‘Enough Is Enough’: Asian American Community Leaders and Bay Area Officials React to Atlanta Shootings

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Lijing Zhao, owner of Jo Jos Massage, lays a bouquet of flowers outside the spa where four people were shot and killed on March 17, 2021 in Acworth, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Following the shooting deaths of eight people Tuesday at spas in and near Atlanta, Georgia – six of whom were women of Asian descent – Bay Area public officials and Asian American community leaders expressed feelings of heartbreak and outrage.

"When I saw it last night, it broke my heart. It just simply broke my heart," said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinese Community Development Center, which owns and operates low-income housing in San Francisco's Chinatown.

"I am horrified by the murder of API women in Georgia," said Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, on Twitter. "Make no mistake — this crime was driven by hate, fueled by racism that has festered during this pandemic. ... This must be an inflection point. Enough is enough."

In the wake of the Atlanta killings and numerous other attacks against AAPI community members in the Bay Area and across the nation, Chiu, alongside California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and other politicians, called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a state attorney general who will make stopping anti-AAPI hate "a top priority" in a press conference on Wednesday. Ma pointed to Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, as a voice for the AAPI community.

According to a report released Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate – a project based out of San Francisco State University that asks members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to self-report acts of hate and discrimination – between March 19, 2020 and Feb. 28, 2021, there were at least 3,795 incidents of anti-Asian hate across the nation, ranging from physical assault and verbal harassment to various civil rights violations.

More than 700 of those incidents occurred in the Bay Area, according to an earlier Stop AAPI Hate report last month.

Dr. Jian Zhang, CEO of Chinese Hospital, which first opened its doors in San Francisco in 1925, said many in her community are "afraid to go out. It's terrible."

"The hate crimes against Chinese and Asians need to stop," she said.

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In Oakland, Councilmember Sheng Thao said in a statement, "For far too long our culture has belittled, fetishized, and dehumanized API women, especially poorer, southeast Asian women. This was not only a hate act directed at the API community but at women everywhere who constantly face sexual violence in our country."

On the state level, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said the California Department of Education would double down on its effort to address bias and acts of hate. The state’s “Education to End Hate” Initiative that began last year has provided grants to schools for anti-racism and bias training for educators, Thurmond said. The department will host roundtables in the upcoming months to discuss solutions with the community.

"I just have to reiterate our sadness at seeing these deplorable acts being carried out. And we want to offer as much support as we can to our schools and work with them," Thurmond said Wednesday.

Nationally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she will work with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to "continue our work" to end violence and bigotry across the U.S.

“These shootings are a vicious and vile act that compounds the fear and pain that Asian-Americans face each day. It is a profound and cruel injustice that, amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis, the AAPI community also faces the surging threat of violent and deadly attack," Pelosi said in a statement.

Speaking to host Mina Kim on KQED's Forum on Wednesday, Cynthia Choi, co-director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, put the Atlanta shootings into personal terms.

"It has been a difficult evening and today has been especially hard learning about more of the facts around the case and connecting with community leaders across the country," Choi said. "The days ahead, I think, are going to continue to be really difficult for our community."

'There Is a Pattern ... And We Can't Ignore That'

While Georgia police said the Atlanta shooter denied his crimes were racially motivated, AAPI community members have responded, in myriad ways, that it remains impossible to separate his actions from the current rise of anti-Asian hate and increased attacks in the United States.

"While anti-Asian violence is woven throughout our nation's history, the Trump administration's relentless scapegoating of Asians for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased [those incidents]," said the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta in a statement on Wednesday. "We're calling on our allies across communities of color to stand with us in grief and solidarity against racist violence in all its forms," said Stephanie Cho, the Atlanta group's executive director.

On KQED's Forum Wednesday, sociologist and author Nancy Wang Yuen told Mina Kim that hate crimes are often multilayered when it comes to women of color.

"They're not saying 'I'm a racist' or 'I'm only targeting Asians,' but they want to limit it to the gender or the roles of all the jobs," she said. "But, of course, we know that six Asian women are dead. And these are from three different businesses. So there is a targeting. There is a pattern. And we can't ignore that."

Yeung, the head of the Chinatown Community Development Center, said that while the shooter connected his actions to sex addiction, there are many other places to find similar activities, instead of targeting spas where Asian women were working.

"What brought that about, versus any number of areas in and around the sex trade? You've got to wonder what context was created by the anti-Asian sentiment catalyzed by Trump. You've got to wonder what that causes people to think and feel," Yeung said. "I can't get away from that."

That climate of anti-AAPI sentiment has clouded San Francisco's Chinese community with fear, said Zhang, CEO of Chinese Hospital.

