‘Law & Order’ and the Failure to Address Anti-Asian Hate

On the day after AFP reported that New York DA prosecutes highest number of anti-Asian hate crimes,  NBC held a virtual press panel (Friday, 11 February 2022) for its scripted series, including the return of “Law & Order.” 

The original police procedural/legal drama premiered in the fall of 1990 and ended its final season in the spring of 2010. The series is set in New York City with the first half-hour dealing with a criminal investigation b the NYPD and the second half shows the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office prosecuting the crime in court.

The plots often draw from real cases and recent headlines with creative changes. For a time, NBC Law & Order Land with several Law & Order franchise TV series. Until last year, only “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” remained (1999-present), but in April, “Law & Order: Organized Crime” debuted, bringing back former SVU detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and plenty of crossover potential. Meloni’s Stabler had been less than stable and the temperamentally explosive detective had been the partner of the current star Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson.

Creator Dick Wolf wasn’t present at the “Law & Order” virtual panel due to laryngitis, but show runner Rick Eid (who wrote seven episodes) and returning stars Sam Waterson as District Attorney Jack McCoy and Anthony Anderson as Detective Kevin Bernard were along with newcomers Hugh Dancy (Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price), Israeli-born Odelya Halevi (Assistant District Attorney Samantha Maroun), Camryn Manheim (Lt. Kate Dixon)  and Jeffry Donovan (Detective Frank Cosgrove). For diversity it has a West Asian (Halevi), a Black person (Anderson) and a woman over 50 (Manheim is 60). 

I asked: “Yesterday, AFP had a headline, ‘New York DA prosecutes highest number of antiAsian hate crimes.’  So I was wondering if ‘Law & Order’ will be addressing antiAsian hate crimes this season.” 

Rick Eid responded, “ We don’t have any plans specifically for that story line at the moment, but there are episodes that involve hate crimes.  And like I said at the beginning, we live in 2022, and we are aware of the issues in society and the problems in society, and ultimately, those types of issues will be addressed and be dramatized, so, like I said, nothing at the moment, but I would imagine it’s something we will explore.”

Anderson did have something to interject: “Rick, you seem so nervous on this chat.” 

The last question was “Essentially, looking forward, how much draw directly from the headlines, story lines, do you think are going to be a big part of this series?” 

Waterson explained “Huge, huge, huge.” He added, “And, boy, are there a lot of stories that need telling. Boy, are they out there. The challenge must be choosing which one to do first.” 

Dancey said, “Every single episode takes the stories out of the headlines and then uses that as an entryway into the arguments that are bingo had across the country right now.”

That at this point, nearly two years into a pandemic which has seen the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, a show set in New York City has no current plans to address anti-Asian hate is troubling. “Law & Order: SVU” opened Season 22 (12 November 2020) with a reference to Central Park birdwatching incident (25 May 2020) where Amy Cooper, a White woman walking her dog, called the police (9-1-1) on a birdwatcher, Christian Cooper (no relation), who was Black. The incident happened on the same day as the arrest and murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You might wonder how that would be possible since this is “Special Victims Unit,” but the writers (teleplay by Brendan Feeney, Denis, Hamill and Monet Hurst-Mendoza with story by Warren Leight and Julie Martin) manage to get Olivia Benson involved in this false report situation. The Black man files a lawsuit against the NYPD.  

The victim of the SVU case found coincidentally after SVU is on the scene of the White woman’s false report is a Filipino Catholic and played by a hapa from Hawaii (Filipino, Spanish and Chinese). The case doesn’t touch on the possibility of the vicious attack on the Filipino victim being an anti-Asian hate crime. The victim is left in a coma and we never learn the fate of this person. What happened to the victims part of Special Victims Unit. 

In its fifth episode “Turn Me on Take Me Private,” “SVU” did have a Filipina-Latina victim (Eva Noblezada), a live-cam girl who is found and raped by one of her avid fan viewers (Alex Brightman). Episode 12, “In the Year We all Fell Down,” the writers (teleplay by Julie Martin and Warren Leight with story by Julie Martin, Leight and Kathy Dobie) look at a restaurant owner (Sarita Choudhury) having a nervous breakdown due to COVID-19 related losses.

