Mother and her son assaulted in Queens, NY; two suspects charged with assault as a hate crime

by Ricky Rillera

Cecille Lai and son, Kyle, hate crime victims | Screengrab YouTube

NEW YORK – When it seemed anti-Asian hate had waned, 44-year-old Filipino American Cecille M. Lai, and her son, Kyle, 24, became the latest assault victims on Thursday, March 2.

Melinda Katz, Queens District Attorney, announced on Tuesday, March 8, Elijah Fernandez, 21, and his girlfriend, Natalie Plaza, 18, are charged with assault as a hate crime for their alleged involvement in a hate-motivated assault. They were arrested on Monday, March 6. The third suspect is still at large. Fernandez and Plaza face up to 4 years if convicted. Judge Jessica Earle-Gargan ordered the defendants to return to court today, March 10.

Katz said, “in the most diverse county in the country, perhaps the most diverse place in the world, there is zero tolerance for hate. We will not allow our values to be threatened with violence.”

The Philippine Daily Mirror contacted the Philippine consulate in New York to inquire if a statement about the incident was issued. Consul general Senen Mangalile replied, “we spoke to her on March 3, then we wrote to the Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs and the Police Commissioner to request preferential attention to the case. Last we heard, two persons were arrested.”

Lai is not a dual citizen, and it is unclear what assistance the consulate can offer her.

Kyle, Cecille Lai’s son, at the U.S. Marine event | Photo via Cecille Lai

Lai said she and her son were dropped off on Junction Boulevard near Roosevelt Avenue in Corona by her sister to enter the #7 train station after shopping in the area. She planned to buy her son’s sneakers which he liked. Even with the light red, she said, a white SUV car honked at them aggressively, and the woman passenger screamed, “Ugly Asians.” She also threw water from the car window at Lai.

Shortly after, the alleged assailants got out of the car, approached Lai and Kyle, and attacked them – punching and kicking them repeatedly in the face and upper body. Lai said she was knocked down on the sidewalk and felt unconscious for a bit, and saw the other man continues to beat up her son. “That guy punched my son and is still free,” she said.

Lai said she had a concussion, scratches to her eye, and bruising on her body; her son’s left eye is shut, and he may have a possible skull fracture and will need an MRI to ensure there is no internal bleeding on his brain.

Lai was at a clinic during the interview and sobbed as she told her story. “I love New York, but I am concerned about the streets in New York,” she said while sobbing, constraining her voice. She is also worried about her two daughters. “If it is always dangerous for people, it is not good.”

Upon learning of the arrest of two suspects, she felt relieved. “Since that night after the traumatic incident, I found it difficult to sleep. I can see my experience being replayed in my mind, making me anxious,” Lai said. “I am a strong person, but it was really very traumatic.”

Lai also told the Philippine Daily Mirror this is not the first incident that happened to her and her son. The first was in Flushing, New York, in 2002, when a man approached her while pushing a baby cart with Kyle. The man demanded money, and she gave him $700 – all the money she had – and pleaded with the man not to hurt them. Although she reported the incident to the police, nothing happened.

The second one was in Elmhurst, Queens, as she entered the building where she lived. A man pushed her inside, and she was sexually assaulted. Again, an incident report was taken by the police, but the guy was not apprehended.

She also said she knows some Filipinos who were either mugged or victims of hate crimes but were afraid to report the incident. “I told them to report it to the police and the consulate,” said Lai. “I don’t know if they did.”

Community members want more action and better awareness.

“Accountability is important in sending the message that in a city as diverse as New York, there is no place for hate. Although the Lai family can breathe a little easier, they know that it does not end with the arrest,” lawyer Lara Gregory wrote on Facebook. “We will continue to build community across all cultures in upholding diversity, not just as informational data, but as a value to live by, and together with the rest of Queens, we stand with the Lai family!”

Lai is a Junior Chamber International (JCI) alumna, a leadership development organization. Having been a member of JCI Manhattan, who has contributed significantly to the organization’s mission and goals. Jubert Paul Ong, JCI Philippine-New York’s chapter president, said, “We want to show our support and solidarity with her during this difficult time and raise awareness about the importance of combating hate crimes and discrimination. … [H]ate crimes against the Asian community have been on the rise in recent years, and we cannot stay silent in the face of such injustice. Our organization has always been committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it is crucial that we continue to stand up for these values.”

Lai wants to speak out about her experience and tell what it is to be a victim. “I am ready, and I want people to know that hate, violence and road rage have no place in this city,” Lai said.

On Friday, March 10, a Queens Stands With The #Laifamily Rally will be held at the Corona Plaza on 103-08 Roosevelt Avenue, Corona, NY 11368, at 5 p.m.

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