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Hundreds gathered across the US to support Asian communities after Atlanta-area spa killings

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Nearly a week after eight people were killed at spas in the Atlanta area, hundreds gathered to remember the victims and call for an end to hate towards Asians in a year that has seen an uptick in attacks against members of the community.

Six of the eight victims in Atlanta were Asian women. And while police are still working to determine the motive and whether hate crime charges will apply, the message from attendees at rallies this weekend said this act is one of hate and the community will need to come together in order to heal from this tragedy.

In Atlanta multiple Korean church congregations held a Korean language service outside the Gold Spa in honor of the victims, with some attendees holding signs reading, “Stop Asian hate.”

Pastor Byeong Cheol Han of the Korean Central Presbyterian Church called the killings an “awakening moment” for many Asian Americans. He stressed that this a time to become more involved in social justice on behalf of all communities of color in the United States.

“It’s an awakening moment for Asian Americans to stand strong. Stand up and raise our voice. And participate in social justice movement,” Han said. “Many Asian Americans tend to avoid those kind of things, it’s not our business, we’re just focusing on our survival, but this is an awakening for us.”

The suspect arrested in the case told police that he suffered from a sex addiction and that he wanted to eliminate temptation. But Han said this act was clearly a hate crime. The suspect’s alleged sex addiction “was a very poor excuse. He aimed (at) those very vulnerable. Those who cannot resist.”

“It’s not just a young man’s deviation, or an isolated incident. This is clearly a racially motivated crime,” Han added

Han said members of his congregation have expressed complicated feelings since the killings, mostly fear and anger.

Communities call for change

Those sentiments were echoed across gatherings in other cities this weekend, including Denver, where members of the AAPI community gathered Saturday.

There has been a rise in anti-Asian violence and an increase in vandalism at Asian owned businesses across the Denver area in the past year, said Clarence Low, a member of the Asian Chamber of Commerce board of directors member.

Low said there have been reports of spitting, slurs, and graffiti targeting community members, as well as countless unreported crimes.

“The rhetoric and behavior of our national leaders emboldened and inflamed anti-Asian sentiment,” Low said, noting that the US has had policies in place for more than 100 years that target and discriminate against Asian Americans, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Executive Order 9066 which ordered Americans of Japanese descent into internment camps in the 1940’s.

Low also cited the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was mistaken as Japanese and beaten to death in Detroit by two White men who blamed Japan for the loss of auto jobs.

People attending a rally New York City’s Columbus Park Sunday told CNN they came out because they are tired of dealing with discrimination and hope the tragedy in Atlanta will spark change.

When asked why she attended, Angela Eunsung Kim said, “‘Cause I’m Asian, and I’m a woman, and if I don’t stand up for myself then no one else will. So that’s why I’m here.”

“I want people to finally hear us, for us, not only when we’re trending,” she added. “I want to see change in people around me, my friends, my, you know work, everything, all the way down from our neighbors, all the way up to lawmakers. That’s the kind of change I want to see.”

Tiffany Wetherell said the time has come for her community to be heard in the wake of the killings.

“I want to come out today to support the cause. I want to raise awareness,” she said. “I want everyone to know we’re not your token Asian. We’re not your Asian friend. We’re everywhere. And it’s our turn to be heard.”

The New York Police Department reported 28 arrests for hate crimes targeting Asians in 2020, up from three in 2019 and two in 2018. The Los Angeles Police Department also reported an increase: 15 anti-Asian hate crimes were reported in 2020, up from seven in 2019 and 11 in 2018.

Lives lost in the shootings

Last Tuesday, police said suspect Robert Long, 21, went to three separate spas in the Atlanta area and fatally shot eight people.

He told police he believed he had a sex addiction and that he saw the spas as “a temptation … that he wanted to eliminate,” according to Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker. Long said the attacks weren’t racially motivated, Baker said.

The first shooting occurred at Youngs Asian Massage in Acworth shortly before 5 p.m. on March 16, authorities said.

Four people were killed in the first shooting: 49-year-old Xiaojie Tan of Kennesaw; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; and Daoyou Feng, 44. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, was also shot but survived.

Within an hour after the first shooting, four more Asian women were killed at two spas on Piedmont Road in Atlanta; three at the Gold Massage Spa and one at the Aroma Therapy Spa across the street, authorities said. Those victims were identified as Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong Ae Yue, 63, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office.

One of the four victims in Atlanta was a South Korean citizen and permanent resident of the US, according to Kwangsuk Lee, South Korea’s deputy consulate general in Atlanta. The other three are believed to be Americans of Korean ethnicity, Lee told CNN on Friday.

The families of the victims who have spoken out said they want justice for the senseless deaths of their loved ones.

“This was a massacre. We have a justice system and he’ll have to be held accountable,” Tan’s ex-husband Michael Webb told CNN Sunday.

He said Tan worked seven days a week to save for retirement. “I’m sad it ended in an instant while she was working, hard,” Webb told CNN.

“She kept saying to me, I’m going to be able to retire soon,” Webb said. “She worked to die,” Webb said.

Webb told CNN that Tan was protective of her employees, sometimes kicking certain men out of the facility.

“She wanted to know where her employees were…who the customers were, she used to tell me a lot of times she would throw customers out because they would come in and think that they could have sex,” Webb explained.

Suspect denounced by church

After his arrest on Interstate 75 in south Georgia, Long has been held without opportunity for bail in Cherokee County, where he faces four counts of murder with malice, one count of attempted murder, one count of aggravated assault and five counts of using a firearm while committing a felony.

He has been charged with four counts of murder in connection with the two spa shootings in Atlanta, according to Atlanta police.

The investigation into the killings is ongoing and appropriate charges will be brought, Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said last week.

On Sunday, Crabapple First Baptist Church, Long’s church, said in a statement that it had removed him from its memberships ranks because they could “no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.”

Earlier in the week the church released a longer statement saying they were “absolutely devastated at this senseless loss of life and callous disregard for human beings created in the image of God.”

“We grieve for the victims and their families, and we continue to pray for all of those affected by this heinous crime as they deal with unimaginable pain and sorrow,” they added, saying they were “absolutely distraught” to find out the suspect in the deaths was a member of their church.

“These unthinkable and egregious murders directly contradict his own confession of faith in Jesus and the gospel,” the statement said.

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