In the middle of Times Square on Tuesday night, a portrait of a young Asian American woman shined brightly over the crowd. Beneath her, hundreds of New Yorkers, including Mayor Eric Adams, had gathered to commemorate her life.
Her smile was wide and radiant, her long dark hair parted on the side. Displayed at the bottom of the screen was her name. Michelle Alyssa Go.
Go, a 40-year-old senior manager at Deloitte, was shoved onto the train tracks at the Times Square station on Jan. 15, in a brutal attack that has sent shock waves through the city. Friends and neighbors remembered the California native as an avid traveler, generous and “incredibly smart.”
According to police, Go was waiting for an R train on Saturday morning when she was pushed from behind by Martial Simon, 61, a houseless man with a history of violence and mental health issues.
“She had her back to [him],” one witness told the New York Times. “She never saw anything.”
For some, Go’s death highlights a waning sense of safety in public spaces, particularly New York City’s subway system, which saw an increase in assaults last year, despite overall ridership being down.
The attack also reverberated through the city’s Asian American communities. Asians Fighting Injustice, the advocacy group that organized Tuesday night’s vigil, wrote, “Her senseless murder has shaken the city and has seeded more sorrow, fear and anger in the Asian community.”
Police say there is no evidence that Go’s attack was racially motivated. Officials added that minutes before Simon shoved Go, he confronted another woman on the subway platform. According to the Times, the woman, who is not of Asian descent, told police she drew away from Simon, afraid he might push her onto the train tracks.
For Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Go’s death highlights multiple ongoing failures in addressing public safety for women, particularly Asians and Asian Americans.
“The frustrating part for me is that people want it to be a single issue,” Choimorrow said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s the person that’s broken, not our system.’ ”
But, Choimorrow added, “a year after so many of these mayors have the commitment to increasing police presence in our communities, we don’t feel any safer.”
Public spaces, particularly public transit, have long been fraught for women and nonbinary people. New York City grappled with this very question — how to make the subways safer for women and women-presenting people — before the coronavirus pandemic, including proposing banning repeat sex offenders.
But straphangers of all genders said last year that riding the subway has felt markedly less safe. As the Times notes, the data on subway crime is mixed: Reports of felony assaults through November 2021 increased threefold compared with 2019, but transit officials say major felonies as a whole reached an all-time low.
Still, a slew of high-profile attacks, some of them fatal, have unnerved subway riders and put commuters on edge.
Between November 2020 and late December, five different women were violently attacked at one Brooklyn station. According to prosecutors, Khari Covington, admitted to the crimes, saying he had been targeting “light-skinned” women. Survivors of the attacks criticized police for not alerting the public about the crimes in the first place — or noting that women were particularly vulnerable.
Soon afterward, in January, the city saw a string of attacks where people were pushed onto subway tracks (none of which were fatal). The attacks targeted women and men — and both women and men were named as suspects. What the assaults had in common, said police, was that they were perpetrated randomly, by people with mental health issues.
Last year, riders told the Times they were taking increased precautions, like carrying mace, to prepare themselves for potential violent encounters. Go’s death last week was the second violent death in the subway in just two weeks, according to the paper.
But the violence in the city’s transit system is also happening amid a “shadow pandemic,” which has seen increased violence against women and harassment in the past two years. A recent United Nations report surveying women in 13 developing countries found 40 percent of women reported feeling more unsafe in public places than they did before the pandemic.
Jorge Arteaga, deputy director of Hollaback, a nonprofit aimed at tackling harassment, said women and LGBTQIA individuals have consistently faced harassment and violence in public.
“This is something that comes up a lot,” Arteaga said.
He noted that there were several possible factors for increased fear during the pandemic: Fewer people are riding public transportation, and a lack of crowds could leave commuters more isolated and vulnerable to an attack. Hate crime reporting has also surged among marginalized groups, most notably among Black Americans and Asians and Asian Americans.
Withering safety nets mean there are more people experiencing housing insecurity or mental health crises who aren’t receiving adequate services, Arteaga added.
In response to these factors, groups like Hollaback developed targeted bystander intervention trainings to help stop harassment as it’s happening.
Adriana Li, an instructor and program coordinator at the self-defense organization Impact Boston, has “definitely” seen an increase in the number of people and organizations seeking self-defense and empowerment strategies. Most of Impact Boston’s clients are women and nonbinary individuals, according to Li.
Many were reaching out to the organization to help with de-escalation techniques, she added, as well as race- and gender-based violence. They would feel anxious about violence they saw reported on the news and did not feel like they had the tools or support to confront those situations, Li said.
“A lot of people were like, ‘I want to prepare myself because I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ ” Li said.
Among the most high-profile attacks in the past year was a mass shooting in March targeting Asian-owned spas in the Atlanta metro area. The suspect in that shooting, Robert Aaron Long, is accused of killing eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
Prosecutors in the two different counties where the shootings happened were split in how they viewed the crime: A Cherokee County prosecutor said investigators saw no evidence of racial bias, while Fani Willis, Fulton County’s district attorney, said Long attacked four Korean American women there because of their race and gender.
Nearly a year after the shooting, Choimorrow feels that the specificity of the crime, impacting a vulnerable group of women in an industry often suspected of sex work, was “swallowed up” by broader narratives about anti-Asian hate and the pandemic.
“The dominant narrative that was out there after the shooting was about covid,” she said. “Yet the reason these women were murdered [was] because they were Asian American women.”
Before Go’s death, Adams and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a plan to beef up police “omnipresence” in the city’s transit system. The plan includes increased outreach to people experiencing homelessness by trained mental health professionals.
Addressing the “AAPI community,” Adams tweeted after the Tuesday vigil: “I’m recommitted to ending this kind of fear. We must stop crime. We must help those facing mental health issues.”
But despite a year of pledges to improve public safety, including a 2021 federal bill aimed at tackling hate crimes against Asian Americans, Choimorrow said she suspects that Asian American women don’t feel any safer now than they did last year.
She’s frustrated by a lack of long-term, “holistic” solutions to address the spike in gender- and race-based violence. NAPAWF believes these include community investment, such as bolstering health-care access, housing, food security and culturally specific support services for vulnerable populations.
“Policing is a whack-a-mole approach. They show up after the fact, ” said Choimorrow, who supports a “multi-prong” approach tackling both gendered and racial violence. “We can’t forever blame mental health issues for all these atrocities. At some point, leaders have to take responsibility.”
Choimorrow believes preventing deaths like Go’s is about more than making the NYC subway safer. It’s about tackling the conditions that lead to gender- and race-based violence in the first place.
“It’s not an issue that we can rely on politicians or public leaders to address alone. It has to be a cultural reset, a sea change in how we do life together,” she said. “And I think that’s what’s hard about it.”
She knows that some of these culturally focused solutions — such tackling how Asian and Asian American women are represented in media, for example — don’t seem “tangible.”
But, Choimorrow added: “Maybe it’s time to try those things, because everything else you’ve tried is not working.”