ATLANTA — Kim Vu caught her mom’s attention and gestured across Wylie Street to the giant yellow-and-black mural on the wall. In between the budding trees and cyclists whizzing past, letters 10 feet tall spelled out the message she wanted her mom to see: “Stop Asian Hate.”
The past year has been a scary one in Atlanta for Asian Americans, and even more so Asian American women. A year ago, a man attacked three Atlanta-area Asian-owned spas, killing eight people, six of them Asian women.
The murders sent shockwaves through the community, unleashing a wave of anxiety for Asian Americans long accustomed to casual racism and discrimination in the United States. The murders also tore open memories of brutal attacks faced by Asian American communities for generations, an unsettling reminder of their ongoing treatment as perpetual foreigners.
Vu’s mom started wearing a baseball cap to better blend in with her white neighbors. Other women started carrying pepper spray, investigated concealed-handgun permits, avoided the freeways and tracked each others’ location via smartphone.
“I was really scared. She was scared. She felt like she had to cover up her identity when she went out.” Vu, 37, said. “I only felt safe going to places where I was mostly going to be in my car. And I never left the house without my husband. I still feel that way.”
But a year after the shootings, the fear many Asian Americans in Atlanta felt is being replaced by a growing desire for systemic change in everything from law enforcement to community priorities to history classes. It’s a significant change, many younger Asian Americans say, because their immigrant parents have long counseled a policy of quiet acceptance.
And it comes amid a significant increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes nationally, including brutal attacks in New York and California.
“There’s an underlying sense that something’s wrong,” said the Rev. Daniel Kim, a pastor at Atlanta’s Remnant Community Church, which primarily serves an Asian American congregation. “My parents always said, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. But for a group that collectively feels uncomfortable raising their voices for anything, there’s a lot of people unwilling to do that anymore. We need to voice things — and a lot of people are learning that their voice has a place at the table.”
Women killed working serving others
The first shooting occurred at what was then known as Youngs Asian Massage in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth. According to police, prosecutors and witnesses, Robert Aaron Long, then 21, bought a handgun, ammunition and alcohol in Holly Springs, about 10 miles away, around 2 p.m. He drove to Youngs, went inside and paid for a massage. Shortly before 5 p.m., he began firing at the people inside.
Long killed customers Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta, and Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth, and wounded her husband, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30. He also killed spa owner Xiaojie Tan, 49, of nearby Kennesaw, and spa worker Daoyou Feng, 44.
Long in July 2021 pleaded guilty to those murders in Cherokee County as part of a plea bargain that spared him from a possible death penalty.
Police and prosecutors say that after Long attacked Youngs, he drove about 30 miles south, where he attacked two more Asian spas: Gold Massage Spa and Aromatherapy Spa. Yong Ae Yue, 63, Soon Chung Park, 74, Suncha Kim, 69, and Hyun Jung Grant, 51, died in those attacks in Fulton County.
Fulton County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty if Long’s convicted in the deaths of Yue, Park, Kim and Grant.
Prosecutors have also brought sentencing enhancements under the state’s new hate crimes law, passed following the February 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot and killed after being chased by three white men while he was out jogging.
The disparity between how prosecutors in Cherokee and Fulton county handled the shootings has frustrated some members of the state’s Asian American community, who said Long should have faced hate crime charges for each death, not just the ones in Atlanta’s Fulton County.
To get from the first murder scene to the other spas, Long would have driven past chiropractor’s offices and daycares, Thai restaurants and hardware stores.
“Our victims have the benefit of knowing the perpetrator will never be released with his sentence of life without parole, the satisfaction of hearing him admit his guilt, and closure,” Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said. “Victims and their families desire accountability for the accused, but no sentence will bring family members what they really want – their loved one back.”
Webb, whose former wife owned Youngs spa, said his daughter, Jami Webb, remains understandably traumatized by her mother’s death, and is still so cautious around strangers that she retreated to the courthouse law library during Long’s plea-bargain hearing. He said both she and he were comfortable with the plea bargain decision. Jami Webb declined to comment.
“It would have occ
upied our mind and lives for years to come,” Mike Webb said. “At first we wanted the death penalty but we were satisfied with four consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. It enabled us get some closure pretty quickly.”
Webb, a conservative who has spent time at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort, said Trump’s repeated blaming of China for the coronavirus pandemic whipped up anti-Asian sentiment.
Months after President Joe Biden took office, he signed a new law intended to raise awareness of hate crimes against Asian Americans in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Calling it the damn Kung flu and the China virus didn’t help. It’s just so wrong,” Webb said. “This guy targeted three Asian-owned businesses. He killed six people of Asian descent. We know that. But I can tell you the D.A., and this was a difficult conversation they had with us, that they felt strongly this didn’t meet the state statute as a hate crime. But for the Asian community, 3/16 is like their 9/11.”
Kim, the pastor, said it’s been hard for his congregation to accept assurances that Long’s attacks were not racially motivated. Kim, who joined the U.S. Army after 9/11, said he’s all-too-aware of the racism faced by Asian Americans, which has dramatically increased over the past several years. He said the murders shattered the sense of safety many members of his congregation felt
In 2020, reported anti-Asian hate crime increased 146% across 26 of America’s largest cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, and has increased a further 189% in the first quarter of 2021, the latest period for which data is available.
“All of us want to be known as a person, beyond just an external appearance,” Kim said. “There’s no going back to the way it was before. I think there was a veneer, a façade, a surface level of safety that was shattered. People’s eyes sparkle a little less. There’s a little less innocence and naïveté.”
