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More than a hundred people gathered in Harlem on Friday for a candlelit vigil in honor of Yao Pan Ma, the Chinese man beaten to death in an alleged hate crime killing last year.
Nearly nine months ago — and only footsteps away from the street corner where the crowd had gathered — Ma, a 62-year-old immigrant and dim sum chef, was repeatedly kicked in the head by a stranger. The attack left him brain dead.
Ma died at a Harlem hospital on Dec. 31. New York City police are now investigating his death as a homicide. Having lost his job as a kitchen worker during the pandemic, he was collecting bottles and cans for cash to provide for his family at the time of the attack.
Jarrod Powell, 50, who was charged with assaulting Ma, is currently jailed and awaiting trial in the alleged hate crime attack. Powell, however, has yet to be charged with murder by Manhattan prosecutors following Ma’s death. He's currently charged with attempted murder and two counts of hate crime assault, according to an indictment obtained by Oxygen.com.
Attendees, who assembled on the corner of 125th Street and 3rd Ave. East, for the slain man’s vigil at around 10 a.m. on Friday, solemnly clutched white roses and candles in freezing weather as they listened to city and state officials and representatives for Ma’s family speak from a sidewalk podium.
A number of protesters and in attendance also called on incoming Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg to upgrade murder charges against Powell.
“We expect something to happen soon,” Karlin Chan, a spokesperson for Ma’s family, told Oxygen.com after the vigil. “The medical examiner signed it off as a homicide. They can’t not upgrade the charges. It’s no longer attempted murder — it’s murder —he passed away.”
Bragg, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and U.S. representatives Yuh Line Niou, Grace Meng, and Adriano Espaillat, also addressed the crowd.
The event, which Chan organized and also spoke at, was geared to “build bridges” between New York’s Asian and African-American communities, as well, he said.
“Today was a unity rally,” Chan explained. “It was a rally to honor the memory of Mr. Ma but also build bridges within the community there. At the end of the day we’re all speaking out against the crime, the anti-Asian attacks because they haven’t slowed, they’ve actually picked up.”
Ma’s unprovoked killing coincides with a rising wave of anti-Asian hate crime violence in New York City — and nationwide — amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021 alone, hate crimes targeting Asian-Americans quadrupled from the previous year. According to city data provided to Oxygen.com, New York City Police recorded 133 anti-Asian hate crime complaints in 2021, compared to just 30 in 2020.
“It’s intolerable, I will not stand for it,” Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, said during a short speech at the vigil. “We are all one in this community. The AAPI and the Black community stand together against hate.”
The new city attorney, however, declined to answer reporters’ questions regarding possible upgraded murder charges in Ma’s death at Friday’s uptown vigil.
“I can’t talk about the open matter but you’ll hear more from us in the days to come,” Bragg told Oxygen.com prior to departing the event in a black Chevrolet Suburban.
In his brief remarks, Bragg, who took office only weeks earlier, also vowed to expand his office’s hate crime unit. He characterized spiraling Asian hate crime in the city as a matter of “utmost importance.”
Other protesters in attendance of Ma’s vigil also called on officials to provide greater protections to New York’s Asian community in the wake of such attacks, and particularly its older residents, and others like Ma, who are more vulnerable to such random attacks.
“This could be anybody," Henry Zhang, a 34-year-old doctoral psychology student from Queens told Oxygen.com. “This could be my fiancé, who works around here. … This could happen to anyone, anywhere.”
Zhang, who said his fiancé works as a speech language pathologist in Manhattan close to where Ma was killed, said he witnessed at least half a dozen anti-Asian racist attacks in 2021.
The spike in such anti-Asian hate violence left the Rutgers University student "numb," he said. In 2020, he founded his own volunteer self-defense training group, Dragon Combat Club. The club, which is composed of volunteers, some of whom have weapon-based combat training, specifically teaches its members how protect themselves, and fight back if necessary, from racial violence.
Zhang’s group is currently fundraising to purchase tactical flashlights and pepper spray to distribute to vulnerable residents in his community.
“A lot of people I know they’ve survived their own attacks,” he added. “I’m here to show my support.”
On April 23, 2021, Ma, 62, was attacked by Powell as he was walking down the sidewalk collecting bottles and other recyclables.
The unprovoked attack was captured by surveillance cameras that show Ma lying helplessly on the sidewalk as he's kicked in the multiple times. Powell was later arrested after police identified him using that surveillance footage.
Powell openly confessed to violently beating Ma, telling detectives the Chinese immigrant had previously stolen from him, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
Powell, who told police he was staying in a homeless shelter, claimed a "Korean guy," whom he mistook as Ma, previously maced him and stole his jewelry, and cash a day earlier. Powell never reported the unconfirmed account to authorities. He denied "having problems with Asians."
Ma was described as a “gentle” and “loving family man” who “fell on hard times,” after settling in New York in 2018, a spokesperson for the family said.
Months after immigrating to the U.S., the couple’s Chinatown apartment burnt down, forcing them into a relatives dwelling uptown. Later, as COVID-19 shuttered restaurants across the city, Ma lost his job at a noodle restaurant on Canal Street. Unable to collect unemployment insurance, he resorted to redeeming recyclables for income.
“This was an unprovoked attack on a man who was getting bottles, you know, if someone’s getting bottles they’re doing all they can to stay going,” Derek Perkinson, the New York City Field Director for the National Action Network, told Oxygen.com. “That’s not somebody you would attack viciously, violently unprovoked. That’s very sad.”
Ma’s relentless pursuit to provide for his family in the wake of a citywide economic collapse ultimately led to his demise, loved ones said.
“It’s really a very sad, tragic story,” Chan, the family’s spokesperson, said. “Here’s a loving couple, they come here they lose their first home in the country due to a fire in the building. They move uptown, they both lose their work because of the pandemic and now the wife is left here by herself. She’s in seclusion.”
The couple has a surviving son and daughter in China.
Powell’s attorney, Richard Verchick, declined to comment on the mounting pressure Bragg’s office is facing to upgrade murder charges against his client when reached by Oxygen.com on Friday. He said he was unaware the Manhattan District Attorney had attended a vigil for Ma earlier in the day.
“[That’s] terrific,” Verchick responded during a terse exchange. “No, I didn’t know that so thanks for informing me,” the defense lawyer added before hanging up the telephone.
Powell’s next court date is scheduled for Feb. 10.
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