ATLANTA - A year after the fatal shootings at three Georgia massage businesses, crowds gathered at rallies across the country Wednesday to remember the victims and denounce anti-Asian violence that has risen sharply in recent years.
Six women of Asian descent were among the eight people killed in and near Atlanta on March 16, 2021. The slayings contributed to fear and anger among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and motivated many to join the fight against the rising hostility.
At the Atlanta Asian Justice rally, which drew some 100 people to a former railroad depot near the state Capitol, speakers railed against the stereotypes of Asian women as either docile or exotic and said those harmful perceptions contribute to the violence.
"Being an Asian woman, you are hypersensitive to the fetishization that occurs. It just reminds me that there’s so much work to be done," said Jennifer Fero, a school administrator of Korean descent who attended the rally.
Fero lamented that "it is up to us to educate the general public on the AAPI experience and what microaggressions and hate crimes look like."
Georgia Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the state House, told the crowd the killings hit home for people like her, the child of Asian immigrants. Those who died, she said, were victims of "racism, xenophobia, gender-based violence."
"It should not take a tragedy such as this one for us to wake up," she said. "This has been ongoing in the history of our country."
Stop AAPI Hate has been tracking incidents nationwide based on victims self-reporting. From March 19, 2020, through the end of last year, it recorded a total of 10,905, with 4,632 occurring in 2020 and 6,273 in 2021. Women reported 61.8% of the incidents.
In the rampage a year ago, Robert Aaron Long killed four people — Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54 — and seriously injured a fifth person at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County. Authorities say he then drove about 30 miles (48 kilometers) to Atlanta, where he killed three women — Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51 — at Gold Spa, crossed the street and killed Yong Ae Yue, 63, at Aromatherapy Spa.
President Joe Biden released a statement Wednesday remembering the victims.
"These horrific murders shook communities across America and underscored how far we have to go in this country to fight racism, misogyny, and all forms of hate — and the epidemic of gun violence that enables these extremists," he said.
A collection of signs and flowers commemorating the victims of the Atlanta-area spa shootings on March 16, 2021. (FOX 5 Atlanta)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined about two dozen other members of Congress to mark the anniversary.
In remarks outside the U.S. Capitol, she bemoaned the "crimes against the Asian community that have just been hard to understand. And more recently, in some people’s view, been normalized."
Rep. Judy Chu of California, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said "America was finally shocked awake to the reality of anti-Asian hate" by the Georgia killings.
In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu, her voice trembling at times, said the pain and emotions from last year still felt fresh as she reflected on the anniversary during a virtual event earlier this week.
"What we saw a year ago was, in some ways, the conclusion or another step in the escalation of attacks that our communities have been facing since the pandemic began, as we saw the horrifying videos of elders pushed to the ground, women attacked while waiting for the bus," said the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who made history in November when she became the first woman and first person of color elected mayor in the city’s history. "It’s a very specific kind of pain to see yourself, your parents, your grandparents, your children reflected in those who are being attacked."
Prejudice and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. are not new, but racist verbal and physical attacks increased sharply after the coronavirus first appeared in China just over two years ago. Many believe former President Donald Trump’s use of racial terms to talk about the virus contributed to the trend.
Shortly after the Georgia shootings, police said Long blamed his actions on a "sex addiction," which isn’t recognized as an official disorder, and targeted the spas as a source of temptation. That explanation rankled many Asian Americans and their allies, who saw the killings as hate crimes.
Robert Aaron Long (Crisp County Sheriff's Office)
Long pleaded guilty in July to murder and other charges in the Cherokee County shootings. He’s pleaded not guilty in Fulton County, where the district attorney is seeking the death penalty and pursuing a sentencing enhancement under the state hate crimes law, saying she believes race and gender played a role.
Speakers at the Atlanta rally noted that violence against Asian women continues, with several citing an attack on a 67-year-old Asian woman in an apartment building vestibule in Yonkers, New York, last week. The Black man used an anti-Asian slur before punching the woman more than 125 times, police said.
Initial figures from individual police agencies indicate anti-Asian hate crime overall in the U.S. increased 339% in 2021, compared with a 124% rise in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. But the actual numbers could be much higher since many victims hesitate to report and not all incidents are charged as hate crimes.
Preliminary figures released by police in San Francisco in January show reported hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rose by 567% last year. The initial count shows 60 victims in 2021, up from nine in 2020. Half of last year’s victims were allegedly targeted by one man.
In New York City, the number of alleged hate crimes against Asians logged by police climbed from 28 in 2020 to 131 last year. Earlier this month, a 28-year-old white man was charged with hate crimes after police said he randomly punched seven women of Asian ethnicity over two hours.
Associated Press writers David B. Caruso in New York, Alan Fram in Washington and Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed reporting.