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, 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.”
In New York, a few hundred people gathered to mark the occasion and remember the victims. Anqi Wang, 24, who has lived in New York for five years, was one of them. She said she now does things like avoiding crowded places and keeps her hand on her pepper spray. She described herself as shy and quiet but she felt it was important to come to Wednesday's event so her voice could be heard.
“We’re here. We deserve to be seen, we deserve to feel safe and we deserve to feel like we belong," she said.
Georgia Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the state House, told the crowd in Atlanta that 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.
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.
The somber anniversary was noted by politicians across the country including President Joe Biden.
“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.
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.
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.
Long, who is white, 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.
Those taking part in Wednesday's commemoration events noted that violence against Asian women continues. 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.
Last week a Black man used an anti-Asian slur before punching a 67-year-old Asian woman in an apartment building vestibule in Yonkers, New York, more than 125 times, police said. 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.
Susanna Jaramillo, a 25-year-old Chinese American woman who attended the New York event, said her mother who lives in New Jersey worries for Jaramillo. Her mother tries to comfort Jaramillo by suggesting strangers might not recognize her Asian features, since she’s also half-Colombian.
“That’s really upsetting to hear because she’s always raised me to be very proud of the fact that I’m Chinese American. It’s just heartbreaking that she’s at the point where she thinks maybe we should suppress that a little bit," she said.
Associated Press writers David B. Caruso and Noreen Nasir in New York, Alan Fram in Washington and Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed reporting.