Activists gathered in Atlanta March 16, 2022 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings and rally for justice for Asian women. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder.
Wednesday marked a somber anniversary for Georgians, especially those with Asian American ancestry.
On March 16, 2021, a gunman attacked three Asian American spas in Atlanta and Cherokee County, killing eight people and injuring another. Six of the people killed were Asian American women.
Activists, politicians and family members gathered in Atlanta Wednesday to honor the victims and rally for an end to racial violence.
Robert Peterson said he decided to speak out in honor of his mother, Yong Ae Yue, one of the victims of the shooting.
“My mother was an Asian woman who was targeted for who she was, for occupying a particular space, by someone she didn’t know,” he said. “What would my mother say in this moment? My mother would want you to care. She would want you to be concerned, she would want the community to be supportive and inclusive. As we stand together in this shared responsibility against hate, it sends a message that this is unacceptable, it cannot be tolerated. This type of violence tears at the fabric of who we are.”
Michael Webb recalled a terrifying phone call with his daughter waiting to hear news of his former wife, Xiaojie Tan.
“We stayed on the phone together for five hours,” he said. “Each hour, we learned of more casualties, until we learned there were eight dead, and there was only one shooting victim that had survived. We held onto that small thread of hope, until finally, my daughter was told that her mother was among the dead.”
Webb, who is white, urged the crowd to support stronger gun safety measures and promote friendship and understanding among people with different backgrounds.
“Many of my fellow white Americans have been shaped by similar biases and prejudices, and are either blind to them or unwilling to examine them,” he said. “This is the insidious nature of racism.”
Deep-seated stereotypes about Asian women contribute to the violence they experience, said Democratic state Sen. Michelle Au of Johns Creek, Georgia’s first Asian American woman senator.
“History has shown us that it is easier to hurt others whom we objectify or see as less than human,” Au said. “We also know the hyper sexualization and objectification of women and girls leads them to increased risk of violence. Asian women often find themselves — ourselves — at the nexus of this social psychology. And in examining the events of March 16 and its inciting factors, we cannot turn away from the interplay of racism, sexism, and its deadly effect. This is why the importance of education cannot be overstated.”
At a time when lawmakers are passing bills aimed blocking discussions on “divisive concepts” in the classroom, Au stressed the role of education as an “empathy machine.”
Then-21-year-old Robert Long pleaded guilty to the attacks and was sentenced to life in prison in connection with the killings in Cherokee. He still faces prosecution in Fulton County in connection with the Atlanta shootings and could be facing the death penalty. Long reportedly told police he was inspired to commit the shootings because of a sex addiction.
State Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat who is also running for secretary of state, compared the victims to her own mother, who immigrated from Vietnam. Nguyen is Georgia’s first Vietnamese-American state representative.
“The tragic shooting and what we have to come to know about the lives of the victims, it unveils to our community a counternarrative that we as a society fail to recognize,” Nguyen said. “Asian people are not the model minority. We are isolated. We are lonely. We are invisible. We are vulnerable. Some of us are poor. Some of us speak English with a heavy accent. Some of us make ourselves small. We are the conditions of the inequalities that propelled us to seek refuge in America in the first place. And tragically, for these women, America did not safely harbor them.”
Nguyen said Asian Americans must stand with other marginalized groups to fight against oppression.
Her message was echoed by Stacey Abrams, Democratic candidate for governor.
“My father grew up the target of racial violence,” she said. “He grew up in the Jim Crow South where being Black was enough to justify harm and hatred, to diminish who he was and to deny his humanity, and what happened a year ago today was an echo and a repeat of what has been too long the history of this nation.”
Abrams sought to connect the racist policies of the Jim Crow era with racist laws targeting Asian Americans like the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“Breaking the silence of hatred against Asian women should have started in the 1800s, but by God, it will happen today,” she said.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s office sent a representative to the event to read a statement on the governor’s behalf.
“These terrible crimes have no place in Georgia,” the governor’s statement read. “Equally as important, I want to reiterate that every Georgian deserves to be safe, secure in our state. As friends, coworkers, family, and valued members of the community, these individuals should not live in fear. Our family remains heartbroken by the horrendous actions from one year ago today, and our prayers continue to go out to those affected.”
Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Bourdeaux, who represents more Asian Americans than any other Georgia member of Congress, spoke about federal efforts to fight hate crimes, including the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which allocates resources to local hate crimes investigations and directs the Justice Department to expedite review of COVID-19-related hate crimes.
“As we look ahead, it is my hope that these perpetrators of hate crimes are brought to justice and that these measures reduce the number of hate crimes in our community,” Bourdeaux said. “The heinous shootings in Georgia were a wake-up call for the public to the reality of the Asian American community and what they are facing each and every day. When one group of Americans is hurting, we are all hurting.”
Other Georgians representing the state sent messages of support, including Bourdeaux’ primary rival Congresswoman Lucy McBath.
McBath said she continues to grieve for the victims, but she is inspired by the show of courage and strength demonstrated by Georgians in response to the attack.
“I am so encouraged and strengthened by the efforts of leaders in our community who, for the past year, have worked tirelessly to combat this hatred with meaningful and substantial action,” she said. “And as we commemorate those we lost to these hateful acts, we reaffirm our commitment to rid our communities of violence and vitriol, and we uplift the love and peace which has been championed by so many of our friends and neighbors.”
Bourdeaux, McBath and Georgia Congresswoman Nikema Williams are all sponsors of a bill commemorating the anniversary of the attacks and condemning anti-Asian hate.
“Everyone, no matter their race, ethnicity, or gender, has the right to live without fear of violence in their workplace or public spaces,” Williams said at an event held Wednesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
“We must honor the legacies of these eight victims and stop all forms of racism. Sadly, anti-Asian hatred has continued since the Atlanta spa shootings one year ago,” she said.
Sen. Raphael Warnock read the names of the victims on the Senate floor before calling for a moment of silent prayer.
“One year ago today, a hateful act of violence shook metropolitan Atlanta and reverberated across our state, our country, and indeed, the world. In the span of just a few hours, our sense of safety and sanctuary was pierced by bullets of hate and fear. Eight precious people lost their lives, eight people who were loved by their families, their friends, their children.”
Sen. Jon Ossoff released a video statement mourning the victims.
“We are all of us human beings, and united we grieve alongside the loved ones, colleagues, friends, and neighbors of those who were killed. We must build a state, a nation, and a world where no one lives in fear because of who we are, or where we or our families come from — a state, a nation, and a world built on love for and trust in our fellow human beings,” Ossoff said.
Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.
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