Michelle Go's subway death amid record rise in anti-Asian attacks leaves community reeling

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The death of Michelle Go, who was fatally shoved in front of a New York subway car on Saturday, has left the Asian American community feeling a sense of tragic loss, groups say.

Go, who was attacked by a homeless man, Simon Martial, had been waiting for a train at the Times Square station when she was pushed from behind. Though the incident is not being investigated as a hate crime, the community is reeling, mourning and on edge against a backdrop of increased hate crimes and attacks, Asian American advocacy organizations say.

“Whether it was a hate crime or not, the reality is, Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, every time we see an incident like this, our anxiety goes up,” Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, told NBC Asian America. “Regardless of what the correlation is, we see ourselves in these pictures.”

Image: Michelle Alyssa Go (LinkedIn)
Image: Michelle Alyssa Go (LinkedIn)

Go’s family said Monday that they were in a “state of shock.”

“We hope Michelle will be remembered for how she lived and not just how she died. She was a beautiful, brilliant, kind, and intelligent woman who loved her family and friends, loved to travel the world and to help others,” the family said in a statement. “Her life was taken too soon in a senseless act of violence, and we pray that she gets the justice she deserves.”

Martial, 61, who had been determined to be unfit to stand trial after a 2019 psychiatric evaluation involving a drug possession charge, turned himself in later that day. He is currently being held at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. Experts previously told NBC Asian America that the term hate crime should be used only when a suspect is charged, as it has dangerous implications — particularly for communities of color — when applied to cases that do not involve racial animus.

Groups are heeding that warning, and at the same time acknowledging that some Asian Americans are saying that their daily fears were realized in the attack and that they saw themselves in Go — particularly women.

Go, who worked at the consulting firm Deloitte, had been an avid volunteer at the New York Junior League, a women’s organization. She had just celebrated her 40th birthday, and reminded some women of any one of “our sisters,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of NYC-based nonprofit Asian American Federation.

Yoo said that the Asian community had already been on high alert since the start of the pandemic, when many had been blamed or scapegoated for the virus. NYPD crime statistics released in December showed a 361 percent increase in anti-Asian attacks compared to the year before. Yoo said that she’s talked to countless Asian New Yorkers who have had to steel themselves for potential harassment or violence, sometimes planning their days to better avoid interactions.

But Yoo added that Go’s attack represents another chilling layer of fear that Asian women in particular have always contended with while using public transit.

“I’m so tired of being constantly looking around and constantly making sure that nobody’s behind me — is this a potential attacker?” Yoo said. “We just have to mentally prepare that, you can’t ever let your guard down the minute you step out of your house.”

Choimorrow said Asian women might be uniquely vulnerable to harassment because of the stereotype that they are timid and docile, therefore making them “an easy target.” So the incident should not be discussed as an outlier, Choimorrow said, but as a systemic one.

“It’s only scratching the surface, when you start talking about the specific incident as if our country doesn’t have a problem with women not having safety in public places in general,” Choimorrow explained. “Why does it take the murder of women before we talk about these issues that impact us every day?”

Connie Wun, co-founder of nonprofit AAPI Women Lead, echoed Choimorrow, saying that for women of color and non-binary people in particular, “being afraid or being subjected to harassment and violence” is a daily experience. And because of that, it’s necessary for the issue of public safety to be folded into policy agendas, educational narratives, and political movements, with solutions that involve those most heavily impacted.

“You have to center the women, the femmes and the non-binary folks because we have the experiences that will tell the accurate story of what it’s like every day,” Wun said.

Wun said that it’s also critical to call out the possible patriarchal violence that potentially contributed to Go’s death, one that’s also been responsible for the lack of safety and constant anxiety in so many others’ lives. Martial had allegedly approached another woman, who moved away from him, before attacking Go, NYPD said.

“It’s really important to implicate patriarchy. And that’s patriarchy across races, and ethnicities,” Wun said.

On the topic of moving forward, Choimorrow said that she and many others continue to derive strength from their heritage and community.

“I think about who I come from, I’m talking very specifically, particularly from my place as a Korean American — the things that my grandmother endured during the Korean War. And her mother during Japanese occupation,” Choimorrow said. “I think about the ways that the women in my family have not only survived but managed to thrive and find joy.”

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