In the quiet suburb of Bensonhurst, New York at the beginning of August, the atmosphere was tense. About 100 protesters had gathered outside the local police station and they were angry.
“We’re not here to march on white people, Italian people, Black people, Spanish people. We are here to stand together and march against racism!” yelled protester and popular rapper, China Mac.
In this predominantly white neighbourhood, a Chinese grandmother was slapped and set on fire on July 14. The two attackers allegedly sprayed her with kerosene and lit her shirt on fire without saying a word.
News of the incident went viral, sending shockwaves through the Asian-American community. The rally was organised in response to the attack but also to protest wider prejudice against Asian Americans.
“They [the attackers] put kerosene in their pockets and they walked the street, masked up, ready to attack somebody. They planned on setting somebody on fire. If that’s not a hate crime, I don’t know what a hate crime is,” China Mac said at the rally.
Many believe the attack was motivated by racism but the police are not investigating it as a hate crime.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) has since charged two 13-year-old boys for the assault, but the department declined to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for an interview.
China Mac, whose real name is Raymond Yu, co-organised the rally in Bensonhurst. It was not the first time the 38-year-old locked horns with the law. He has made a career out of it and has been in and out of juvenile homes since he was eight years old.
As a teenager in the 1990s, he was a member of the infamous Ghost Shadow gang, extorting businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown district and fighting deadly turf wars with rival gang, the Flying Dragons.
“Chinatown was a different world back then,” he explained. “You could walk down the street and see a dead body. I’ve seen that.”
He spent most of his adult life – 11 years – in New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison after shooting and seriously wounding a man.
“I would fight everybody, anybody. It didn’t matter if they were the smallest guy or the biggest guy. It didn’t matter if there was one or 10. I would fight,” he said, speaking to Al Jazeera at a rented Peer Space in Brooklyn.
He still fights, but these days it is with his words.
“Once I was in prison I realised that ‘hey that’s the thing that’s getting you in all this trouble’,” he said, referring to his propensity for violence. “This is the thing that’s going to have you spend the rest of your life in prison if you don’t address it.”
Since his release from prison three years ago, China Mac has made waves in New York’s hip hop scene as a talented rapper (he describes his music as “gangsta stuff”), attracting hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.
Earlier this year, he tapped into this loyal fanbase to whip up support for the thousands of protesters who marched across the US in the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding an end to systemic racism against African Americans.
“This time it’s a different fight. It’s a fight I feel is worthy, because so many times I fought for nothing. And this time, it’s a fight for people,” he said.
While Americans have been protesting in support of Black lives, racist attacks on another community have been on the rise.
Since March, advocacy groups have recorded more than 2,600 incidents of harassment and hate crimes against Asian Americans linked to the spread of the coronavirus. With the virus originating in China, people of Asian heritage have become targets for xenophobic abuse.
In Texas, a Myanmar father and his toddler were stabbed at a store, allegedly because their attacker thought they were Chinese. A Vietnamese bus driver in California was beaten with a baseball bat by a passenger. In New York, a Korean woman was punched in the face by a stranger as she walked to work.
Then in July, the 89-year-old Chinese grandmother was attacked in Bensonhurst in broad daylight. For China Mac, that was the final straw.
“I was upset. I was angry. I was infuriated,” he told Al Jazeera. “It really hit hard, hit home because it could be my mother. That could be my grandmother.”
Once again, he mobilised his fans to rally in the neighbourhood, this time for Asian lives.
“I’m just tired of us being looked at as weak. Just allowing people to step on us and over us and attack us and abuse us, and we don’t do nothing about it.”
“We’re not going to be respected if we’re just going to be quiet and take it,” he said.
It is a lesson China Mac learned the hard way when he was first sent to a juvenile home as a child.
“They would pick on me because I was the only Asian person there,” he recalled.
What started as pranks by the other children quickly escalated to racist abuse. Finally, one morning China Mac put on his shoes to find them drenched in someone’s urine.
“I went to the staff and I was crying. The staff looked at me and told me something that really changed my life. He said ‘I can’t help you’. He said that ‘the only thing that will ever help you is if you start fighting for yourself’.”
“I earned my respect and I demanded my respect. The only way these attacks, this racism, would stop is if I fought back.”
Even after surviving years of gang warfare on the streets of Chinatown, China Mac says his greatest struggle is the current fight against racism in the US. Like many in the Asian-American community, he believes President Donald Trump’s repeated use of terms such as “China virus” and “kung flu” to describe COVID-19 have heightened harassment and hate crimes against his community.
“He basically put a target on all Asian Americans; people that live in this country, that were born and raised in this country – he put targets on us,” he said.
“It hurts to know that the same country that you’re born and raised, hates you or doesn’t see you as equal.
“This is my country. I’m just fighting because it’s the right thing to do.”