President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris consoled a grieving community in the wake of Tuesday’s spa shootings in metro Atlanta and condemned the rise in hostility toward Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The trip to Georgia was already in the works before Tuesday’s shootings that claimed the lives of eight people who were mostly of Asian descent. But the original focus – to tout the $1.9 billion coronavirus relief package to supporters – shifted after the violence in metro Atlanta.
Biden and Harris met privately with representatives of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community at Emory University before making public remarks. Biden called the meeting “heart wrenching.”
Investigators are still looking into the shooter’s motive and why he targeted the three businesses where the shootings occurred. But 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long of Woodstock has told police that he has a sexual addiction and that he viewed the spas as “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
Six of the victims were women of Asian descent, which has brought a new focus to the increased harassment and aggression seen against Asian Americans in the last year.
“Whatever the motivation, we know this: Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying, waking up each morning the past year of feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are at stake,” Biden said from Convocation Hall at Emory.
The president called on Congress to pass a bill that would expedite the Department of Justice’s review of COVID-19 hate crimes for at least a year. Biden previously signed an executive order directing federal agencies to address increased xenophobia.
Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, documented 3,800 “hate incidents” from last March to the end of February. The real number of incidents is likely higher, the group says.
Hate crimes targeting Asian American in the country’s largest cities last year jumped 150% even as overall hate crimes declined, according to a report released earlier this year by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.
President Donald Trump branded the coronavirus as the “China virus” and referred to the disease as the “kung flu” at rallies.
“Asian Americans have been attacked and scapegoated,” said Harris, who is Asian American. “People who are perceived as Muslim know what it was like to live in our country after 9/11. For the last year, we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans – people with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.
“Everyone has the right to go to work, to go to school, to walk down the street and be safe,” she said. “And also, the right to be recognized as an American, not as the ‘other,’ not as ‘them,’ but as ‘us.’ A harm against any one of us, is a harm against all of us.”
Biden said the surge in hostility toward Asian Americans is a reminder that “words have consequences.”
“It’s the coronavirus. Full stop,” he said.
Biden did not completely shy away from promoting the sweeping American Rescue Plan Act, which provided $1,400 payments for most Georgians, expanded a child tax credit and offered new federal incentives for states like Georgia to fully expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“You can thank Senators (Raphael) Warnock and (Jon) Ossoff. But for their votes, it would not have happened,” he said.
The president also lamented the GOP’s response to last year’s election. Biden is the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in three decades.
“The fact that there was a record turnout in America in the last election in the midst of a pandemic should be something we celebrated, not attacked,” Biden said. “The fact that you held a free and fair election in Georgia that stood up to recount after recount, court case after court case, is something you should be proud of.”