Why Bystanders Are Complicit In Hate Crime Attack Against 65-Year-Old Asian American Woman In NY

Photo: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images
Anti-Asian Hate Protestors In NYC

Brandon Elliot, the suspect arrested in an attack of an Asian American woman in New York City has been charged with felony assault as a hate crime. But should others be held accountable for standing by? 

The arrest comes after a viral video of the incident showed Elliot repeatedly kicking a 65-year-old Filipino woman to the ground while onlookers watched without stepping in. 

Outrage rippled across social media as millions watched security footage of the woman crumpling to the ground just feet away from a luxury hotel building where three men watched. 

Are bystanders also responsible for the attack? 

As Elliot walked away from the woman he just assaulted, one of the men, a security guard, walked to the front of the building and closed it while the victim struggled to get to her feet.

The woman, who has been identified as Vilma Kari, was treated in the hospital for serious injuries, including a fractured pelvis, in the aftermath.

Kari immigrated to the U.S. from The Philipines a decade ago. She is a mother. And she was simply walking to church when Elliot attacked her.

Police officials also revealed that Elliot, who was convicted of stabbing his mother to death in 2002, had screamed obscenities and shouted, “You don’t belong here,” at the woman during the incident. 

Even as reports of anti-Asian hate crimes become increasingly prolific across the nation, the video struck a raw nerve for millions in the AAPI community. 

Even in broad daylight on a busy street near Times Square with plenty of witnesses around, Asian-Americans are not safe. 

But it also confirmed another fear, even in the midst of growing conversations about anti-Asian hate, many are unwilling to step up and stop racism as it plays out in the most explicit ways. 

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The bystander effect

The attack and the failure of onlookers to act exhibits the severe lack of social responsibility felt toward the victim. 

While a fellow human was being violently assaulted, it was easier for those nearby to close a door than it was to even help her off the ground when it was over. 

The events demonstrate the bystander effect — a social psychology theory that states that people are less likely to help a victim when there are other bystanders around. When there are more people watching an event, it becomes easier for people to diffuse responsibility and believe that someone else will intervene so they don’t have to. 

However, as we've seen during this hate crime, often no one stops in, speaks up, or offers aid at all. This inaction was a physical manifestation of what happens so often in the case of anti-Asian racism.

Excuses are made, issues are overlooked and ignored, and we all become accomplices in the perpetuation of racism by failing to step up. 

The entire premise of anti-racism is built to antithesize the idea that by “staying out of it” you don’t contribute to the problem. 

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As we seek to hold more people accountable for both perpetrating and enabling hate crimes and racist behaviors, can we continue to justify closing doors in the face of racial attacks?

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Justice does not undo trauma

Eliot is facing charges of assault as a hate crime, attempted assault as a hate crime, assault and attempted assault which, is a minuscule win for the Asian-American community who are often overlooked by the justice system

But justice like this is only served in the aftermath of injustice. These charges do little to address the wide-spanning anti-Asian hate that is culturally ingrained in America.

The deepening impacts of anti-Asian hate are becoming much harder to treat as this group struggles with increasing levels of fear and trauma. An event like this proves the need for meaningful anti-racist action. 

New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s comments about the horrific nature of this attack and the ignorance shown by those who watched speaks to a wider lesson that we all must learn in order to act against injustice:

“I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what you do, you’ve got to help your fellow New Yorker.”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.