As Anti-Asian Violence Increases, Many Bystanders Stay Silent

Victims can feel traumatized by the lack of intervention: 'There are witnesses and nobody helped me.'

Jacqueline Koppell | Tuesday, June 8, 2021


An Asian man was beaten mercilessly on the subway until he fell to the floor unconscious. The attack was captured on video. No one intervened to help.

An Asian woman was pushed to the ground and then kicked many times on the street outside a residential building in Hell’s Kitchen. Security cameras showed two doormen in the lobby watching, then closing the building’s door without providing any assistance. 

Another video shows an Asian woman being punched unprovoked, knocking her to the ground and causing a fractured nose and right orbital bone. The other pedestrians kept walking. 

These are just three instances of recent anti-Asian violence and harassment during the pandemic in which onlookers provided no obvious help. 

Anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. increased 145% in 2020, compared to the year before, while hate crimes overall dropped by 6%, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

In New York City, according to the report, anti-Asian hate crimes increased from 3 in 2019 to 28 in 2020, a jump of 833%. Advocates believe that number doesn’t convey the severity of the problem because many incidents have gone unreported. And 2021 is on track to be worse. There were 47 anti-Asian hate crimes reported in the first quarter of this year in New York versus 13 during that same time period last year, an increase of 262%. 

“In 2019, we had three incidents of Asian hate crimes. We’re doing three in a day right now,” said Stewart Loo, the former deputy inspector of the New York Police Department’s Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Task Force who retired in April.

The rise of incidents is a concern. So is the failure of bystanders to intervene or help when someone is attacked.  

Will Lex Ham, an Asian American activist who lives in New York, noticed how hesitant people are to intervene. “It’s definitely a pattern,” he said. “A lot of them are just bystanders. Not wanting to get involved. I think that speaks to our society as a whole. This kind of rugged individualism that leaves people in silos.” 

At a “Stop Asian Hate” Rally in New York City’s Chinatown on June 2, 2021, activists and candidates running for office denounced the attacks on Asians in New York. From left to right, mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan, an activist, City Council candidate Jenny Low and mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia. (Photo/Jacqueline Koppell)

While bystander apathy is not a new phenomenon, Anne Marie Albano, a psychology professor at Columbia University, said that sometimes prejudice plays a role. “We do know that racism does feed into individuals not engaging and not helping no matter how heinous what they’re watching is,” she said.  

People are also more likely to help if they are similar to the victim, especially if they’re of the same race, said Albano.

But Loo doesn’t blame the bystanders. “I could understand not intervening because you’re scared that something might happen to you,” he said, noting that there have been instances where someone got involved and was then harmed or even killed. “That’s a real concern. I’m not going to criticize anybody for not physically jumping in.” 

Russell Jeung, a professor at San Francisco State University and the founder of the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, agreed that a fear of getting hurt was an understandable reason to avoid intervening in an attack. But he said that apathy could also be linked to bystanders having an anti-Asian bias. “They feel like we don’t belong and we’re outsiders and are sort of deserving of it,” said Jeung.

Emily Yuen, the chef at Bessou, a restaurant on Bleeker Street, was walking in Williamsburg last year with her husband and a friend when someone loudly said to them, “Should we take the Chinese to court or should we just kill them all?” 

Stunned, Yuen, who is Chinese, didn’t respond to the slur. Though she reported the incident, a part of her thought, “Who’s going to care?”

Jeung noted that regardless of the reasons why bystanders don’t get involved, victims are left traumatized by the lack of help. “We get a lot of, ‘There are witnesses and nobody helped me.’ And that makes the attack more painful,” he said. “It feels like people are condoning the racism. And that’s hurtful. It’s isolating.” 

Witnesses to a crime should find ways to help, said Loo. They could distract an attacker by yelling verbal commands to stop or, if they’re concerned for their safety, they could call for help from other witnesses and call the police. 

Once an attack is over, Jeung of Stop AAPI Hate, suggested approaching the victim to offer assistance to ensure they’re physically and emotionally safe. 

Hollaback!, a New York nonprofit dedicated to ending harassment, created a free, one-hour online bystander training course to combat anti-Asian harassment and tweeted in March that more than 45,000 people had registered. “The idea is to deepen the understanding of the reality and history of anti-Asian harassment,” said Ana Velasquez, a trainer with Hollaback!. “We teach people how to be active bystanders.”

Loo said he hopes victims stay vocal about what’s happening, as a way to prevent future attacks. “Live your life and continue to report these crimes,” he said. “The more attention it gets, the more resources we can throw at it. The more data on these crimes, the more we can have a solution for it.” 


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.