U.S. NEWS

Asian Americans Grieve, Organize In Wake Of Atlanta Attacks

For the past several weeks, Asian Americans have questioned how to deal with a recent wave of assaults — many on the elderly — that have coincided with the pandemic.

Asian Americans were already worn down by a year of pandemic-fueled racist attacks when a white gunman was charged with attacking three Atlanta-area massage parlors and killing eight people, most of them Asian women.

Hundreds of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders turned to social media to air their anger, sadness, fear and hopelessness. The hashtag #StopAsianHate was a top trending topic on Twitter hours after the shootings that happened Tuesday evening.

“I think the reason why people are feeling so hopeless is because Asian Americans have been ringing the bell on this issue for so long ... We’ve been raising the red flag,” said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of the Atlanta-based Asian American Advocacy Fund, which does political and advocacy work across Georgia.

After dropping off flowers Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Youn
After dropping off flowers Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Young's Asian Massage Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Ga. (Curtis Compton /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Many were also outraged that the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was not immediately charged with hate crimes. Authorities said Long told police the attack was not racially motivated, and he claimed that he targeted the spas because of a “sex addiction.” Six of the seven slain women were identified as Asian.

Law enforcement needs “some training understanding what a hate crime is. This man identified targets owned by Asians,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. The gunman “was very clearly going after a targeted group of people.”

Being Asian American herself, Huang said the shootings felt personal. She is worried that not classifying the attack as a hate crime will “absolutely discourage others from coming forward and seeking help.”

She also cringed at the comments of a sheriff’s captain who said of the gunman, “It was a really bad day for him.”

The remark “appeared to be trying to explain and justify” the suspect’s actions. “Hopefully it was a misstatement,” Huang said.

In this March 17, 2021, file photo, Roula AbiSamra, center, and Chelsey, right, prepare to lay flowers bouquets at a makeshif
In this March 17, 2021, file photo, Roula AbiSamra, center, and Chelsey, right, prepare to lay flowers bouquets at a makeshift memorial outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

Mahmood said Asian American business owners in the Atlanta area were already fearful because of incidents like graffiti and break-ins. The shootings will raise that worry to new heights.

“A lot of Asian American business owners in the beauty parlor industry and food service — these are often the most visible front-line faces in the community,” Mahmood said.

Her organization is partnering with other groups such as the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice to offer resources in multiple languages, including mental health assistance, self-defense training and bystander training.

In this March 17, 2021, file photo, Capt. Tarik Sheppard, left, Commander of the New York Police Department Community Affairs
In this March 17, 2021, file photo, Capt. Tarik Sheppard, left, Commander of the New York Police Department Community Affairs Rapid Response Unit speaks to a resident while on a community outreach patrol in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Meanwhile, from Phoenix to Philadelphia, Asian American organizations nationwide organized events aimed at showing unity.

Asian Americans United, the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance and several other partner groups held a vigil Wednesday afternoon in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood.

“After the month and year we had, we knew our folks needed the time to come together safely just to grieve and heal and mourn and speak to what’s happening,” said Mohan Seshadri, Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance co-executive director.

As much despair as Asian Americans feel, Seshadri said, the shootings also mark a flashpoint.

“Our folks are pissed off and ready to fight,” Seshadri said. “The way we get through this is together by organizing our people and feeling solidarity.”

In this March 13, 2021, file photo, Chinese-Japanese American student Kara Chu, 18, holds a pair of heart balloons decorated
In this March 13, 2021, file photo, Chinese-Japanese American student Kara Chu, 18, holds a pair of heart balloons decorated by herself for the rally "Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power" to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence outside the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce CEO Vicente Reid is planning a vigil next week in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, which has a high concentration of Asian American-owned shops and restaurants. He thinks the slayings have galvanized the local community to go beyond vigils.

“I think there is this whole outlet of this younger generation who’s passionate and has the energy. They just need someone to step up and lead them,” Reid said.

In this March 13, 2021, file photo, a man participates in the rally "Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power" to raise a
In this March 13, 2021, file photo, a man participates in the rally "Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power" to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence outside the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

For the past several weeks, Asian Americans have questioned how to deal with a recent wave of assaults — many on the elderly — that have coincided with the pandemic. The virus was first identified in China, and former President Donald Trump and others have used racial terms to describe it.

Numerous Asian American organizations say Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened people to express anti-Asian or anti-immigrant views. Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian American Pacific Islanders, and its partner groups, since March 2020. Nationally, women reported hate crimes 2.3 times more than men.

In this March 17, 2021, file photo, Detective Suk H Too, second from right, with the New York Police Department Community Aff
In this March 17, 2021, file photo, Detective Suk H Too, second from right, with the New York Police Department Community Affairs Rapid Response Unit hands out fliers with information on how to report hate crimes to residents while on a community outreach patrol in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Following the release Wednesday of a report showing a surge in white supremacist propaganda in 2020, the Anti-Defamation League told The Associated Press that a significant amount of the propaganda included anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The anti-hate group said 10% of propaganda descriptions in its inventory contained negative references to immigration, multiculturalism or diversity. The 522 physical flyers, stickers or banners included the use of words such as “invasion, deport, disease, illegal, infection and virus,” the ADL said.

There were also seven propaganda incidents with direct anti-China references to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Asian Americans are thankfully getting support from many non-Asian allies, Mahmood said.

“The path forward for us is really just standing together and making sure we don’t let these types of tragedies divide our communities.”

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Associated Press Writer Aaron Morrison in New York City contributed to this report.

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Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP.