March 16, 2022 6:30 AM EDT

Tanny Jiraprapasuke’s first encounter with pandemic-fueled racism happened just days after U.S. health officials had confirmed the novel coronavirus was in the country.

On Feb. 1, 2020, while she was the only Asian-American passenger on a late-night train in Los Angeles, a male rider honed in on Jiraprapasuke and unleashed a 15-minute, expletive-laced tirade, blaming Chinese people for the virus.

Each time he used the phrase “China virus,” the man got angrier, says Jiraprapasuke, who is a Thai-American writer. At one point, she says, he started pacing toward her and swinging his arms in her direction. When she tried to make eye contact with nearby male passengers to subtly signal for help, each one looked away.

Tanny Jiraprapasuke stands at a Metro Gold Line station in Pasadena, Calif., on March 13, 2022.
Emanuel Hahn for TIME

“I really felt trapped in that moment,” says Jiraprapasuke, 46, who then started filming the man on her phone until he left the train.

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Once she was safe, Jiraprapasuke had no idea what to do. Should she call the police? The man didn’t physically harm her or threaten to hurt her, so what would she report? She felt endangered and singled out because of her race, but was what she experienced a crime?

Two years into the pandemic, and a year after the fatal shooting of six women of Asian descent during an attack on two Atlanta-area spas, thousands of Asian Americans who have been verbally abused by strangers still have no better clarity than Jiraprapasuke did that night. Unlike the Atlanta spa shootings—which Fulton County prosecutors say should bring an enhanced sentence reserved for hate crimes, and which called attention to other physical attacks against Asians—verbal harassment remains harder to categorize. But it is growing, affecting how countless people go about their days as they live in fear of an encounter like the one Jiraprapasuke endured.

From March 2020 to December 2021, there were more than 6,800 cases of verbal harassment against Asian Americans, according to newly updated figures from Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting database created at the beginning of the pandemic. The organization says verbal harassment continues to make up the biggest share of the roughly 11,000 total reported hate incidents in that timeframe. Yet most major cities don’t consider such nonviolent forms of discrimination a crime or have effective solutions in place to combat them.

Cynthia Shi embraces her boyfriend, Graham Bloomsmith, outside Gold Spa in Atlanta, one of three massage businesses where a gunman killed eight people, on March 18, 2021.
Chang W. Lee—The New York Times/Redux

‘It’s rude, but it’s not a crime’

In New York City—where most of the nation’s reported anti-Asian hate incidents have unfolded—verbal harassment based on identity is labeled a bias incident, and not a crime, when it does not involve a physical attack, a threat of an attack, or property damage, according to the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. The agency says some bias incidents may even be protected by free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, in Seattle, which has seen increased attacks against Asians, verbal harassment is not punishable under the city’s hate and bias crime laws unless it puts the victim in a reasonable fear of harm to themselves or their property, the Seattle Police Department says. Where Jiraprapasuke lives in California, name-calling, insults and other forms of verbal harassment motivated by hate cannot be prosecuted if they do not interfere with the civil rights of others, according to the state’s Attorney General’s office.

“Expressing that you don’t like somebody and calling them a racial epithet is not against the law,” says Frank Pezzella, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “It’s rude, but it’s not a crime.”

This leaves Jiraprapasuke, and many like her, to suffer through the vitriol. “It dehumanizes us in a way that becomes really dangerous,” says Jiraprapasuke, who didn’t call 911 because she says it wasn’t an emergency by the time the man had left the train. But a month after the incident, she called 211, a community services line, just to document that it had happened.

“I didn’t feel any better,” she says. “We’re really on our own.”

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Unfairly blamed for COVID-19, Asian Americans in the U.S. have endured sustained racism in the last two years. More than 57% of hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate occured in 2021, and almost half took place in public spaces, the group said. “Our communities are continuing to experience hate,” says Manjusha Kulkarni, one of Stop AAPI Hate’s co-founders. “Unfortunately, there’s been no decrease or dissipation in that.”

Much of the hate has been directed at women, who reported nearly 62% of all recorded incidents, the group said. The spa shootings on March 16, 2021 highlighted the apparent misogyny, as have recent high-profile killings and assaults that continue to keep women on edge a year later. In March, a man was charged with hate crimes after he allegedly assaulted at least seven women of Asian descent during a two-hour span in Manhattan. Another man was arrested on March 11 and charged with a hate crime and attempted murder after prosecutors say he punched a 67-year-old Asian woman more than 100 times in Yonkers.

In the last three months in New York City alone, one woman of Asian descent was pushed to her death in front of an oncoming train, and another was fatally stabbed in her apartment by a man who followed her home, according to police. Neither incident has been determined by authorities to be hate crimes, but they’ve added to the anxiety facing Asians, especially women. According to a survey by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, 74% of Asian women reported experiencing racism or discrimination over the past 12 months, with more than half reporting a stranger as the perpetrator.

“Women in our community appear to be experiencing the brunt of the discrimination,” Kulkarni says.

