"What we are seeing is a hate crime."
-- Erping Zhang, a spokesman for the Falun Dafa Information Center
Falun Gong practitioners are a common sight in downtown Flushing, standing by the library on Main St., holding signs criticizing the Chinese government.
Sometimes they hear harsh words from passers-by, mostly Chinese-Americans sympathetic to the government.
But those encounters have turned particularly nasty and violent in recent weeks, prompting a larger police presence.
Judy Chen says she was punched last week as she tried to hand out literature in support of Falun Gong
Judy Chen, a Falun Gong practitioner who lives in Flushing, said she was punched by a woman last week as she tried to hand out literature detailing the group's charges of persecution. The woman was part of a mob that attacked her group, Chen said.
"I was really shocked," said Chen, 50. "I feel like I am in China. People cursed. They threw rocks and eggs."
Chen, who has two sons in the U.S. military currently serving in Iraq, became tearful as she recounted the May 19 incident.
"I'm American. This is my religion," she said. "I can express my religion."
It was not clear if any arrests were made, but the NYPD has increased its presence at the almost daily protests. About a dozen police officers were stationed in the area Wednesday to keep an eye on the picketing.
The Chinese government outlawed Falun Gong in 1999. Beijing has also labeled the group a cult. As a result, Falun Gong members and supporters started a worldwide campaign to bring attention to the abuse they claim is leveled at their members.
Erping Zhang, a spokesman for the Falun Dafa Information Center, said the attacks appear to be organized. Zhang's group has posted video of the Flushing incidents, which show several men tearing up protest signs, pushing and shoving Falun Gong supporters, and throwing their newspapers and flyers into the street.
What we are seeing is a hate crime," Zhang said.
A similar confrontation broke out in Chinatown last weekend. Zhang places part of the blame on rumors that Falun Gong members were not sympathetic about China's earthquake victims.
"Many of us have relatives in the earthquake area," Zhang said.
Police recently asked the Falun Gong supporters to move their protests from the library's entrance on busy Main St. to a less crowded stretch of Kissena Blvd. around the corner.
It was unclear if the recent violence may also be related to tensions over the upcoming Beijing Olympics.
"We're concerned," Zhang said. "We don't want New York City and Flushing to be a backyard of Beijing."