On March 16, eight people including six women of Asian decent were shot and killed in three separate shooting incidents in Atlanta, Georgia, all by the same shooter. He has since been arrested and charged with eight counts of murder. The eight victims were Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54.
In the aftermath, local communities such as Winchester and Woburn held vigils in honor of what many believe was a hate crime committed against the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community. Atlanta police, however, have yet to charge the suspect with a hate crime; instead, a police spokesperson said it remains “under investigation.”
Unfortunately, for so many in the AAPI community, they don’t need an investigation to determine what happened or what motivated the shooter. In the past year, according to the New York Times, Asian-Americans were targeted in 3,800 hate incidents.
For Tram Nguyen, a state representative from Andover who represents Tewksbury, and a member of the AAPI community, enough is enough. In a statement, she said: “The senseless killing of eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta is heartbreaking and has no place in our community or in our country.”
It’s no coincidence the rise in anti-AAPI sentiment coincided with the onset of the coronavirus, a plague that some, including former President Donald Trump, referred to as the “China Virus,” “Wuhan Virus,” “Wuhan Flu,” “China Flu,” or even the “Kung Flu.” All these names suggest that Asian people were responsible for the virus, which is, of course, not remotely true or factual.
Rep. Nguyen, speaking to that fact, said, “Anti-Asian rhetoric and scapegoating related to COVID-19 have perpetuated stigma against AAPI communities and has led to a 150 percent precipitous rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in cities across the country in 2020, even in Boston.”
As the representative noted, the increase in anti-AAPI rhetoric hits close to home, as a community like Winchester boasts a (comparatively) large Asian population, many of whom serve on boards and committees, both elected and volunteer.
“We need to find ways to be a part of the solution,” said Winchester Town Manager Lisa Wong, herself a member of the AAPI community about the role the town can play in driving down the violence and hatred.
First, though, she noted “we must acknowledge it’s happening.”
The Select Board in Winchester did that by releasing a statement recently that reads in part, “We want to raise awareness of the dangerous historic increase in incidents and assaults directed against AAPI communities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to acknowledge the pain and fear that is so palpable right now.”
Of course, as anyone within the AAPI community could explain, racism and xenophobia targeting Asian-Americans didn’t just appear because of the coronavirus. It has existed for centuries. As the Select Board notes in their statement:
“We also want to acknowledge that anti-Asian racism existed in the US for centuries before the pandemic, and that the historic power of white supremacy has created structural hierarchies which can divide communities. By continuing to treat the fight against white supremacy as separate battles, by isolating the AAPI community as experiencing different impacts, outside the discrimination faced by others, we allow the system to continue to divide us. We really have one common enemy – the racism that is embedded in our culture and society. By being in solidarity with each other, against all forms of racism, we are asserting our shared humanity and creating a space for healing.”
Rep. Nguyen knows it, too, that anti-Asian hate has existed in this country for as long as Asians have.
“Anti-Asian discrimination and violence are not new and affect entire communities. I came to the U.S. at the age of five with my family as political refugees from communist Vietnam and know of the discrimination, misogyny, and xenophobia that many immigrants and non-immigrants of Asian descent have been experiencing for hundreds of years and continue to experience today, especially amongst the elderly and women.”
How do you defeat racism that harms any community, be it Asian-American, African-American, Native American or other?
“Make it easier to report hate crimes in general,” Wong suggested, noting that there is a lot of “mistrust” in the process and that many incidents go unreported.
That makes sense, especially when you consider the officer reporting on the shootings in Atlanta to the media reportedly had anti-Asian posts on his Facebook page. He also claimed the shooter “was just having a bad day,” making little to no mention of the fact he killed six Asian women and targeted three Asian massage parlors.
Hard to report something when there’s a chance the person receiving the report doesn’t care or is actively a part of the problem.
Rep. Nguyen had a similar idea: “We need to confront and disrupt racism by standing up and speaking out. We need to address hate crimes head on and hold perpetrators directly accountable. The bill that I filed with Attorney General Maura Healey and State Senator Adam Hinds, ‘An Act to reform the hate crime statutes,’ clarifies the definition of hate crimes, structures penalties to fit the severity of the crime rather than adding penalties, and offers clear guidelines for more consistent enforcement at the state level.”
