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Anger over anti-Asian violence, rhetoric rips through Capitol

The Atlanta shooting rampage that killed six Asian women and two others has, in a single tragic event, turned a national spotlight onto some of the prickliest issues facing American politics and society today: racial attacks related to COVID-19, gun violence, misogyny, racism in policing, and Donald Trump.

Asian American leaders and community members are voicing outrage after a 21-year-old white man admitted to gunning down eight people Tuesday at three separate Asian-owned spas in greater Atlanta.

Demonstrators across the country gathered to protest the recent rise of hateful rhetoric and violent attacks targeting the Asian American Pacific Islander community, while thousands of #StopAsianHate posts flooded Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites. 

While the discussion has centered on the souring scourge of anti-Asian violence, the tragic shooting has confronted lawmakers — and the nation — with a host of other explosive topics they’ve grappled with for years — a range of delicate issues touching on race, class, the plight of immigrants and violence against women. Some are hoping the national attention and public outcry will be enough to force Congress to move reforms addressing those problems. 

“I’m stunned. We’ve seen the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes; we obviously have been fighting on gun violence. We don’t know what the [shooter’s] motivations are, but it feels very difficult to imagine there wasn’t something about anti-Asian hate in here,” Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who is Indian American, told The Hill. “We’re all struggling with it because we have so many AAPIs who are on the front lines: doctors, who are walking home alone, helpers in different communities who don’t feel safe.”

The outcry is also amplifying the yearlong debate over former President Trump’s sharp rhetoric blaming China for America’s COVID-19 outbreak — a characterization his critics say has only fostered the spike in attacks on Asian Americans.

“It goes back to Trump and Republicans continuing to fuel hate by saying things like ‘China virus’ and other racist horrible slogans,” Jayapal said. “And of course the fact that we have not reigned in guns — we are just feeling the weight of it.”

That frustration, anger, sadness and terror felt in the Asian community boiled over Thursday on Capitol Hill, where Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) chided her GOP colleagues for using anti-Asian rhetoric like “Kung Flu” and “Wuhan virus” to discuss the coronavirus — and for bringing up the Southwest border and Black Lives Matter protests — during a hearing focused on discrimination and violence against Asians. 

“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 bullseye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” said a visibly shaken Meng, who is Chinese American and represents the heavily Asian neighborhood of Flushing.

“This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice away from us!”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, offered a similar rebuke, accusing those lawmakers who have adopted Trump’s harsh, racially tinged language on coronavirus and immigration policy of being complicit in the recent attacks on Asian Americans.

“I would urge members of Congress who continue to use that type of hateful rhetoric: Cut it out! Because you also have blood on your hands,” Jeffries said.  

In the 48 hours since the Atlanta massacre, much of the national focus has turned to the wave of escalating attacks against Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic, from verbal harassment and physical assaults on elderly Asians to this week’s mass shooting. 

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said Twitter attacks on Asian Americans jumped 900 percent in the early months after Trump began bashing China over COVID-19. And the group Stop AAPI Hate said it has tracked reports of about 3,800 hate incidents targeting Asian Americans during the past year — most of them against women.

But the horrific Atlanta shooting also sparking debate about gun violence, sexual violence and other issues that have flared up across the country and in the halls of Congress in recent years. 

Four of the eight fatalities in Tuesday’s shooting have been named thus far: Delaina Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. A fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, survived the rampage and remains in critical condition.

On Wednesday, one day after the attack, the House voted to reauthorize the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which had been authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden in 1994 and provides legal protection to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, has confessed to the shooting. He told police that he had a sex addiction and that the Asian massage parlors and spas that he had frequented represented “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” said Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office.

Long also told police that the shootings were not racially motivated, though prominent voices in the Asian American community have forcefully rejected that claim and condemned Long for placing blame on the women he executed. 

“I am Asian and I am woman. I’m neither sin nor temptation. Your guilt is not my evil. And I am not nor will I ever be yours to ‘eliminate,’” tweeted Jiayang Fan, a staff writer at The New Yorker.

“Experts and activists all stress that given the way that Asian women have been seen in this country, historically fetishized, hyper-sexualized, it’s made them particularly susceptible to sexual and physical violence,” Kimmy Yam, a writer for NBC Asian America, said on MSNBC on Thursday.

“Therefore it’s impossible to divorce race from this conversation.”

The House last week also passed a pair of bills to strengthen background checks before gun sales, though it’s unclear if the legislation would have prevented the Atlanta shooting had it been the law.

Law enforcement officials said they discovered a 9 mm handgun in Long’s car, and an attorney for a Georgia gun shop, Big Woods Goods, said Long had purchased a gun legally on the day of the shootings, suggesting he had passed a background check, according to numerous reports. But the shooting is putting new scrutiny on Georgia’s “no-wait” gun laws, which allows buyers to take possession of firearms immediately at the point of sale — a practice gun reformers want to replace with mandatory waiting periods. 

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose San Francisco district is home to more than a quarter-million Asian Americans, said Thursday she didn’t know if the Atlanta tragedy would be enough to force gun-rights proponents on Capitol Hill to back new reforms. 

“I thought the shooting of little children in Newtown would be the ultimate wake-up call but it wasn’t. But it wasn’t,” said Pelosi, who ordered the flags at the Capitol to be lowered to half-staff in honor of the Atlanta victims. “But I would hope more visibility, more sensitivity to it, might make some improvement.”

“The former occasional occupant of the White House fanned this flame and we have to try to get those feathers to the wind back,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

There’s now an incredible amount of scrutiny on Long: News reports say he was recently treated for his sex addiction and kicked out of his parents’ home this week. But Baker, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, has come under fire as well for giving a press briefing that many found insensitive and offensive amid a national debate over police bias following the death of George Floyd last summer. 

Baker had said Long told police after his arrest that he was “fed up, at the end of his rope” and that he “had a bad day.” But Asian leaders said that only added insult to injury.

“All of us have experienced bad days. But we don’t go to three Asian businesses and shoot up Asian employees,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).

Lieu and others are now calling for Baker’s resignation after it was discovered he wrote a now-deleted 2020 Facebook post that used the very language that Asians say has encouraged these types of violent attacks. 

“Place your order while they last,” Baker wrote in a post alongside a photo of two T-shirts with the words: “Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”

House Democrats this month had passed a sweeping police reform bill responding to Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. It includes a provision mandating that all law enforcement officers be trained on racial and religious profiling. 

 

Tags Asian Americans Atlanta Atlanta spa shootings Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Grace Meng Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden Judy Chu Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Ted Lieu

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