A rush of emotion ran through Chong Bretillon’s body as she biked into Times Square, where massive billboards displayed the portraits of Michelle Alyssa Go and many Asian American victims of bias attacks.
“I was overwhelmed with both grief and sorrow,” said Bretillon, a 41-year-old Korean American and college instructor. “It put it all together, the Asian American community’s fears and the problem of racial violence.”
“It brought the point home that this has been happening and you cannot look away,” said Bretillon, who was in Times Square attending a vigil for Go earlier this week.
The death of Go, who was pushed to her death in front of a Times Square subway train, jolted Asian Americans across the United States, even though the incident isn’t being investigated as a hate crime. It prompted a kind of collective grief in a community affected by an increase in anti-Asian violence in recent years, advocates say.
Go was 40 years old and worked in mergers and acquisitions for the multimillion-dollar financial firm Deloitte Services LP. She was remembered as a compassionate woman who volunteered her time to help women, children and homeless people.
A 61-year-old man has been charged with second-degree murder in connection with Go’s death, drawing renewed attention to the burgeoning homeless crisis and the ongoing wave of anti-Asian violence.
While police say the incident isn’t being investigated as a hate crime, for Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, it’s impossible to separate what Asian Americans have experienced over the past two years from Go’s death.
“You can tell me all you want this is not related to me being Asian but when I look at pictures of Michelle Go and read the story I see myself in it,” Choimorrow said.
Charles Jung, an attorney and executive director of the California Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said it might be hard to say that Go’s death met the legal burden of proof for a hate crime but “it doesn’t mean it’s not real” that it “arose within a climate of anti-Asian scapegoating, fear of racism” and numerous other violent attacks.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of people in the US have been victims of anti-Asian incidents, from verbal abuse to physical attacks.
In New York, hate crimes involving Asian Americans increased from 28 in 2020 to at least 129 incidents in 2021, said James Essig, NYPD chief of detectives, in a news conference last month.
When Go died, advocates and the Asian American community in New York were still mourning the death of Yao Pan Ma, a 62-year-old Asian man who police said was bashed in the head in an unprovoked attack in East Harlem.
He died from his injuries eight months after the attack, which happened a little over a month after eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in shootings at Atlanta-area spas.
As with last year’s shootings in Georgia, Choimorrow says Go’s death particularly resonated with Asian women who are often seen as “easy targets” because of the centuries-old perception that they are timid and docile.
“Now we have people who are harassing us because we’re Asian, and they target us because as women, we are seen as easier targets than men,” Choimorrow said.
‘Michelle Go was like all of us’
Earlier this week, portraits of Go and several Asian Americans killed and injured in violent attacks shone over Times Square. Jonathan Chang began drawing them from Los Angeles nearly a year ago, following the death of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai American man who was violently shoved to the ground by a stranger.
Chang says he was angered by Ratanapakdee’s attack, but a friend told him to use those emotions and his talent as a designer and illustrator to honor his life with a drawing.
Shortly after he posted Ratanapakdee’s portrait on social media, he says thousands of people began sharing it. As the weeks and months passed, he continued drawing portrait after portrait of Asian American victims of violence whose stories he thought needed to be amplified.
“They could be any one of us. Look at the age groups, it spans from young to old. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman or anything, pretty much all of us are under attack,” Chang said about the people he featured in his drawings.
“They were all victims. People just casually discarded them like they didn’t mean anything, but to other people, they meant everything,” he added.
Go’s death has attracted the attention of many people, Chang says, because of how violent it was and because her death is yet another reminder of the danger they might face.
“I think a lot of us put ourselves in her shoes. I know in a way Michelle Go was like all of us,” Chang said.