Vanessa Hock

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Last month, a Bushwick activist named Peter Kerre volunteered to escort residents home after several women were attacked near the Morgan L subway station. Within days, over 200 volunteers had joined him, in a community initiative he now calls SafeWalks. 

This month, Kerre and his group have decided to respond to the wave of recent attacks against elderly Asian-Americans, witnessed across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. 

On Saturday night, Kerre had gathered SafeWalks on Canal and Centre Street in Manhattan to discuss logistics for a new Chinatown-based operation. Their new goal was to create “a presence to express solidarity with the Asian community in light of hate attacks on elderly Asians, fueled by lies”.

Volunteers from all five boroughs have signed up for the ‘Safewalks’ project, which started out with an effort to safely escort residents near a trans station in Bushwick (Vanessa Hock) 

The lies Kerre points to have come from former president Trump’s rhetorical choice to refer to COVID-19 as ‘The Chinese Virus’ and ‘The kung flu,’ which Kerre blames for the rise of racial animosity towards Asian-Americans across the country. The NYPD Hate Crime Task Force investigated a total of 27 reports of anti-Asian incidents during 2020, but 2021 has already seen more cases than this time last year.

On February 3, a Filipino-American man’s face was sliced open with a box cutter while riding the L train. On February 5, a Chinese woman was punched and beaten with an umbrella at Manhattan’s Grand Street station. On February 16, two Asian women were assaulted during separate incidents on the Manhattan subway. And on February 17, a 71 year old woman was punched in the face while she was riding the E train.

Earlier this month during a city hall briefing, Mayor Di Blasio insisted that the subways are safer now than when he first took office. 

“Any suggestion that the NYPD can’t do what it needs to do to stop an incident like that in the subways is absolutely false” de Blasio said. “NYPD has done a remarkable job in improving safety in the subways over years and years.” 

Kerre doesn’t think so.

“It’s easy for people to sit behind a desk and a keyboard and come up with so many great ideas about how things should work, until they hit the streets.” he says. 

“We’re out on the streets, we’re seeing things, we’re sharing ideas,” Kerre tells Bushwick Daily. (Vanessa Hock)

Kerre said that “the community is very scared right now” and has received many messages expressing concern over the attacks. 

The group is aware that many of Chinatown’s elderly residents might not have access to Instagram, where residents can schedule SafeWalks requests. That’s why he said he decided to spread the word by gathering outside the Canal Street J train this weekend, in order to get acquainted with local residents in Chinatown.  

“We’re out on the streets, we’re seeing things, we’re sharing ideas, sharing different experiences,” says Kerre. “It gives a better, full rounded view of how things can work and should work.”

Volunteers from all five boroughs have signed up to safely escort residents home in Chinatown and elsewhere. The group now holds virtual information sessions and gathers at subway stations to discuss logistics, dispatching, and new dangers to the area. Just by wearing reflective harnesses, SafeWalks hope that their presence acts as a deterrent to danger.

The next step for SafeWalks project, Kerre says, is a SafeWalks App which is set to be a multi-platform device compatible with “geo location tracking, dispatch, and social networking.” A GoFundMe has been set up to fund development of the app, for which Kerre wants $210,000. 

While the requests have primarily come from people who identify as women, Kerre stresses that the community initiative is inclusive of age, gender, and race. Volunteers are always welcome and Kerre says they are hoping to set up another post in Harlem on 125th Street. The goal, says Kerre, is to expand SafeWalks around the whole city. 

Top photo credit: Vanessa Hock.

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