White Plains, New York
An aerial view of White Plains, New York at sunset. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Authorities in White Plains, New York, arrested a suspect they say spit on and punched an 83-year-old Korean American woman on a busy street in the New York City suburb this week, marking the latest high-profile case in a spate of violence targeting Asian Americans nationwide.

The victim was walking alone near a shopping center Tuesday evening when police say Glenmore Nembhard, 40, attacked her without provocation, striking her so hard that she hit her head on the ground and blacked out. When she regained consciousness, the suspect was gone, according to police.

It wasn't immediately clear how investigators identified Nembhard as the suspect, but police said they arrested him early Thursday morning in the vicinity of the attack. He was charged with second-degree assault on a person 65 or older, a felony that carries up to seven years in prison. Police described him as homeless, and court records show he has been arrested by White Plains officers on at least four other occasions in the past year.

Officials have not commented on what role race may have played in the attack, but Westchester District Attorney Miriam Rocah said her office was investigating whether the beating constituted a hate crime.

"Attacks like this one impact all of us. They create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that keeps us from feeling safe and secure in our homes and communities," Rocah said in a statement. "I urge everyone to report all hate crimes and bias incidents, even if you are not the victim, so that law enforcement can track and work to prevent these terrible acts."

Attorneys representing Nembhard didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.

A wave of racist violence and harassment has shaken Asian American communities from coast to coast in recent months, prompting some residents to organize neighborhood watch patrols and launch campaigns urging officials to crack down.

A report this week by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, found that anti-Asian hate crimes jumped nearly 150% in the country's largest cities last year, even as overall hate crimes fell 7%. In New York City, there were 28 reported hate crimes against Asians last year, up from three in 2019, according to the study.

Activists say the violence is linked at least in part to anti-Asian sentiment stoked by former president Donald Trump and other leaders who have spread misinformation about the coronavirus. The reported attacks are likely an undercount, activists say, with language and cultural barriers deterring some victims from seeking help from police.

President Joe Biden denounced violence against Asian Americans in his prime-time address Thursday, saying that members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community have been "attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated."

"So many of them are fellow Americans. They're on the front lines of this pandemic, trying to save lives," he said. "And still, still, they're forced to live in fear for their lives, just walking down streets in America. It's wrong. It's un-American, and it must stop."

Speaking to a local ABC affiliate, the victim in the White Plains attack said she was collecting bottles and cans to trade in for cash when she was attacked outside a Nordstrom store at the Westchester Mall. She said that although she was left bleeding, she didn't go to the hospital because she was worried about the medical bills.

Her daughter told the station that the incident shocked the family. "Now I'm afraid to go out, and my kid is afraid to go out," she said.

The attack appeared to be the first reported physical assault on an Asian American in Westchester County since activists started tracking the spike in violence, according to Robert Chao, an executive with the local branch of the civil rights group OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates.

Chao said his organization learned of the incident Friday morning. It immediately alerted the coordinator from the district attorney's hate crime group and the Westchester County Human Rights Commission.

Chao said he's pleased with the support from the local government so far, but stressed that the attack was an important reminder for the community to be vigilant.

"We need to let people know what they should do if this happens to them," he said. "This is about awareness. I just want more people to speak up, keep their eyes out to protect their neighbors."

The incident mirrored other attacks on Asian Americans over 65 in recent weeks, reviving concerns that attackers prey on elderly people.

In January, Vicha Ratanapakdee was taking his regular morning walk through San Francisco's Anza Vista neighborhood when a suspect shoved him to the ground, causing him to lose consciousness. The 84-year-old, who was recovering from heart surgery, died days later. A 19-year-old man has pleaded not guilty to murder in the attack.

Just weeks later, 75-year-old Pak Ho was strolling through a residential neighborhood in Oakland when a suspect shoved him to the ground and robbed him. He died of his injuries on Thursday.

In response to the violence, California lawmakers passed legislation allocating $1.4 million to help Asian Americans report hate incidents. The bill, approved late last month, will assist researchers at the Asian American Studies Center and other groups collecting data on violence and discrimination against Asian Americans.

Meera Venugopal, associate director of development and communications at the Asian American Federation, said the attack in White Plains underscored the need for New York lawmakers to take similar measures to protect Asian Americans in the state.

"I'd love to see our legislators step up and meet the demand. This is now a time for people to say, 'We empathize, we stand with you,' " she said. "Look at the bold steps California took. I think New York needs to do the same."