NEW YORK >> Last spring Annie Chen, who works in human resources, read about an Asian woman who had been punched in the face and yelled at by a stranger just a few blocks from where she lived in midtown Manhattan.
Five days later, Chen, 25, bought her first canister of pepper spray.
She had been struck by the way the public perception of Asian Americans had suddenly changed, she said, and simply wanted to protect herself. “I felt like if people had any anger or frustration — and if you were just walking around being a person who looks Asian — they might take it out on you.”
Over the last year, more than 6,600 anti-Asian hate incidents have been recorded nationwide, according to the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate. New York had the largest increase in anti-Asian hate crimes relative to other major cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
In response, organizers have formed watch groups, volunteer buddy systems and other initiatives. Many Asian Americans have also changed the way they go about their daily lives, avoiding the subway, staying hyper-alert in public and remaining at home as much as possible.
But as more New Yorkers get vaccinated, the city is unquestioningly opening up. Many Asian Americans, responding to the continuing spate of attacks, are now increasingly arming themselves with items for personal defense.
“People are talking about whether to buy pepper spray, whether to buy a Taser gun, like which one is better? Which one is safer, which one would you actually use? These are conversations that we’re having now,” Chen said.
“I think it just speaks to the urgency that people are feeling,” said Kenji Jones, one of several New Yorkers raising money to give away personal-defense devices in Chinatown and Flushing, Queens.
On March 31, Jones, 23, posted a call for donations on Instagram. He ended up raising more than $18,000 in three days, he said. In April, he distributed nearly 3,000 canisters of pepper spray and more than 1,000 personal alarms. During another giveaway, he was met with throngs of people and ran out of supplies within 20 minutes. And last weekend, at a Chinatown event, thousands more devices — including kubotans (keychain weapons), whistles and more pepper spray — were distributed.
It is legal for adults who have not been convicted of a felony or assault to carry pocket-size pepper spray in New York, as long as it complies with regulations set by the state Department of Health. Sales are restricted to authorized dealers and customers can buy only two canisters at a time (Jones amassed the pepper spray for his giveaways through a friend in New Jersey, which has more relaxed rules).
At Esco, a pharmacy in Hell’s Kitchen, pepper spray sales increased eightfold in the month after the Atlanta spa shootings, in which a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were Asian or Asian American women. Danny Dang, the owner of Esco, said that 90% of the customers buying the spray were Asian American.
For Arthur Bramhandtam, a 36-year-old journalist, pepper spray is just one more thing on his check list when he leaves the apartment. “You have to bring your keys with you, you have to bring your wallet, you have to bring your iPhone — I have to bring my pepper spray now, it’s habitual,” he said.
Both Bramhandtam and Chen called the pepper spray a last resort, sharing concerns about using it effectively and escalating an already dangerous situation. To this end, they have adopted other precautions to minimize the possibility of having to use it.
Chen has taken to zipping around on a bicycle so she can get away from assailants quickly. Bramhandtam and his husband have discussed distraction techniques, especially in enclosed spaces, like subway cars.
And even though Hyesu Lee, a 42-year-old illustrator who lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, recently started carrying pepper spray, she said she was planning to sign up for Brazilian jujitsu classes. She feels more vulnerable because English is her second language and fears her accent might mark her as a target.
Two nonprofits, the Asian American Federation and the Center for Anti-Violence Education, have teamed up to provide self-defense training. Stressing the need for more grassroots community programs, the federation’s deputy director, Joo Han, added that she has also noticed more Asian Americans buying guns.
“When people feel like they don’t have alternatives, they feel like they have to defend themselves using extreme measures,” Han said. “The fear that advocates have is that something is going to go wrong and it’s going to end in greater violence.”
Lee, who questions whether she will ever be accepted in the United States, has considered leaving the city — her home for more than 10 years — and returning to South Korea.
“But I have to live my life,” she said. “You want to believe that this wouldn’t happen to you — but it could.”
Confronted with these challenges, many Asian Americans are feeling the toll after an already stressful year.
“I don’t know what they’re seeing when they look at us, that they’re just attacking,” said Florence Doo, a resident physician at Mount Sinai West, who despite taking safety precautions said she had been publicly heckled and scapegoated for the coronavirus on two occasions. “And that thought process — that baseline stress that I’m carrying, I can see now how that affects people’s bodies and their lives. That’s not healthy.”
As for the deeper issue of racism, Dang, the pharmacist, said: “Is pepper spray really the solution? I don’t know. We want to help those who feel vulnerable. But fear is not healthy. I’d rather not sell this product and have everyone be calm and feel OK.”
Bramhandtam questioned the burden of making changes in his life. “When you do that, you’re letting this insidiousness that is pervading our society get to you, and like, that would win. And I don’t want that either. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.”