the types of harassment riders face and develop strategies to combat them, while another seeks to create a public awareness campaign that would engage residents across communities. A third bill, which Stop AAPI Hate says is still being finalized, will seek to help businesses respond to bias incidents.

The initiatives aren’t a panacea, Choi said. But because the majority of hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate involve harassment in public spaces, she feels they could make a significant dent in the problem.

Hong, for her part, recognizes that addressing the complex factors driving anti-Asian violence and harassment will require a combination of efforts. But she’s doing what she can to equip vulnerable people with tools to keep themselves safe. Along with two friends, she started the organization Seniors Fight Back, which offers self-defense training to elders in the Los Angeles community. She’s also using her voice to advocate for victims of hate incidents and help connect them to resources.

But the anti-Asian racism and attacks of the last two years have affected her deeply – the threat of violence feels like it’s always looming. She says she always has pepper spray on her, and walks with her keys between her fingers.

And she’s looking over her shoulder, just in case.