Asian Americans across the U.S. reflected on their community’s vulnerability to racist attacks, after 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian American women at three locations in Georgia on March 16.
Long, who told police the shootings were not racially motivated, has been charged with eight counts of murder. Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said it was too soon in the investigation to classify the shootings as a hate crime.
Social media posts show Long deeply involved with his church: police said he allegedly has an addiction to sex and was attempting to “eliminate temptation.” The suspect confessed to the murders and told police he was on his way to Florida.
Using a gun he had purchased just a day earlier, Long first attacked Young’s Asian Massage Parlor in Acworth, about 30 miles north of Atlanta, at about 5 p.m. Three Asian American women and one man were killed in that incident: Delaina Ashley Yuan; Paul Andre Michels; Xiaojie Yan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44.
He then drove to the Gold Spa in Atlanta, and killed three Asian American women there, then crossed the street to the Aromatherapy Spa, where another woman’s body was found. Long was arrested two hours later. Atlanta police have not released the names of the victims.
Asian American leaders said the murders were targeted attacks which occurred during a dramatic spike in the past year of anti-Asian hate violence and intimidation. Stop AAPI Hate, a web portal allowing victims to report hate incidents or violence in several Asian languages, has collected more than 3,800 reports in the past year. Community activists believe the spike in hate violence is the result of President Donald Trump’s vilification of Asian Americans: the former President called the COVID-19 virus the “Chinese virus,” “the Kung Flu,” and the “Wuhan virus,” among other names.
Elderly Asians and women have been targets for the majority of attacks. A poll soon to be released by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum found that 55 percent — more than half of AAPI women — reported being affected by anti-Asian racism at least once in the past 2 years.
“We never expected this now: we thought it was over after Trump lost. But hate crime never seems to go away,” Atlanta-based Korean American activist Jongwon Lee told Ethnic Media Services March 17, amid a day of mourning.
Lee said the local community’s first priority was to identify the victims — a difficult task as many of the women used pseudonyms for their spa work — and to help their families. He expressed his concern that law enforcement officials have not charged Long with hate crimes, and hoped that the FBI, which is involved in the investigation, will find evidence of a racially motivated attack.
Captain Jay Baker, a spokesperson for the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office in Georgia, has been criticized for minimizing the murders in Acworth. Long “understood the gravity of his crime. And he was pretty much fed up, had been kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” said Baker.
A barrage of responses on social media characterized Baker’s statements as “sympathetic” to the suspect and “offering up excuses” for the fatal attacks.
Speaking at a press conference March 17, organized by the National Organization for Women, John C. Yang, President & Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said: “Yesterday’s attack was on the most vulnerable in our community.”
Christian Nunes, national president of NOW, said Asian American women are viewed in a hyper-sexualized, highly desirable way which makes them more vulnerable to attacks. She noted that crimes against Asian Americans have risen by 150 percent in the past year, amid the pandemic. In New York, hate crimes against the AAPI community have spiked by 833 percent, she said.
Atlanta police released both of the 911 calls made from inside the massage parlors as Long proceeded with his rampage. In both cases, the dispatcher could not understand what the caller was saying and did not comprehend the gravity and immediacy of the situation.
Yang and Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said increased funding should be allocated for in-language interpreters across all sectors of government and law enforcement, as more than one-third of Asian Americans have limited English language proficiency. The recordings can be heard here: https://bit.ly/3cC60du
At an earlier press conference organized by the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Leng Leng Chan said: “This has been a devastating day. We are all grieving, trying to process what has just happened.”
“This is white supremacy at its worst,” she said. “Low wage workers already face systemic racism, especially if they don’t speak English. The place they call home is not a safe place for them.”
Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood said AAAJ Atlanta was working with the victim’s families to provide emotional and financial support.
“Anti-Asian bias is not new to our community,” she said, noting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all Chinese immigrant laborers, and the internment of Japanese Americans during the second World War.
“But violence definitely has increased over the last year, impacting our businesses and our families. Yesterday’s shootings have put an additional fear in our heart,” said Mahmood.