Attack survivor Cecille Lai: ‘Why do we have hate for each other?’

A message for peace. Photos by Lindy Rosales

By Lindy Rosales

On March 10, exactly a week after Cecille Martinez Lai and her military veteran son Kyle were attacked viciously in a Queens intersection, she came back near the scene of the crime to speak at a rally in support of her family.

At the time of the rally, two suspects have been arrested. The NYPD identified them as 18-year-old Natalie Plaza and 21-year-old Elijah Fernandez, both from Queens. One of the speakers stated that the police know who the third suspect is and the manhunt for him continues.

In a quavering voice, filled with emotion, Cecille said, “I’m just confused. I just don’t understand why we have hate for each other.”

She continued, “I try to process it in my mind and in my heart; why this is happening? I just want to put it out there to our local government…I would say (our efforts are) probably not enough. We have to raise awareness. We probably should educate more, in schools, the internet, social media.

“I decided to come here to show strength from our community. That we should start speaking out, because people are thinking (hate crimes) are not happening anymore. Or that they’re done. They’re still happening.”

Corona Plaza is a busy thoroughfare right below the 103rd stop of the 7 train with a small raised platform surrounded by shops, delis and street vendors. On this platform, government officials and the Queens community came together to support Lai and her son  amid the cold and rainy weather.

“We’re here today to express our outrage and our devastation at yet again another hate crime against a member of our Asian American community. An attack on one of us, is an attack on all of us. Ms. Lai and her son are not alone in this,” Shekar Krishnan, Queens City Council (D) member representing Jackson Heights and Elmhurst.

Anti-Asian assault survivor Cecille Lai arrives at a rally denouncing the attack on her family. Behind her is New York State Senator John Liu.

Also present was Congresswoman Grace Meng, the only Asian congresswoman from New York. In the early hours after the incident, Meng was in contact with Lai and the 115th precinct.

She said, “Hate and ignorance will not be tolerated in Queens, NY or anywhere in this country. Whenever one of us is attacked, we all stand together and condemn the perpetrators. And we have to continue to do that and to continue to call that out. But we as Asian-Americans come together to say we are Americans too.” 

Assembly Member Jenifer Rajkumar (D, 38th district) noted the “astronomical rise” in anti-hate crimes. “This is an epidemic that we must end today.” Rajkumar represents South Queens and has introduced a bill in Albany to establish the first-ever Asian American Commission that she said would address the needs of the community.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said, “This county will always stand together in the face of hate. A mother and her son should be able to walk across the street. To walk their neighborhood free of fear and free of an attack all because of who they are.”

Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation (AAF), found out about the attack when she received a text message from Council member Shekar Krishnan. Yoo spoke to Cecille and promised that the community will always stand will her and support her in her pursuit for justice.

“The violence against our community did not stop with COVID, and it’s not over,” she said.

Yoo said her staff is working with the witness who helped Cecille at great risk to the staff.  AAF has established a GoFundMe fundraiser for Lai.

State Senator John Liu, for his part, said, “What happened to Cecille and her son, just walking on a street, it could have been any of us. This young man served this country as a Marine, but it didn’t matter. They were attacked. They were attacked based on the way they looked.”

One of the speakers is New York State Assembly Member Steven Raga, shown here with Attorney Lara Gregory,  Congresswoman Grace Meng, and Jo-Ann Yoo of the Asian American Federation.

New York State Assembly Member Steven Raga thanked the Lai family for coming forward and making their story public.  “This is a sad moment.”

Attorney Lara Gregory, founder of the Filipinos Against Racial Action, was requested by the Lai Family to speak at this event.

She said, “The Lai Family is in pain, but even if they are in pain, they have no anger in their hearts. When two men and one woman hurled insults against their Asian heritage, immediately after, one man tried to help Cecille and another person took a video, and that’s what Queens is all about. We stand with one another, we help each other. When they were brought to the hospital, just like any mother, all she thought about was her son, her son who now suffers a skull fracture.”

Kalayaan Mendoza, an advocate for community safety and the director of Mutual Protection at the Nonviolent Peaceforce, echoed the speakers. “Please start building, start advocating, start fighting for a better and safer and more just world for all of our communities. The only way through this is when all of our communities are safe”.

Queens resident Ann Lee was furious that Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul have “done nothing” to address Asian hate crimes.

“I am getting really sick and tired of it and this happened in my neighborhood and I’m not tolerating this s— no more. Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul, do something already!” she said.

Bryan Lozano, who lives in Queens, said “I think it’s really important for our community to come together especially when heinous acts are happening in our community. We have to do something more tangible about it.”

© The FilAm 2023

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