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Atlanta killings underscore troubling rise in anti-Asian violence

The string of shootings in Atlanta on Tuesday night that left eight people, including six Asian women, dead is prompting lawmakers to sound the bell on the troubling increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.

Cherokee County police responded to reports of a shooting at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, a northern Atlanta suburb, around 5 p.m. local time Tuesday evening, where they found five people with gunshot wounds. Two were dead at the scene. The other three people were transported to a local hospital, where two of them died.

Roughly an hour later and 30 miles away, Atlanta police received reports of a robbery at Gold Massage Spa in northeast Atlanta. There, three more people were found shot to death. Across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, another person was found fatally shot.

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The Korean Foreign Ministry on Wednesday confirmed that four of the six Asian women killed were of Korean descent.

The killings come around the one-year mark of COVID-19 and as the country is grappling with issues of racial discrimination in all facets of society. Inextricably linked are the onset of the pandemic and the spike of hate crimes against Asian Americans.

A recent study from California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism showed that while overall hate crimes dropped slightly in 2020, hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 of the country’s largest cities skyrocketed nearly 150 percent.

On Tuesday, nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate revealed that it had received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans in the past year. 

Rep. Judy ChuJudy May ChuBiden to task White House initiative with coordinating 'comprehensive' response to anti-Asian bias Biden signs anti-Asian hate crimes bill into law Kamala Harris grapples with unique challenges as vice president MORE (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, on Wednesday morning didn’t hesitate to shovel blame regarding the rise of hate in the country on former President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Carolina Senate passes trio of election measures 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos MORE, whose messaging around the virus was often incendiary.

“President Trump clearly stoked the flames of xenophobia against AAPIs [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] with his rhetoric. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the World Health Organization said that we should all use the official term, COVID-19, in order to make sure that this disease is not associated with a particular geographical location or ethnicity due to the stigma it causes. And President Trump refused to acknowledge that,” Chu said during a House Democratic Caucus press conference. “Instead, [he] used these terms — China virus, Wuhan virus and even kung flu — and as a result the anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents increased exponentially.”

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President BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE, Vice President Harris and some other officeholders condemned the killings but stopped short of calling them hate crimes, perhaps taking a cautious approach given remarks by police who said they were still investigating.

“The investigation is ongoing. And the question of motivation is still to be determined,” Biden said in remarks from the White House. “But whatever the motivation here, I know that Asian Americans are very concerned because, as you know, I have been speaking about the brutality against Asian Americans for the last couple months, and I think it is very, very troublesome.”

“I am making no connection at this moment on the motivation of the killer. I’m waiting for an answer as the investigation proceeds from the FBI and from the Justice Department,” Biden added. “I’ll have more to say when the investigation is completed.”

Georgia Sen. Jon OssoffJon OssoffStacey Abrams calls on young voters of color to support election reform bill MLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game 'political theatrics' Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock MORE (D) also noted the motive was still being investigated, though he expressed “my love and support for the Asian American community which has endured a shocking and tragic increase in violence and harassment for the last year.”

The Peach State’s senior senator, the Rev. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Past criticism of Trump becomes potent weapon in GOP primaries Why the Democrats need Joe Manchin MORE (D), was more animated, saying that “bigotry and hate in our country” must be addressed and that “anybody who takes precious lives in that manner is driven by hate.”

At a press conference Wednesday morning, Atlanta officials steered away designating the killings as a hate crime, saying that it was too early to determine the shooter’s motives.

Instead, authorities pointed to the suspect having a possible “sex addiction.”

“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places and is a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said.

Baker also described the shooting spree as a result of the killer, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, having a “really bad day,” remarks that drew sharp pushback on social media.

“All of us have experienced bad days. But we don’t go to three Asian businesses and shoot up Asian employees,” Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuGaetz, under investigative cloud, questions FBI director Crenshaw trolled after asking for examples of 'woke ideology' in military Kinzinger slams Gaetz speech: 'This is why we need a January 6 commission' MORE (D-Calif.) tweeted. 

Additionally, many pushed back against officials seemingly taking Long at his word that his actions weren’t racially motivated and then the media for parroting the view.

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“I think [Baker's] comments displayed an incredible either ignorance or deliberate attempt to drive a different narrative about what caused the violence yesterday. There's no question that regardless of what the perpetrator claims — or his motivations — that he targeted Asian-owned businesses,” Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Hill. “He targeted places where Asian women are primarily the workers.”

She noted the suspect specifically made “claims about why he went to those places because of their connection with Asians and with women. To me that is very clearly the elements that define what a hate crime is.”

Chosun Ilbo, a leading newspaper in Seoul, has reported that an eyewitness claimed Long shouted that he was going to “kill all Asians” as he opened fire at the second of three massage parlors that he attacked.

Baker announced Wednesday afternoon that Long had been charged with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault for the shootings at Young’s Asian Massage. Long has also been charged with an additional four counts of murder by Atlanta Police Department for the killings in Atlanta proper.

Scott Wong and Mike Lillis contributed to this report.