Karlin Chan started the Chinatown Block Watch in February 2020, when the coronavirus crisis was just beginning in the United States—and was already spurring racist attacks on Asian people. Three times a week he and a group of volunteers went on patrol in Chinatown to look out for their neighbors. Now, after a year of increased anti-Asian violence and harassment, they’re still at it. Chan is a New Yorker through and through, lived there 60 years, and as he put it, “I’m not going to take this stuff from anyone.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to him about the group’s community-building efforts, the police presence in Chinatown, and how long he plans to keep up the patrols. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: So you’re still doing the block watch twice a week. Thursday’s one of your days.
Karlin Chan: Yes. I started this last February 2020, and we were patrolling three times a week. Because of the winter, it’s pretty cold out there. Most of our volunteers don’t live in the Chinatown area. They come in from all over, they come from New Jersey even, so I had to cut down the days. But we’re going to pick it up again because apparently this is not going to ease up anytime soon, so there’s a need to increase the frequency of the patrols. I may actually start an evening patrol now, just to address the needs. It’s an ever-evolving strategy and plan.
Do you have a route you do with your crew?
It’s a very random route throughout the neighborhood. Last weekend I switched it up again because we had a larger group last weekend, we had about 30 people, so we split into three teams and we stay in contact with the FM walkie-talkie devices. This way, we’re always within a block of each other in case there is an incident, but we get more coverage area also.
How would I know it’s you? Do you guys wear identifying clothes?
I started with the orange safety vest and then I ordered the orange polos. Now we have black hoodies. I just recently made a shipment of face masks, and I’m buying new uniforms for the summer. So we’re all in uniform, we’re visible.
Is there a moment from your patrols over the last year that stands out to you? Was there a moment where you saw something and you intervened or something that you just keep returning to?
Well, we’ve intervened in verbal harassment. A person will be making stupid remarks about people, especially the old ladies along the curb trying to sell something. I would intervene and say, “Why are you bothering these people? What has this old woman done to you? If you don’t like Chinese, you don’t like Asians, why are you in Chinatown in the first place?”
You try to reason with them, you try to de-escalate the situation. We’re not a bunch of vigilantes out there looking for trouble. We’re not a bunch of vigilantes out there looking to racially profile people. But we’re there to de-escalate the situation, intervene and record and help the victim report it if necessary. We’re just neighbors looking after neighbors.
I’ve always advocated for people to report incidents of crime, whether they got mugged or whether they were harassed or whether they were attacked.
Why wouldn’t they do that?
Years ago, it was a language access problem. The city did not have a language bank at the time, but they created a language bank where the city agency or the police officer on the street can call into this bank and just say Cantonese, Mandarin, or whatever language. So it makes it a little easier. But there’s still a lot of hesitancy on the part of immigrants to have any kind of contact with government.
Also, the reporting process was a chore. If you walked into a precinct, you’d be spending an hour and a half to two hours there trying to report a mugging. And then if you have to look through mug shots, we can count on another hour or so. But the NYPD recently rolled out an online reporting system, where let’s say an immigrant can have their children or grandchildren just report the incident online and a detective or a police officer will follow up with you. So it makes it a little easier and also makes it less intimidating.
In the year that you built up this block watch, there’s been an increase in reported attacks against Asian Americans in New York City. I feel like having more incidents reported is part of your goal, and it may be a sign that you’re reaching people.
Exactly. My whole goal was to encourage people to start reporting incidents, because years ago people didn’t want to report this. If you were verbally harassed on the street, especially if you’re ESL, English as a second language, you had no idea what they were talking about anyway. But we look at 2019—I think there were one or two bias incidents against Asians in New York City.
You don’t think that’s accurate.
Ah, heck no. No way is that accurate because I’ve seen more personally. So how can you have two incidents of harassment when I’ve personally witnessed more?