"When we have late meetings, I wouldn't let [my staff] take a bus home. I would drop them off myself," Zhang said. "After the attack, it takes people a long time to recover. They're scared. The impact is huge. Also for the family, too, not just the victims. And the community."

"This is so tragic and horrifying to the community," said Rev. Norman Fong, the former director of the Chinatown Community Development Center and a community leader in his own right.

Fong likened the shooting to the 1982 beating death of Vincent Chin in Detroit, an act of hate by white autoworkers who were angry at joblessness they blamed on Japanese Americans (though Chin was Chinese). Fong recalled the solidarity from Rev. Jesse Jackson and other members of the Black community who joined hands with the AAPI community across the country in the wake of that hateful act.

A mourner with a sign reading 'Black and Asian Solidarity #StopAsianHate' stands at the site of two shootings that occurred yesterday at spas across the street from one another, in memorial for the lives lost, on March 17, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. Suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested after a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead on Tuesday night, including six Asian women. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

"We all need to pull together to overcome this anti-Asian hate," Fong said. "We also need to educate ourselves on each other's history otherwise it's too easy to scapegoat and hate."

Again on KQED's Forum, Choi of Stop AAPI Hate noted that impacted communities have a second layer of mental health crises ongoing right now: first, with the pandemic, and secondly, with rising racist hate, which compounds other trauma.

When violence against the AAPI community emerges, "what we're experiencing is re-traumatizing," Choi said.

Wang Yuen suggested taking a break from social media to ease that mental health crisis, and for Asian women in particular to seek safe spaces where they can share their traumatic experiences to heal.

Making a Safer Community for All

As attacks against the Asian American community garner more attention, a split has emerged from different voices calling for two approaches: more police and prosecution, or alternatives to policing that can bring safety.

Already in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has asked the police to increase patrols in “areas with a high number of Asian residents, visitors, and businesses immediately,” she announced on Twitter Wednesday.

“More long-term efforts will also be announced shortly. No one should have to live in fear that their race or ethnicity could make them a victim,” Breed said.

Rev. Fong noted that some people want to defund police over issues of brutality, but said “we have to be practical, too.”

“I love community cops that walk the beat,” Fong said. “I may not be popular for saying that, but I think the brutality and the training definitely we have to address. But practically for the seniors, what they would say was they would like more foot cops, but more Chinese-speaking. That's the problem. There aren’t that many.”

Though, Fong added, “I’m from a different generation.”

Calls for enforcement were also echoed by Ma, the state treasurer, in arguing for Bonta to become the state’s next attorney general. On Wednesday, Ma argued for an attorney general who will “put resources to these crimes” and “to convict those people perpetrating crimes against the community.”

Yeung, the executive director of Chinatown CCDC, said he’s seen police become part of the Chinatown community. A few years back, police were assigned to public housing that his organization operates, which Yeung was grateful for. He called it “transformative” for people living there.

On some occasions, officers were so embedded in the community of people living there, that one officer once noticed when a Chinatown family was missing from a community barbeque, and called them up themselves to invite them to eat.

That level of intimacy with people living there made them feel safe, Yeung said.

“It moved me in a way that’s hard to describe,” he said.

Meanwhile, some in the AAPI community are calling for unity with the Black community in not demanding more policing, fearing conflict and death that have come in those interactions. From George Floyd to Oscar Grant, there is a fear that the Black community may see a rising risk from increased police enforcement.

In February, in response to deadly attacks in the Bay Area, dozens of Asian American organizations from the Bay Area banded together to issue a joint statement calling for a non-police response, like patrols by volunteers, tailored support for victims and mental health resources.

On KQED’s Forum, Choi told Mina Kim that policing wasn’t necessarily the answer.

“We are pushing for more community-based and community-led safety initiatives that really get at the different forms of violence and assaults,” Choi said. “And so this has been a time for our community to look at all forms of violence that we have been subjected to. And that includes working with other communities who are also affected by systemic racism. And there has been a movement to move away from an overreliance on law enforcement approaches, given the conversations that we're having today about abusive policing.”

That sentiment was also echoed by groups in the East Bay in February.

“In this current moment and historically — I’m just going to be explicit — policing has not meant safety for communities of color or young people,” said Stanley Pun, co-director of AYPAL, a youth nonprofit based in Oakland Chinatown that works with low-income Asian and Pacific Islander families. “We need to work together from a space of compassion, empathy and understanding to seek justice, not vengeance."

While there may be nuanced disagreements on approaches to policing, for Yeung there is unanimity that communities of color need to nurture their relationships.

"I think we've all fallen down on that," Yeung said. "It's not just something we do in a moment of crisis."

KQED reporters MJ Johnson, Nastia Voynovskaya and Forum host Mina Kim contributed to this report. NPR reporters Jaclyn Diaz and Vanessa Romo contributed to this report. 

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