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Eight people, including six Asian women, are dead following a series of shootings at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area Tuesday evening. The shootings are the latest acts of violence against Asian people living in the U.S., which have risen significantly in the past year in large part due to racist rhetoric around the pandemic.
While authorities have yet to determine a motive in this latest attack, the fact remains that six Asian people are dead as a result, and this compounds fears the community faces on a daily basis, advocates say.
The group Stop AAPI Hate has recorded 3,795 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, with women victimized at more than twice the rate of men.
“This latest attack will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure,” Stop AAPI Hate said in a statement.
The first shooting occurred Tuesday evening at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in Acworth, about 30 miles north of Atlanta. Five people were shot, four of whom died.
Atlanta Police responded to a robbery about an hour later at Gold Spa in northeast Atlanta, where they found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds, according to a statement. After hearing shots fired from another business across the street, they found another woman shot dead inside of Aromatherapy Spa.
Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old Georgia resident who is white, was arrested in connection with the shootings and charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said his office was able to identify Long from surveillance video footage of the shooting in Acworth and put a call out on social media. Long’s parents contacted the office to say they believed the suspect to be their son, he said.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that while this has not been officially categorized as a hate crime, the uptick in violence toward Asian Americans is an issue that’s been “happening across the country,” adding, “it is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop.” “A crime against any community is a crime against us all,” Bottoms said.
The Cherokee County Sheriff’s office released the names of the four victims who died in the shooting at Youngs Asian Massage. They are Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. One additional victim, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was injured in the shooting.
The Atlanta Police Department on Friday released the names of the four additional victims who died through a statement by the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office. They are Soon C. Park, 74; Hyun J. Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong A. Yue, 63.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said its diplomats in Atlanta have confirmed with police that four of the victims who died were women of Korean descent, according to the Associated Press.
Authorities did not give many details of the victims in the news conference Wednesday morning, other than to say that two were white and six were Asian. Cherokee County Sheriff spokesperson Jay Baker said Tuesday was “a really bad day” for the suspect charged with the murders — framing that drew criticism from many on social media who said this diminished the tragedy of the eight people who were killed.
Activist Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group, contrasted this statement by Baker with the description of the female victims as “a temptation [Long] wanted to eliminate.”
“This is misogyny,” she wrote on Twitter.
Authorities said that Long, who lives in Woodstock, Georgia, told police that he has a sex addiction. They said he claimed that the killings were not racially motivated, drawing outrage across the country from Asian Americans and others who said racism has historically been deeply rooted in the sexualization of Asian women.
In addition to describing the massage parlors as a “temptation” that Long wanted to “eliminate,” Baker also said the suspect made a comment indicating that he had plans to head to Florida as part of a plot to attack “some type of porn industry.”
Despite what Long told police, racism has not been eliminated as a motive in the shootings. Sheriff Reynolds said they are still “very early in this investigation,” which is now being conducted with assistance from the FBI.
Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the state’s first Vietnamese American representative, said the shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” according to the AP.
To some, Long’s explanation to the police pointed to a troubling longstanding history of festishim, sexualization and stereotyping directed toward Asian women, in particular.
“Of course, he targeted these women because they were Asian and Asian women end up in massage parlors, to which non-Asian men are attracted,” writer Viet Thanh Nguyen told the PBS NewsHour’s national correspondent Amna Nawaz during an Instagram live discussion Wednesday about anti-Asian discrimination. “It’s a whole environment of targeting Asian women first as sexual objects of desire and then as objects of racial fear and hatred.”
Other Asian Americans challenged the idea that sex addiction could rule out the possibility that racism was also at play, including Millie Tran, the chief product officer at the Texas Tribune.
“As if these things aren’t related and based on centuries of sexualized and submissive stereotypes of Asian women,” she tweeted. “White supremacy is rooted in misogyny and racism.”
Tuesday’s shootings were a grim reminder that Asians in the U.S. continue to be discriminated against, and this targeting has grown worse amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Former President Donald Trump repeatedly directed blame for the coronavirus toward the Asian community and has continued to do so as the U.S. passed the anniversary of the pandemic, calling COVID-19 the “China virus” as recently as yesterday evening during an interview with Fox News. Trump also referred to the virus as “Kung flu” at several campaign rallies last summer, and never apologized for using racist language.
Research has shown such hateful rhetoric encourages violence to continue. Stop AAPI Hate reported more than 1,000 hate incidents in the two weeks after the virus began spreading across the U.S., and thousands more since then. Communities continue to be rattled by these attacks. The number of documented hate crimes only capture a fraction of the racism the Asian community faces on a daily basis; it doesn’t include actions like verbal harassment, refusal of service or vandalism, which may not be reported as these are often harder for law enforcement to pursue.
Should the authorities find enough evidence to prove that the murders were racially motivated, they could prosecute the case as a hate crime. This happened with several shootings where the killer made clear their intentions were driven by hate of a group of people, including the attacks carried out by Dylann Roof, who wrote a racist manifesto before killing 9 Black parishioners at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., as well as Patrick Crusius, who murdered 22 people and later told police he had driven to an El Paso Walmart to kill Mexicans
Kim Tran, a consultant and researcher focusing on Asian solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, noted that Asians in the U.S. have long been scapegoated as carriers of disease. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barred Chinese laborers from emigrating to the U.S., partly because authorities believed these immigrants “were disease ridden and syphilitic,” Tran told the PBS NewsHour.
“There’s nothing new to the idea that Asian people bring disease to white people,” Tran said. The thinking surrounding this current wave of anti Asian violence in the U.S., she added, is “let’s hang this disease around the necks of Asian Americans who are really easy to reach for in terms of racial blame.”
The Asian American population in Georgia has doubled over the last two decades, and many of these residents live in the Atlanta area.
“We are heartbroken by these acts of violence,” the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said in a statement. “While the details of the shootings are still emerging, the broader context cannot be ignored. The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fueled by white supremacy and systemic racism.”
The PBS NewsHour will update this story as it develops.
Courtney Vinopal is a general assignment reporter at the PBS NewsHour.
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