The shooting of six women of Asian origin in Atlanta has laid bare the fears of an Asian-American community already on edge over a spike in hate crimes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The suspect in the attacks in the US city in Georgia was to make his first court appearance on Thursday as a House subcommittee held a hearing to address the rise in violence against Asian-Americans.
“For many Asian-Americans, Tuesday’s shocking events felt like the inevitable culmination of a year in which there were nearly 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate incidents,” said Representative Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee.
Anti-Asian incidents have grown “increasingly more violent over time as the Covid-19 pandemic worsened,” Cohen said.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, faces eight counts of murder and one charge of aggravated assault for Tuesday’s shootings at three Atlanta massage parlors, in which six of the eight people killed were women of Asian origin.
The authorities said Long, who is white, has admitted carrying out the attacks but claims he was not motivated by racial hatred.
Instead, he told detectives he is a sex addict who wanted to “eliminate” the “temptation” of massage parlors and had previously frequented such establishments.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Long’s claims should be taken “with a grain of salt” and it was “difficult to ignore” that most of the victims were of Asian descent.
Sarah Park, president of the Korean American Coalition-Metro Atlanta, said racism was clearly a factor.
“Yes it is a hate crime against Asian-Americans,” Park said, criticizing what she sees as the reluctance of the authorities to go after violence that targets women working for low wages and who often speak little to no English.
– ‘Latent anti-Asian prejudices’ –
Among those testifying before the House panel were four members of Congress of Asian origin: Senator Tammy Duckworth and Representatives Doris Matsui, Judy Chu and Grace Meng.
“Asian-Americans must not be used as scapegoats in times of crisis — lives are at stake,” said Chu, a Democrat from California. “It’s critical that Congress takes bold action to address this pandemic of discrimination and hate.”
Cohen, the subcommittee chairman, said Asian-Americans have been subjected to “verbal harassment, being spat at, slapped in the face, lit on fire, slashed with a box cutter or shoved violently to the ground.”
He said the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than half a million Americans dead, had exacerbated “latent anti-Asian prejudices that have a long, long and ugly history in America.”
The ranking Republican on the panel, Chip Roy of Texas, said the victims of the Atlanta shootings deserve justice but expressed concern about “policing” the right to voice criticism of China’s leadership.
Roy’s remarks drew an angry response from Meng, a Democrat from New York.
“Your president, and your party, and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s eye on the back of Asian-Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” Meng said.
“This hearing was to address the pain of our community and to find solutions and we will not let you take our voice away.”
– ‘Must stop’ –
Vigils were held in several US cities on Wednesday to mourn the victims of the Atlanta shootings and condemn racially-motivated violence.
President Joe Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all US public buildings until sunset on Monday, as a mark of respect for the Atlanta victims.
Biden said Thursday that while the motive for the attacks has not yet been fully established “what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain.”
“The recent attacks against the community are un-American,” he tweeted. “They must stop.”
Tuesday’s rampage began with an attack at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, an Atlanta suburb, where four of the victims were killed and a man was wounded.
Police said four women were subsequently killed in attacks on two neighboring spas in the northeast of Atlanta.
Long was arrested after a brief pursuit about 150 miles (240 kilometers) from Atlanta, officials said.
The state of Georgia, of which Atlanta is the capital, is home to nearly 500,000 people of Asian origin, or just over four percent of its population, according to the Asian American Advocacy Fund.