One February afternoon, a 50-year-old Asian woman was waiting in line at a bakery in Queens, New York, when a man threw a box of spoons at her and then shoved her so violently she required 10 stitches in her head. In a surveillance video, a crowd watches as the man attacks the woman, doing nothing as he hits her and then walks away.
“When I saw that, I thought, ‘That could be my mother. That could be my grandmother. That could be someone I knew,’” says Teresa Ting, a resident of Flushing, the neighborhood in which the attack occurred. “It hit close to home.”
The assault in Queens was one of a series of attacks on vulnerable or elderly Asian-Americans that have been captured in viral videos over the past few months. The March mass shooting of eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian-Americans, was a breaking point.
In her shock, Ting turned to Instagram Stories, the app’s ephemeral collections of videos or photos. She suggested that a bunch of neighborhood activists meet on Flushing’s Main Street in groups of four to keep an eye out for disturbances or violence. Within days she’d gathered a group of 100 volunteers trained in peaceful bystander intervention, which offers strategies for de-escalating violent situations, to patrol Main Street in groups for three hours each Saturday and Sunday and watch out for possible hate crimes.
“I started with an Instagram story and sharing my frustration on how I wanted to provide an extra set of eyes and ears, and here we are,” Ting says.
Traditionally Instagram activism has fallen into one of two categories: shows of solidarity (a black square post for Black Lives Matter, a black-and-white selfie for feminism) or fundraising (links and information to donation platforms like Venmo or GoFundMe). But Asian-Americans like Ting, feeling helpless and distrustful of the police, are now using Instagram and other platforms to protect themselves and their community more directly.
After the shootings in Atlanta, Kenji Jones, a digital marketer, used his Instagram account for a campaign to distribute pepper spray canisters to mostly elderly Asian-Americans in New York. Within three days, Jones had raised $18,000—enough for nearly 3,000 canisters.
Like Jones, Carolyn Kang is distributing a protective device: safety alarms that hook onto keychains and emit an ear-piercing 140-decibel siren when activated. Kang’s activism was born of a terrifying experience: a man lunged toward her on the subway and screamed, “Chinese people are ruining this fucking country!” Kang was uninjured but shaken.
“I felt completely helpless, so I wanted to do something that could tangibly help my community,” she says. “So many of us feel scared walking down the street at night, or taking the subway alone.”
Some Asian-American activists say their move to Instagram campaigns is driven by a distrust of authorities and a lack of confidence that they will respond effectively to hate crimes. Victims are often (but not always) older immigrants who may not be very familiar with the legal system or are uncomfortable bringing attention to their situation. This has caused hate crimes to be vastly underreported. “We don’t know how the government will help combat racism, so we take it upon ourselves to take care of each other,” says Kang. “And that starts with protection.”
Groups like Ting’s Main Street Patrol have cropped up in Asian neighborhoods across the US. These patrols bring together groups of volunteers who communicate via the walkie-talkie app Zello, which lets users talk to each other in real time without a phone number, and draw on bystander intervention training to defuse potentially violent interactions.
“We’re really paying attention to what people are doing,” says Farrah Zhao, a volunteer with Main Street Patrol . “We don’t want to be reactive … the NYPD [New York Police Department] should be more proactive with how they respond to these hate crimes. The fact that I am on patrol or working on Zello every weekend—it makes me feel sad.”
Early in the pandemic, Carrd and Instagram slideshows were popular as a way to educate the wider public about racial justice and ways to help. Slideshows aren’t going away, but they’re evolving. Esther Lim leads the Instagram account @hatecrimebook, a project distributing pocket-sized booklets in eight Asian languages plus English, advising folks on how to report a hate crime.
“Instagram was my only platform that I shared my booklets on when I first created it last year,” Lim told me via email. The books were often lengthy, so Lim worked with volunteers to distill them into essential information and then used an e-booklet platform, Flipsnack, to turn online PDFs into compact physical pamphlets. Around 34,500 of her booklets have now been distributed across Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.
“Obviously sharing digital content is more cost effective, but booklet printing is still so essential for people who do not have access to the internet or don’t know where to find resources like this,” Lim says. “Most of these groups are non-English-speaking elders, so it’s my duty to look out for them.”
While some fundraising projects use tried and true approaches (Kang is using GoFundMe, and Jones has his PayPal, CashApp, and Venmo handles displayed prominently on his stories), others are getting creative: @cafemaddycab, an account started by Madeleine Park that raises cab fare for Asian-Americans who might feel unsafe riding the subway, uses WeChat links through Instagram and a publicly available Google poster in Chinese to reach out to non-English speakers.
Though media attention to anti-Asian hate crimes has subsided, activists still see plenty of concerns to address. Last weekend, Jones ran out of pepper spray canisters; he had to turn so many people away that he, Lim, and another Instagram activist decided to join forces to host another event in mid-May where they’ll distribute more pepper spray and booklets, offer health screenings, and organize a voter registration drive. Activists say there’s a long road ahead of the Asian-American community, and the organizing engendered by the emergency needs to continue.
“We are living in fear every day,” says Kim. “If an attack happens to one of us, the whole community is affected.”