This Day In History: May 19

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New York City’s Chinatown is almost entirely shut down on May 19, 1975, with shuttered stores displaying signs reading “Closed to Protest Police Brutality.” The demonstration is a reaction to the New York Police Department’s treatment of Peter Yew, a Chinese-American architectural engineer who was arrested, viciously beaten and charged with felonious assault after he witnessed the police beating a Chinese teenager and attempted to intervene.

In late April of 1975, Yew witnessed the NYPD stop a 15-year-old for an alleged traffic violation and tried to intervene when they began assaulting him. In doing so, he angered the officers, who Yew alleged beat him and arrested him, took him to the local precinct, stripped him, and beat him more while charging him with a felony. The shocking incident was the final straw for Chinatown residents who had long endured racist and dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the NYPD, and it led to weeks of unrest in the area. In the aftermath of the beatings, locals demonstrated outside the precinct, receiving further violent backlash from the police, and 2,500 people marched on nearby City Hall in a protest that, according to the New York Times, “had young students protesting side‐by‐side with their parents and grandparents, chanting together in Chinese.”

On May 19, local businesses joined the protest and activists again marched in the streets, coming to blows with police as they demanded better social services for their community. The charges against Yew were eventually dropped, the captain of the local precinct was reassigned—though not fired—and the unrest galvanized support for organizations like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and Asian Americans for Equal Employment, both of which organized in protest of Yew’s beating.