Kym Lee, 39, who lives just outside Atlanta, said the attacks and the way the six women of Asian descent were treated by the media following the shootings tapped into a “profound generational grief.” In the hours following the shootings, many news outlets focused on the potential sexual nature of the attacks, as if the women’s occupation somehow diminished the value of their lives.
“I absolutely looked at them and saw my mom. I saw my mom in these women, I saw myself in these women,” Lee said. “There was just all these assumptions put on them before we knew any facts about then. These women did not deserve to die.”
ONE YEAR AFTER ATLANTA SHOOTINGS: ‘Prevention is the key’ to fighting anti-Asian hate crimes
Lee, who moved to Georgia from Taiwan when she was 4, said she’s frustrated Asian Americans are so often seen as something other than “real” Americans: “We are sometimes treated as if we have some country to go back to. I mean, come on, my kids were born here. This IS our country.”
Following the shootings, Lee and her family moved from a largely white area of the Atlanta suburbs to one that is more ethnically diverse. Lee said she was tired of feeling like she stood out among her neighbors at the grocery store, and now takes comfort in shopping at an Asian grocery store where she can blend in. She’s also quit her financial services job to devote more time to activism.
Many Asian Americans are feeling the same tension as Lee — they want change but many community elders have long counseled a “don’t rock the boat” mentality. The Rev. Pastor Steven Kim of Promise Church of Atlanta said some of his younger parishioners are frustrated their voices are not heard loudly. Asian Americans account for about 6% of the U.S. population but are unrepresented in law enforcement and politics at all levels.
He said many Asian Americans have long adopted a cautious attitude, but last year’s shootings prompted many to turn further inward. Some members of his congregation have bought pepper spray or investigated buying handguns for self-protection. Others use the “find my iPhone” service to keep tabs on each other. Still others are considering running for office, or joining activist groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which has an Atlanta chapter.
“In one sense, it’s a community coming together. But what’s driving it is fear,” Kim said of his primarily Asian American congregation. “There’s a sense of hopelessness and
helplessness. Even amidst that rallying, there’s this question, ‘what’s going to change?’ That feeling of desperation still exists. This is a conversation we need to continually be having until there is actual, meaningful change.”
‘Layers of violence’
Across Atlanta, there’s little to commemorate the lives lost during last year’s spa shootings. A mural near the historic Reynoldstown/Cabbagetown neighborhood border lists the names of the eight victims, but homages to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are far more common, as are #BlackLivesMatter signs, posters and graffiti.
The Atlanta metropolitan area is about 45% white, with 33% of Black residents and 6.6% Asian residents, according to the U.S. Census. And the region’s Asian population grew by 57%, or about 145,000 people, between 2010 and 2020.
Founded in 2010 as the area’s Asian American population began growing, the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Atlanta protects civil rights and provides immigration help across the area.
The group acknowledges the previous work done by generations of Asian American activists and hopes to find comprehensive solutions by understanding the systemic causes of racism and violence. Many Asian Americans interviewed for this story cited hope that Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was from southeast Asia, would raise the profile of their community and bring new resources to the fight for equality and justice.
Phi Nguyen, 37, the executive director of AAAJ-A, said Asian American immigrants who fled political unrest in their home countries worry about ICE raids, while others worry about whether police will treat them the same as their white neighbors — putting them in a tough place when it comes to trusting a government that 80 years ago locked up more than 100,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II, without any evidence they were a threat. Most were U.S. citizens.
Other laws stripped women of their U.S. citizenship if they married Asian men, or barred people of Asian birth from owning property. Many Americans don’t know that ugly history, and the current controversy over the teaching of critical race theory threatens to further weaken the country’s collective understanding of its racist history, Nguyen said.
“The reality is that there are lot of incidences of both interpersonal violence and state violence that has been committed against Asian American communities for generations,” Nguyen said. “Not maybe 10 days after these shootings, our governor signed a voter-suppression bill. It’s layers on layers of violence upon our community and other communities of color that we’re having to combat on a daily basis.”
Like activists aligned with Black Lives Matter, many Asian American advocates want to see increased emphasis on teaching kids about historical oppression and finding solutions to violence that don’t center around police, law enforcement and incarceration, while providing more services to victims of violence and race-based hate.
“Beyond the conversation about how everyone is doing, part of the conversation needs to be about the solutions to create community safety, what does it look like to invest in systems of care that are sustainable,” Nguyen said.
On Saturday, March 12, mourners, family and community members gathered at a large park in the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven to memorialize the spa shooting victims and call for systemic change. The backdrop of the rally was a statue remembering Asian “comfort women” forced into sex slavery during World War II — a reminder of the “legacies of sexism, racism, colonialism and militarization throughout Asia and the Pacific that shape the present,” organizers said in announcing the service.
For security reasons, the service was not open to the public.
Atlanta-area musician and performer Jennifer Chung, 32, said she’s thankful to see more Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, getting comfortable speaking up. Like many, she said the generational advice to remain quiet is being replaced by a realization that they are already being targeted. Chung said the growing chorus of voices following the murders give her hope that change is coming.
“What the Black community has gone through, we can’t even compare. But there are parallel experiences. And I know that even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it will happen. Even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, we have to believe we’re doing good,” she said. “We can’t forget the lives that have been taken. We can’t forget what happened. It’s our community trying to grow flowers from a place of pain.”
Back on Wylie Street, Vu and her mom took a few minutes to take in the mural, to think about the tragedies of the past year and what comes next. Vu said she’s personally become more comfortable speaking up about casual racism, particularly in her workplace, and hopes the sentiment spreads so that quiet women like her mom feel more welcome.
“So many people within the Asian community started speaking out,” Vu said. “And I wanted her to know that there’s people out there who really do care.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta spa shootings still hurt Asian American community a year later