“You don’t belong here, you Asian,” he said, cursing and beating her so violently that Vilma, then 65, was left with serious pelvic injuries.
Later, Vilma realized that closed-circuit video of those nightmarish moments had gone viral online, placing her at the center of a media storm over anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic.
“Every day I was constantly reminded of what had happened to me,” said Vilma, who immigrated from the Philippines as a student in her 20s.
Vilma and her daughter Elizabeth are among thousands of families across the United States grappling with a surge in anti-Asian violence fueled by misinformation linking the virus with Asian countries or people.
This Sunday community members and activists are holding rallies across six major cities to honor victims of anti-Asian racism, including 84-year-old Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee who died after an attack last January.
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations say America hasn’t become any safer for the community in the past year — and they worry that the underlying problems that led to people being targeted still haven’t been addressed.
Video sparks international outrage
Chilling video of Vilma’s attack went viral — and not just because of the violence.
Filmed from what appears to be a security camera inside an Midtown apartment complex, a man can be seen kicking Vilma as she collapses on the pavement outside.
At the same time, two doormen inside the building watch the incident, with one closing the building’s glass doors as it happens. They wait a minute for the perpetrator to leave before going outside.
During that time, two other people come and go from the building, appearing to walk past Vilma as she lies motionless on the street.
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) later said no one called 911 to report the incident and that patrol officers driving by had come upon Vilma after the assault.
Vilma’s daughter Elizabeth rushed to hospital to be with her mother. Later that night, she received a text from a friend with a link to a video and a question: “Is this your mom?”
“At first I couldn’t imagine that that was her,” Elizabeth said. “The actual brutality of the incident was just eye-opening.”
In the weeks afterward, news channels replayed the video and reporters gathered outside their home. Their phones rang incessantly and messages flooded in from concerned friends, family and sympathetic strangers.
Elizabeth did her best to shield Vilma from the attention — but sometimes it felt inescapable. “That was every moment of what I was dealing with,” Elizabeth said.
Among the surge of strangers reaching out were prominent activists and members of the AAPI community, as well as well-wishers around the world. Some said Vilma reminded them of their own parents; others offered to send Filipino snacks and care packages.
The messages “brought me great comfort during the height of my recovery,” Vilma said. “I would read the beautiful, heartfelt notes and messages that I had received … and was so moved that strangers from all over the world would take time out of their day to think about me.”
A target on their backs
Among the messages Vilma received were many personal stories from others in the AAPI community who had also faced discrimination, harassment or assault.
And experts say the real number is likely much higher, as many attacks aren’t classified as hate crimes due to lack of evidence that identity was the motivating factor. Language barriers and long-standing distrust of law enforcement also contribute to underreporting.
This rise in attacks has led to increased anxiety and mistrust in the community — and older AAPI people in particular are more afraid to go out for fear of being targeted, survivors and experts told CNN.
“You’re still going to see the senior citizen who may still be walking around Chinatown late at night, but I think the majority are very cautious,” said Shirley Ng, a community organizer with civil rights group the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Some businesses in New York’s Chinatown area even started closing earlier last year, so their employees can get home safely before nightfall, she added.
Minerva Chin, 68, never used to think twice before going out for evening walks or to run errands at night. But one day last July, Chin, a Chinese American teacher and community activist, was punched by a stranger in the street while walking through a part of Chinatown she knows well. She passed out and suffered a mild concussion; her attacker disappeared into the crowd and was never caught.
Though she had followed the news about the rise in racism, after her attack, it “hit that, ‘Oh my God, all this anti-Asian hate isn’t going away’ — that it came to my neighborhood,” said Chin.
She’s now cautious about being out past 10 p.m., feels more uneasy in crowds and sometimes avoids narrow sidewalks so nobody gets too close to her.
“I think in general, people became more vigilant,” she said. “You know, don’t walk by yourself or go out late … It’s the reality sinking in that this is real, we all have to be cautious, we escort each other home or give each other a ride.”
Tommy Lau knows this feeling well. Having worked as a bus driver for over a decade, he has encountered countless aggressive passengers slinging racial slurs.
But the frequency and intensity of racist vitriol has gotten worse since the pandemic, said Lau, who is Chinese American.
On March 23, a week before Vilma’s attack, he witnessed a man trying to mug an elderly Asian couple. When Lau tried to intervene, the man punched him in the face and used a racial slur. “Then he spat at me,” Lau said.
Lau suffered a concussion and had to take half a year of unpaid leave to recover, regularly attending physical rehabilitation for months. Sometimes, he felt so dizzy he couldn’t stand.
Making matters worse, he said, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) didn’t pay him any workers’ compensation because the confrontation had happened during Lau’s lunch break, which is not classified as working hours.
The matter is still under litigation, Lau said. CNN has repeatedly reached out to the MTA for comment.
Lau returned to the job in October after recovering physically and spoke to CNN at the Brooklyn bus depot one November evening. As the sun set, he leaned against a parked bus on the street, pausing occasionally to greet other bus operators passing by.
He received praise after the attack, including a plaque from the NYPD 62nd precinct in recognition of his stopping the mugging, he said. But it didn’t shake the discomfort that lingers when he gets behind the wheel.
“I can’t face people now — and this is a people job,” he said. “Being a bus operator, you face people constantly. Now, I see them, I just — I don’t hate them, but I don’t like to face them no more. It’s psychological.”
Push for action
Before the attack, Vilma lived by herself in Chicago, and was planning to travel to her native Philippines to visit her siblings. Now, she is staying in New York with her only child Elizabeth, who took two months off work to care for her mother full-time.
Some members of the AAPI community have taken a more direct approach, conducting volunteer patrols throughout Chinatown, organizing self-defense classes, or running street campaigns encouraging people to report hate crimes so authorities have an accurate idea of how widespread the problem is.
New York leaders pledged support last year, with state lawmakers creating a $10 million fund in April to combat discrimination. So far, $3.5 million has been distributed to 11 community organizations; the rest of the promised funds are “under review and will be awarded as quickly as possible,” the New York Department of State said in a statement to CNN.
But despite the community’s efforts, the underlying racial hatred and systemic problems that led to the attacks haven’t been substantially addressed, say activists and survivors. Several told CNN they believed violent perpetrators should be denied bail or held for longer after arrest and that authorities need to offer more support to people who may be suffering from mental disorders.
They also pointed to the problem of underreporting and the NYPD’s narrow definition of hate crimes, which prevent authorities from measuring the true scale of the problem.
Under the NYPD’s rules, unless there is clear evidence of motive — for instance, an attacker yelling a racial or discriminatory slur — many attacks aren’t classified as hate crimes, and convicted perpetrators may be given a lesser sentence depending on the charge.
When Chin was punched in Chinatown, “nothing was said … so they don’t classify it as a hate crime,” she said.
Vilma was one of the few cases that saw her alleged attacker charged with hate crimes, including two counts of second degree assault and one count of first degree attempted assault. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
But even with her attacker arrested, Vilma is still struggling to move on.
Vilma said she would love to visit her family in the Philippines, many of whom she hasn’t seen for years — but she can’t leave the country while legal proceedings continue and her recovery isn’t complete.
Though she is now physically strong enough to go out for occasional walks or up to her rooftop, she’s afraid to leave the house without a friend or family member. She isn’t ready yet to return to the area where she was attacked, she said.
“Fear lingers most of the time,” she added. “I don’t feel comfortable walking outside alone.”