'America Was Finally Shocked Awake': One Year After Atlanta Spa Shootings, Democratic Leaders Condemn Anti-Asian Hate

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spa building in distance, out of focus, lit by pink neon lights, police tape in foreground
Police tape is seen outside one of the two Atlanta spas where Robert Aaron Long murdered four women of Asian descent on March 16, 2021. (Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden on Wednesday remembered the victims of shootings at three massage businesses in Georgia a year earlier and decried racism, misogyny and gun violence.

Six women of Asian descent were among the eight people killed on March 16, 2021. The killings contributed to fear and anger among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders already experiencing a rise in hostility and motivated many people to join the fight against it.

Asian American organizations in cities across the country planned rallies Wednesday to mark the anniversary of the shootings and to promote awareness about ongoing violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Robert Aaron Long, then 21, shot and killed four people — Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54 — and seriously injured a fifth person at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County. Authorities say he then drove about 30 miles south to Atlanta, where he killed three women — Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51 — at Gold Spa, crossed the street and killed Yong Ae Yue, 63, at Aromatherapy Spa.

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"These horrific murders shook communities across America and underscored how far we have to go in this country to fight racism, misogyny, and all forms of hate — and the epidemic of gun violence that enables these extremists," Biden said in a statement.

The president recalled a meeting he and Vice President Kamala Harris had with Asian American community leaders during a visit to Atlanta shortly after the shootings.

"We heard about the terror and anguish that too many Asian Americans have felt since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when anti-Asian xenophobia, harassment, and violence skyrocketed to alarming levels," Biden said.

Members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol Wednesday for a press event organized by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"Because of [the spa shootings], America was finally shocked awake to the reality of anti-Asian hate,” said Democratic Southern California Rep. Judy Chu, the caucus chair, at the news event. “But in reality, for over a year, xenophobic slurs like ‘China virus’ and ‘kung flu’ have been terrorizing Asian American communities across the country with thousands of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents.”

Prejudice and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. are not new, but racist verbal and physical attacks increased sharply after the coronavirus first appeared in China just over two years ago. Many believe that former President Donald Trump's use of racist terms to talk about the virus contributed to the trend.

woman speaking at podium with 'stop asian hate' written on it as rows of faces of members of congress stand behind her
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) speaks during commemorations to mark the one-year anniversary of a series of deadly shootings at Atlanta-area spas on the steps of the U.S Capitol on March 16, 2022. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Stop AAPI Hate has been tracking incidents nationwide based on victims self-reporting. From March 19, 2020, through the end of last year, the organization recorded a total of 10,905, with 4,632 occurring in 2020 and 6,273 in 2021. Incidents reported by women made up 61.8% of the total.

Shortly after the Georgia shootings, police said Long blamed his actions on a "sex addiction," which isn't recognized as an official disorder, and targeted the spas as a source of temptation. That explanation rankled many Asian Americans and their allies, who saw the killings as hate crimes.

When he pleaded guilty in July to murder and other charges in the Cherokee County shootings, the district attorney there said investigators did not find evidence that Long was motivated by racial bias. Among other things, the prosecutor noted the diversity of the people shot there — in addition to two women of Asian descent, two victims were white and one Hispanic. But in Atlanta, where all four victims were women of Asian descent, the Fulton County district attorney is pursuing a sentencing enhancement under the state hate crimes law, saying she believes race and gender played a role.

In the weeks and months following the shootings, rallies were held to protest violence against people of Asian descent. Prominent figures, including lawmakers and former federal prosecutors, spoke out against the violence and called for solutions.

Initial figures from individual police agencies indicate anti-Asian hate crime overall in the U.S. increased 339% in 2021, compared with a 124% rise in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. But the actual numbers could be much higher since many victims hesitate to report and not all incidents are charged as hate crimes.

Cecile Dang (left) and Bryan Nguyen hold signs to show support for the Asian American community during a student-led rally in San Francisco on March 26, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Preliminary figures released by San Francisco police in January show reported hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rose by 567% last year. The initial count shows 60 victims in 2021, up from nine in 2020. Half of last year's victims were allegedly targeted by one man.

In New York City, the number of alleged hate crimes against Asians logged by police climbed from 28 in 2020 to 131 last year. Earlier this month, a 28-year-old white man was charged with hate crimes after police said he randomly punched seven women of Asian ethnicity over two hours.

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At least two people of Asian descent have died in New York City this year from injuries sustained months ago in attacks that authorities said were likely racially motivated: GuiYing Ma, 61, who was beaten in November while she swept a sidewalk in Queens, and Yao Pan Ma, 61, who was beaten into a coma in April while he collected bottles and cans in Manhattan.

There have been other recent attacks on Asian women in the city that authorities aren't sure are linked to racial bias, including the stabbing death of a woman in her Chinatown apartment building last month by a homeless man who followed her inside and the January death of a woman who was pushed in front of a subway train by a mentally ill homeless man.

In the nearby city of Yonkers, New York, this week, police charged a man with attempted murder as a hate crime after he attacked a 67-year-old Asian woman in an apartment building vestibule, punching her more than 125 times in an assault recorded on security video. Police and prosecutors said the man used an anti-Asian slur before assaulting her.

Associated Press writer David B. Caruso in New York and KQED's David Marks contributed to this story.

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