She continued: “If we don’t hold perpetrators accountable for the damages and harm inflicted by their words and actions, we leave entire communities living in fear with no recourse. We cannot be silent bystanders and let hate crimes continue to terrorize entire communities, whose members fear that they, too, could be targeted for no other reason than their membership in a protected class.”
Unfortunately, as is usually the case whenever someone commits a racist act, groups of people rise up to declare that racism doesn’t exist in this country. But listen to the people who’ve experienced it firsthand.
“The fear of racism and xenophobia will impact people I know including myself (and it already has), the Winchester town manager admitted. “I’ve had friends targeted and witnessed things at public meetings.”
She added how hearing the media and allies “acknowledge the problem makes us feel less alone and afraid.”
However, Wong also noted not everyone feels seen and heard. She said some within Winchester’s Asian community reached out to her following the Atlanta shootings, but some didn’t. Therefore, she hoped the vigil would help spread the message of unity and love so that everyone could feel seen and heard.
It’s not a cure all though, as many within the AAPI community still worry, and probably with good reason. Imaging hearing someone on television, with an audience of three or four million people, basically suggest that hate crimes aren’t hate crimes and the AAPI community has more to fear from Black people than White Supremacy. That’s the kind of messaging you get from conservative TV.
As Wei Han, President of the Chinese American Network of Winchester, noted, “We are troubled and worried with the increasing discrimination and violence against (members of the) AAPI (community) since last year.”
He gave a short speech during the recent vigil dedicated to the lives of the victims of the shootings in Atlanta. Han said he was “touched when I saw so many non-Asian Winchester residents come to the vigil and stand with us together.”
As part of the speech, Han said the Chinese American Network was “outraged and saddened” by the loss of life.
“Across the country,” he continued, “Asian Americans are hurting and Asian Americans are angry. We have been perpetual foreigners in this country. Slurs such as ‘go back to your country’ (are) probably uniquely an Asian American experience. AAPI have been systematically targeted during periods of tension or crisis. A pattern that’s being repeated today.”
There’s no doubt 2020 was a difficult year for everyone, but maybe no one group felt the pain like Asian-Americans who suffered tremendous loss thanks to the coronavirus and then suffered more when they were blamed for starting it and bringing it to America. Now, at a time when the country must come together, the continued presence of the virus prevents needed gatherings.
“Community conversations have continued during the pandemic, Wong said, “but using the phone and Zoom just aren’t an adequate (substitute) for coming together. Communication has not been what it needs to be.”
She noted how the tragedy in Atlanta forced people to come together in new ways.
“I can feel the strength, solidarity and hope,” the Winchester town manager added, pointing out the amount of work, support and conversations still needed.
She’s not alone in that thinking. America is a diverse nation of races, colors, religions, genders, and sexual orientations. Unfortunately, it appears not everyone appreciates that. It’s easy to attack someone not seen as worthy of existing in this country. Therefore, before anyone can rebuild, everyone must stop tearing down.
As the Select Board note in their statement: “We must start by calling out anti-Asian language, including any references to COVID-19 that encourage blaming and shaming Asians. We must commit to learning and practicing allyship.”
During his speech, Han put it even more bluntly: “Let’s stop discrimination, stop violence, stop racism, stop hate. Let’s build a diverse and inclusive community that cherishes and values the dignity of every community member.”
He referenced the Asian floating paper lanterns residents brought to the vigil and noted how they usually symbolize the guiding of souls, for those who have left the physical world and now exist spiritually. Nowadays, he said, they represent light and love.
“As we light these lanterns and candles as night falls, I’m reminded of what MLK once said: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’”
If anyone reading this has experienced bias motivated threats or hate, Rep. Nguyen suggests they call the Attorney General’s Hate Crime Hotline at 1-800-994-3228 or fill out at civil rights complaint. She adds that potential hate crimes – including bias-motivated assault, battery and property damage – should also be reported to the local police immediately.