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‘Vile, offensive and racially divisive’: Queens lawmakers condemn racist remarks against Asian Americans during City Council hearing

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Queens lawmakers are condemning a speaker’s comments as “racist, divisive and hurtful” against the Asian American community during a City Council testimony hearing on Thursday, Dec. 8. 

In a video shared on Twitter, the speaker, identified as Douglass Powell, a leader with VOCAL-NY’s Homelessness Union, called Asian Americans’ testimony “garbage” and referred to them as “racists” during the Council Committee on Civil and Human Rights hearing regarding Manhattan Councilman Keith Powers’ controversial bill (Intro. 632) that would end criminal background checks on prospective tenants. 

Powell testified to the importance of ending housing discrimination against those with a conviction record. He had spent three years on Ward’s Island after being released from prison. He struggled to find housing with a voucher, according to Vocal NY, a grassroots organization of low-income people dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and homelessness. 

“This is not about felonies. It’s about race. It’s about Black people,” the man said. “I live in Rego Park now. That’s the most racist neighborhood I’ve ever been in, and it’s nothing but Asians in there. If you go in the store, they will follow you around like you’re ready to steal something. What they’re talking about is all garbage…they want Black people to live in Black neighborhood because it’s not their neighborhood…cause they’re from China, Hong Kong, we’re from New York.” 

Douglass’s remarks prompted responses from several Queens lawmakers. 

Councilwoman Sandra Ung said the speaker’s remarks were “vile, offensive and racially divisive.” 

“The speaker’s comments, which cast Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners who aren’t real American citizens and don’t belong in this country, as especially harmful given the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans,” Ung said. “Racist comments like these that continue to perpetuate false and dangerous stereotypes have no place in our city, much less in Council Chambers, and should be denounced by all. The group that was testifying should immediately issue an unequivocal apology.”

Councilwoman Lynn Schulman, who represents Rego Park, said the language used against Asians is “divisive, demoralizing and disgraceful.” 

“It is doubly hurtful that this vitriol was aimed at my constituents in #Rego Park,” Schulman said. 

Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal called it “disheartening” and “disturbing” seeing hatred and xenophobia being spewed in the Council chambers.

“Hate speech such as this is dangerous and cannot be allowed to go unanswered,” Rosenthal said. 

Council Bob Holden said, “Asian Americans are New Yorkers as much as anyone else,” and hopes “@VOCALNEWYORK cuts ties with someone who espouses such racist speech. Disgusting.” 

Meanwhile, Twitter users echoed those sentiments and were questioning which council members were present during the hearing and why they didn’t intervene in Douglass’s anti-Asian tirade. 

Republican Councilwoman Vickie Paladino called out progressive Democrats for not renouncing the “hateful testimony” in the chambers.

“Also worth noting that multiple Democrat CMs stood up and chastised me—in tears—when I suggested drag queens don’t belong in schools. Speaks volumes about their priorities,” Paladino tweeted. “This is what progressive Democrats bring to the Council chamber: open anti-Asian hatred. Totally unacceptable, but at least they’re not even trying to hide it anymore. Vote accordingly.”

Since it was a hearing for his bill, Powers responded to a constituent saying that he wasn’t in the room during the hearing. 

“I was in the room next door for a different hearing at this point, as were most members (D and R) by this juncture of the hearing,” Powers wrote. “It’s not tolerable, but would appreciate you checking the facts before deciding to attack people on Twitter.” 

In another tweet, Powers said, “I’ll be crystal clear — no one should walk into the NYC Council chambers and say hateful speech.” 

Councilwoman Nantasha Williams, who is chair of the Committee on Civil and Human Rights, issued a statement on the matter. 

“Racism and discrimination hurt us all in different ways and responding to them with similiar rhetoric is never the solution,” Williams wrote on Twitter. “As a Black woman, a member of one of the most hated and disrespected demographics on the planet, I know personally how deeply hurtful language can be to our progress as a people and one’s personal safety. The prejudice against both Asian communities, Black communities, and justice-involved folks is a product of systemic racism that we must stand against.” 

“In May, I held a hearing on hate crimes to highlight the recent increase in anti-Asian hate in our city,” Williams added. “I felt it was important to ensure our Asian brothers and sisters had both the support and resources they needed to combat hate. Our liberation is rooted in each other’s freedoms, that is why I denounce any hateful comments directed towards any community.” 

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said anti-Asian hate cannot be the response to anti-Black racism, ever. 

“Our shared experience of lacking safety from racism + violence should unite us,” Adams said. “Respect is essential for constructive public policy dialogues — let’s demand it from another with accountability and healing.” 

Following the hearing, Vocal NY issued a statement on Twitter saying the “harmful language used is unacceptable and not representative” of the values and mission of the organization. 

“Prejudice is insidious and is a byproduct of structural racism and trauma that communities of color experience,” the organization wrote on Twitter. “As an organization, we are committed to & depend upon cross-cultural solidarity. We acknowledge the personal and collective education practices it takes to build and achieve that, and we apologize for the harm that today’s language has caused our siblings of Asian descent. The hearing in question gave space to anti-Black language that is also a part of this story. We believe accountability must include owning faults and learning from them, and VOCAL-NY is committed to reflecting on — and unlearning — the prejudices that hold us all back.”

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