The Case of Brandon Elliot

Weekly column written for the Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

Brandon Elliot, 38, was arrested yesterday for brutally assaulting 65-year-old Filipina American Vilma Kari in midtown Manhattan on Monday. Elliot is to be charged with assault as a hate crime, among other charges. News reports of his arrest highlight the fact that Elliot was out on parole for stabbing his mother to death. Easily lost in the sensationalist reporting is the indictment of NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea of the city's treatment of parolees. “When you’re releasing people from prison and you’re putting them in homeless shelters, you’re asking for trouble,” Shea said on TV. “There’s got to be a safety net and there’s got to be resources for them. It just never should’ve happened.”

Before the assault in Hell's Kitchen, Elliot was staying at a nearby hotel, which has been converted by the city into a homeless shelter because of the pandemic. Elliot had been incarcerated since he was 19 years old; in other words, he had spent half his life in prison. I cannot begin to imagine what such an experience does to a man living through his 20s and 30s, when many of us are finishing college, establishing our career, getting married, and having children. After having been denied parole twice, Elliot was finally released on lifetime parole in November 2019. COVID hit in January 2020. If Elliot tried to regain some semblance of a normal life, getting a job, for instance, his hopes would have been dashed by the subsequent lockdown. Complicating his return to freedom was possibly mental illness. “He told me he was [a] diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic,” a fellow resident at the homeless shelter said. “He’s quiet. He doesn’t talk much. He is really paranoid."

It may seem perverse to pay so much attention to the perpetrator of a hate crime. My heart goes out to Vilma Kari and all the other victims of anti-Asian violence. For too long Asian Americans have suffered from bigotry, erasure, and fetishization, and this is a national moment for discussing and taking action on these issues. What actions should be taken, though, is the real question. Community boards in wealthy and powerful parts of Manhattan have now a stronger argument for removing the homeless shelters such as Elliot's from their neighborhoods. Police unions are trying to pin the blame on elected officials for having too lenient a parole policy, the same officials who are, very tentatively, trying to curb police powers. Will we go for increasing law enforcement or for increasing social services? For the sake of Brandon Elliot, as much as for the sake of Vilma Kari, we must choose the latter.

Jee Leong Koh
April 1, 2021


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