It’s good to see people are stepping forward to report these incidents, because the NYPD and also the city government needs to allocate resources. Now they’re recognizing this problem. I’ve always said, if you don’t report it, it never happened, and the city agencies and police will not allocate resources to address the issue. So now the city is allocating resources. The NYPD has created positive steps to address this issue of bias incidents against Asians.
If you could advocate for one change in the response to anti-Asian hate and hate crimes right now, what would it be?
I would advocate for them to toughen the laws on this because right now, when you go into court, it’s kind of difficult to prove a hate crime in front of a jury, if it gets that far. In the absence of any witnesses, multiple witnesses, credible witnesses at least, it’s hard for the prosecution, the DA’s office, to prove this, and harassment as a hate crime is not really an offense that would put a person behind bars.
I was reading that historically the relationship between residents in Chinatown and the police has been pretty complicated—in the ’80s and ’90s, police were viewed as indifferent to locals’ concerns and folks even worried they were being taken advantage of.
There was a lot of misunderstanding. There was a lot of miscommunication, which created a lot of distrust. And there was also the language access problem. Now we have many more bilingual officers assigned to this precinct and the surrounding precincts. So it makes it a little easier. They are making an effort to have good relations with this community—the last couple of years, yeah, I would say so. They made big strides in community policing down here.
I’m curious how people in the block watch talk about things like defunding the police. I’ve noticed that some activists are pretty bullish on the idea of taking money away from the police and saying this really isn’t working for our community, while others very much want the protection of the police. What are those conversations like when you’re having them?
Well, actually, there are no members on the Chinatown Block Watch calling for defunding the police.
We don’t get into partisan politics. We actually don’t talk about politics at all. I support community policing here. I would love to see a beat cop come back onto the job. Decades ago, there used to be a beat cop, these officers that walk around the neighborhood on foot, and they get to know all the business owners, they get to know the residents.
Why do you think it is that in your group there isn’t conversation about defunding the police? Because it seems like some of what you’re doing is community building. It’s the kind of stuff that activists who want to defund the police think is more necessary.
We’re community building. Also, this is a form of community policing, you might want to call it, but we’re not anti-police or calling to defund the police at all. If you defund the police, who’s going to respond to crimes? Who’s going to respond to shootings or anything?
There is room for reform on how the police respond to marginalized or ethnic enclaves. But defunding the police? No. I wouldn’t agree with that.
Now that you’ve started patrolling the streets, do you think you’re going to stop? Do you see this as a temporary thing that’s responding to a crisis, or something else?
When I started the block watch, I was hoping that it would kind of disband by the end of the year. But in the back of my head, I always knew things will get worse before it gets better. And sadly, it has gotten worse. So probably we’re gonna extend this until the end of this year at least, or until the attacks fade away, because I think as the city reopens more, we’re going to have less of these attacks.
People have been locked down. Many people lost their jobs. So they’re frustrated, sitting at home. They couldn’t go to a ballgame up until just a couple of days ago. They couldn’t spend time with their family in large groups. So people are frustrated. Sometimes frustration turns to anger. And sometimes when you’re in a supermarket or in a store somewhere, you see an Asian person, you would lash out at that person, say, “You’re the one who caused this. You’re the freakin’ person. Your race or ethnicity caused me a year of hardship.”
It’s like the guy in Georgia—he had a “bad day.” I mean, we’re talking institutionalized entitlement here, where the police captain said, oh, he had a bad day. Well, I got news for you. I’ve had 400-plus bad days.
I’m kind of surprised to hear that you’re hoping to shut down the block watch. I was wondering if you were just going to make it a permanent fixture.
Well, if someone wants to fund this, I could make it a permanent fixture. We’re all volunteers. As the city reopens, people need to get back to work. I have a solid core of 25 people who’ve dedicated the last 14 months to coming out and patrolling the neighborhood, without any kind of reward. The only reward is the satisfaction of taking an active part in keeping an eye out for this community.