By Emma Whitford
More than 18 months after a migrant massage worker named Yang Song fell to her death during a police operation on Flushing’s 40th Road, state lawmakers remain focused on her case, demanding answers and assurances that history will not repeat itself.
A 2018 Queens DA investigation into Yang Song’s death found no police wrongdoing. But Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim and Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou said Thursday that more could be done, and that Tiffany Cabán is the DA candidate best suited for the job.
“I am confident that if there is something that hasn’t been investigated, Tiffany is the right candidate to investigate every aspect of this case to seek the truth,” Kim told reporters in his endorsement remarks, standing a few steps from the spot where Yang Song fell in November 2017.
Kim and Niou also praised Caban’s pledge not to prosecute prostitution-related crimes, and to provide massage workers with support services.
“This isn’t a crack in the justice system that [Yang Song] happened to fall through,” Niou said. “This is a systemic silencing of voices for the convenience of those that prey on them, and others who are uncomfortable to acknowledge them.”
Cabán declined to comment on Yang Song’s case specifically Thursday — to preclude future conflicts, she said — but she reiterated her support for the decriminalization of the adult sex trade.
“No sex worker should have to fear law enforcement or our district attorney officers,” she said. “So today we remember Yang Song and demand justice in her name, and we commit ourselves to working so that no sex worker is ever again harmed in the name of law enforcement.”
Yang Song fell from a Flushing apartment ledge during a Vice Unit operation, in response to allegations of prostitution in the premises. A redacted report from the Queens DA states that Yang Song was “attempting to flee apprehension by law enforcement officers, as a result of her unlawful conduct.”
The report also details prior arrests and alleged abuse that Yang Song, a 36-year-old Chinese immigrant, endured over the years that she supported herself and her family in the sex trade. For example, Yang Song was arrested in the fall of 2017 during a previous raid on her workplace. She was enrolled in programs through the Queens Trafficking Intervention court and had nearly finished her court-mandated counseling sessions when she died.
In October 2016, Yang Song reported a violent incident to the local 109th Precinct. A man had allegedly sexually assaulted her, demanding services at gunpoint and flashing “a blue a[nd] gold shield in the shape of a star.” The incident was referred to the NYPD’s Police Impersonation Unit, which produced a wanted poster. A retired U.S. Marshall later turned himself in, but the case was closed after Yang Song failed to identify him in a lineup, according to the DA’s report.
Kim and Niou on Thursday cited the accounts of Yang Song’s grieving family members and friends, who believe she was assaulted by a police officer and pressured to become an NYPD informant. Yang Song’s brother and mother traveled to Queens from China after her death, and Kim’s office was instrumental in helping them follow up, and eventually meet with investigators from the Queens DA’s Office. The family returned to China this spring, dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation.
Arrests of Asian New Yorkers on prostitution-related charges exploded during the last several years, from just 12 in 2012 to a 2016 peak of 336. There were 131 such arrests between January and September citywide last year, according to NYPD data.
Local representatives are currently split on how to address the needs of migrant massage workers in Queens. Kim and Niou are both aligned with Decrim NY, a new coalition of sex workers and trafficking survivors organizing to decriminalize the adult sex trade in New York. One member group, Red Canary Song, formed in response to Yang Song’s death and is demanding an end to police raids on massage establishments. Red Canary Song also endorsed Cabán on Thursday.
“Decriminalization would allow massage workers to protect themselves,” member Yin Q said in her remarks. “To create safe and healthy standards of business.”
Meanwhile, Flushing Councilmember Peter Koo is working with the NYPD in an effort to shutter unlicensed massage establishments across his district. He describes the workers uniformly as trafficking survivors, though police did not find evidence of human trafficking in Yang Song’s workplace.
“We want victims to know help is out there,” Koo said at a recent town hall in Flushing.
Kim and Niou’s endorsements come one day after U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Cabán, drawing national press attention to the race. At a flyering event hosted by sex worker advocates in Corona Wednesday, Cabán told reporters that she believes that the race is between herself and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
Councilmember Rory Lancman, prosecutors Mina Malik and Jose Nieves, retired judge George Lasak and attorney Betty Lugo are also vying for the Democratic nomination for Queens DA.
Cabán and Nieves have pledged not to prosecute crimes for the sale, purchase and facilitation of sex between consenting adults, focusing resources instead on human trafficking, which must entail force, fraud or coercion.