People hold signs during a rally in response to the killing of Christina Yuna Lee in New York, Feb. 14, 2022.
Seth Wenig—AP

Michelle Lee, a resident physician in Manhattan, says she has been spat on twice, stalked off a train, pushed off a bus, and verbally harassed on a subway platform, which she believes was due to her race and gender, since the start of the pandemic. Lee, who was born and raised in New York City, worries more for her safety now than she did when she was working at a hospital during the peak of the virus, surrounded by patients with a potentially lethal disease. She no longer goes out alone at night, and she avoids the subway as much as possible, even if it extends her commute time.

“They’re not freak accidents,” Lee says. “There’s an ugly fog over Asian Americans.”

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While the threat of physical harm poses looming fears, statistics show Asian Americans are more likely to face verbal, nonviolent attacks. Of the total incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate, 16% were physical assaults and 63% were verbal harassments.

The toll that hate takes

Both forms of hate can take psychological, emotional and mental tolls, experts say, and they have changed the way many people go about their lives. “The idea is to isolate you, to make you feel you don’t belong,” Pezzella says.

In spring 2020, Annie Vu, 27, was verbally harassed twice outside the grocery store closest to her New Jersey apartment. Afterwards, each time she needed to stock up on food, rather than risk someone screaming at her again about how Asians are to blame for the virus, Vu spent an extra $60 on roundtrip rideshares to go to an Asian supermarket further away.

For Hong Lee, 36, the vitriol came swiftly and suddenly as she was waiting to order tacos inside a Los Angeles restaurant. On Aug. 10, 2020, a man she didn’t know approached and invited her to have lunch with him. When Lee declined, saying she was married, the man screamed at her to “go back to Asia, followed by every single derogatory word you can imagine,” she says.

When the man showed no signs of stopping, Lee started recording his rant, sobbing until restaurant workers were able to coax the man to move away. Lee called 911, but she says the responding police officer viewed the footage and told her there was no crime and nothing to report. “I understand that there’s freedom of speech,” says Lee, who for weeks couldn’t sleep and was afraid to go outside. “But there has to be some extent to that. There have to be consequences for your actions.”

In San Francisco, which after New York is the city with the most incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate, human rights leaders agree. But they don’t fully know what those consequences could be, or how to enforce them, when the First Amendment protects hate speech. “Unfortunately, that is the challenge that we have,” says Sheryl Davis, the executive director of the city’s Human Rights Commission. “We’ve really been struggling.”

People march against anti-Asian violence and racism in Los Angeles, on March 27, 2021.
Mario Tama—Getty Images

No one-size-fits-all solution

Davis says her group is working with prosecutors and police to find a solution to combat hate incidents that go beyond criminal charges. Some of the ideas the commission is exploring include holding hearings, levying fines, or imposing mandating anger management or therapy. But the logistics have not been easy. The commission does not have the subpoena power to put out a bench warrant that would force an accused offender to appear before them. And the group would need lawmakers to pass an ordinance that would allow it to impose any form of punishment. Yet even after that, Davis says, it would still be difficult to prove the incident was racially motivated.

“Law enforcement is saying that they can’t do anything,” Davis says. “But we know, morally and ethically, and just in terms of people’s mental health and safety, that something needs to be done. This behavior can’t go unchecked.”

For many, turning to law enforcement for a fix is a controversial idea, particularly after the racial reckoning and uprising against systematic police brutality, following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. Kulkarni, a former civil rights attorney, says criminal prosecution and policing is not the answer, for many reasons, including the fact that the vast majority of hate incidents reported to her group do not have criminal elements.

Instead, Kulkarni says, the focus should be on passing federal legislation, beyond just hate crimes, that expands victim resources, including mental health support, and finding redress through civil rights laws when applicable. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, she says, adding that public education campaigns, similar to those about COVID-19 masking and vaccinations, might also help.

It’s hard to say what would work when efforts to reduce hate-motivated behavior have been largely unproven to date, says Robert Cramer, the lead author of a November 2020 analysis on the impacts of hate-motivated behavior and interventions. Without much reliable data, the efficacy of laws that primarily serve as deterrents for hate crimes are unclear. Still, Kulkarni says, it’s worth exploring and utilizing all the possible approaches. “Because what are we left with without it?” she says. “Whistles and mace?”

Thousands of people are hoping for a solution soon. But experts don’t think hate incidents will fade quickly, so long as COVID-19 is still a part of American life. Meanwhile, the urgency grows. Because nonviolent forms of hate, such as verbal harassment, happen more frequently than violent ones, they can have a cumulative effect, causing victims to feel helpless and hopeless about change and improvement over time, according to Cramer. “Because they’re more common, and they’re more sort of everyday experiences, they can really just lead to that sense of defeat,” he says.

Those feelings of defeat—on top of language barriers, concerns about immigrations status and distrust of law enforcement—can often cause people not to report incidents, which blurs the true scope, severity and prevalence of the issue, experts say. Underreporting is also problematic because hate incidents like verbal harassment can often lead to more serious aggressions, according to Pezzella and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We know that these incidents are precursors to actual hate crimes,” Pezzella says. “That’s why they’re so important. That’s why police need to know.”

Without seeing the difference between free speech and certain hate speech, and without finding viable solutions now to address and counter nonviolent forms of hate, Tanny Jiraprapasuke fears an entire population will remain in danger.

“We’re all vulnerable,” she says.

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