In the fifth episode (“An Inferior Product” ) of the first season of “Law & Order: Organized Crime,”  police brutality is addressed when an NYPD officer crushes the hand of a musician who has just left his guitar at a music store for repair but is an innocent bystander when police are chasing down suspects. The victim is Black and happens to be related to Sgt. Ayanna Bell (Danielle Moné Truitt), the squad supervisor (via Bell’s wife, Denise Bullock (Keren Dukes). However, the story of a musician whose hands were damaged might stir another story in the minds of Asian Americans: the attack on Tadataka Unno ((海野 雅威).

The police don’t believe it was a hate crime, but people on social media have their opinions. The attack took place on 27 September 2020. The episode aired 13 May 2021. According to Tada, he didn’t push any of the teens blocking the turnstile exit at the 135th Street subway station.  

Unno reported to InsideEdition.com, “At first, I was convinced that there was an Asian hate crime because when somebody was beating me up, calling me Chinese, this I’m sorry, we cannot really broadcast, but it’s ‘Chinese mother—r,’ just beat him up.” Unno lived in Harlem, but he has since moved out. While he was told he might not play again, he has returned to the stage after rehabbing in Japan with the help of a GoFundMe campaign managed by his friend Jerome Jennings that went well over the goal of $25,000 and garnered over $300,000. 

The reboot of “Law & Order” has taken on high profile crimes: Bill Cosby (“The Right Thing”)  and Elizabeth Holmes (“Impossible Dream”). In “The Right Thing,” instead of a comedian/actor, the man, Henry King (Norm Lewis), who is accused of raping 40 women, is a singer. King appears on a TV show and tells the interviewer, “Diane, I spent three years, two months and 11 days in prison for a crime that I did not commit. Like many people of color, I was wrongfully charged, and wrongfully convicted. I have never had non-consensual sex with anyone ever.” The wife, Veronica King (Lisa Arrindell) becomes the focus of the investigation along with King’s victims. 

Cosby was convicted in 2018 and his conviction was vacated by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on 30 June 2021. 

In “Impossible Dream,” the Elizabeth Holmes stand-in is Nina Ellis (Rachelle Lefebre) whose fiancé is gunned down. Theranos becomes Hythena. United States v. Elizabeth A. Holmes, et al was tried by the United States district Court for the Northern District of California in Santa Clara County, California and decided on 3 January 2022. The Asian Americans in New York get an honorable mention: Dancy’s Nolan Price likes eating crickets, Jing Reed. That reminded me of “What If” having Thor eating Chinese food.*

Back in the real world, the real Manhattan DA’s office said in a statement that it “prosecuted nearly four times more anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 than in the previous year.”

On the day before the Law & Order reboot panel, the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced that the 50-year-old Jarrod Powell was charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime for the assault on the 61-year-old Yao Pan Ma in East Harlem, Manhattan in April of last year. Yao Pan Ma died on 31 December 2021. 

The weekend after the panel, Christina Yuna Lee was murdered in her Chinatown apartment. 

In March of 2021, eight people, including six women of East Asian descent, died in a spree shooting by Robert Aaron Long in Georgia.  Long pled guilty to four of the eight killings and was sentenced to life in prison. 

In October of last year, President Joe Biden condemned the killings while visiting Atlanta. 

Yesterday, a suspect in an anti-Asian attack spree (on 27 February 2022) was arrested after barricading himself in the New York Public Library.  Law & Order returned to NBC on 24 February 2022. 

Anti-Asian hate crimes have increased 339 percent nationwide according to NBC News. Anti-Asian hate crimes are not specific to New York, but New York does have a specific task force (Asian Hate Crimes Task Force).  While Asian American are about 5 percent of the national population, in NYC, they are 14 percent (Black/African American are 24 percent and Latino/Hispanic are 29 percent). 

In two years, Law & Order has three shows that could have addressed anti-Asian hate and yet doesn’t seem to have any plans to do so. The French wire service AFP thought anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City were notable enough and the actual NYPD does as well because it formed a special task force. The reboot of the original series took two stories that did not have a single homicide and chose them over a possible hate crime that had homicides and a conviction. Law & Order needs a script doctor and perhaps the doctor’s name is George Huang

*While “What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” did not have any main characters that were AAPI, it did feature the voices of New Zealander Taika Waititi as Korg and David Chen as Hogun. Israeli-born Natalie Portman voiced leading lady Jane Foster. 

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