Who was Peter Yew?

On April 26, 1975, Peter Yew saw that a crowd had formed around the Fifth Precinct police station in New York City’s Chinatown. As he drew closer, he learned that the crowd had been following a vehicle that had created a traffic altercation between a white driver and  a Chinese driver. The white driver had gone into the police station to seek protection, and when the cops came out, they tried to disperse the crowd, pushing people — including a fifteen-year-old — to the ground. When Yew intervened in defense of the fifteen-year-old, the police attacked him, dragged him inside the police station, and beat him again. He was then charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. 


This incident sparked a series of protests. Before Peter Yew was unfairly beaten by the police, the Chinese American population in New York City’s Chinatown had been experiencing an increase in traffic violation tickets and instances of police brutality. After what happened to Peter Yew, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association alongside Asian Americans for Equal Employment knew that they had to take action. This led to a pair of protests, the first on the day before Yew’s preliminary hearing. The second protest on My 19, 1975 drew an estimated 20,000 protesters. 


The protesters’ demands were as follows: 


1. That all charges against Yew be dropped 

2. That the officers involved be suspended and charged with assault 

3. That the commanding officer of the Fifth Precinct publicly apologize and resign 

4. That police harassment against the Chinese community stop 

5. That any cuts in funding for Chinatown be rescinded  

6. That more Chinese be hired in city government roles 


John Hung, a resident of New York City’s Chinatown during the Peter Yew protests, described: 


This is something that should have been done a long time ago. So far, the Chinese always keep their mouths shut, and they are always oppressed by other people. Now the young people cannot take any more, and the old people join them. It’s really amazing. 


The protest was unlike anything the country had ever seen before — it was, at that point, the largest Asian American protest in the U.S. It was able to achieve some of its demands, as all charges against Yew were dropped, two officers were charged for the assault, and the police agreed to stop harassment in Chinatown. Additionally, the city of New York decided to create a “direct line” to the police for all Chinese-speaking people in New York City through a Chinese interpreter and promised to consult community leaders in cases involving Chinese residents. They also promised monthly conferences between Chinatown and the police. Though these policies were not necessarily enforced, it was nonetheless an important moment in Chinese-American and Asian American activism. 


Interested in learning more? Check out these resources: 


— Rise Up for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — Peter Yew

— Zinn Education Project — May 19, 1975: Peter Yew/Police Brutality Protest

— DeclarAsian – An End to Police Brutality: Peter Yew’s Stand