Asian American leaders, lawmakers: ‘We deserve a right to safety’

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Asian American civic leaders and state lawmakers urged law enforcement on Thursday not to brush off this week’s spa shootings as simply the actions of a deranged, sex-addicted young man.

“There is absolutely no way this was not a racially motivated killing against Asians,” the newly formed Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Hate Crimes said in a statement.

The group, made up of 20 local Korean-American professional associations, formed late Wednesday in response to the murder of eight people, including six Asian women, at three metro Atlanta spas on Tuesday. Four of the victims were of Korean descent.

While Cherokee County investigators said the shootings did not appear to be racially motivated, Atlanta police have not ruled out charging the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, with a hate crime.

At a press conference in the back room of a Duluth restaurant, members warned that fear is spreading in Georgia’s Korean communities. People feel increasingly isolated and worry they’re being targeted, said Michelle Kang, vice president of external affairs for the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce.

“As Georgia residents and taxpayers — not foreigners — we deserve a right to safety from crime or violence at work and home,” said Kang, reading from the committee’s prepared statement.

Earlier Thursday, five Asian American lawmakers said the shootings were another example of rising violence against Asian Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic. They called for background checks for gun purchases, better mental health services and other steps they say will address such violence and racism.

“What happened in Georgia is not an isolated incident,” Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville, said during a press conference at the Georgia Capitol. “It’s happening all across America.”

The Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Hate Crimes is asking law enforcement to temporarily increase their presence in local neighborhoods with large Asian populations and to finish their investigation of the shootings swiftly and transparently. On Wednesday, police in Gwinnett County said they had begun extra patrols in and around Asian businesses.

People who spoke at the press conference in Duluth also asked local officials to work with the region’s Korean and Asian community leaders when formulating their response to this week’s events while taking into account language barriers and cultural differences.

Andy Kim, president of the Atlanta chapter of the Korean American Restaurant Association, said his organization launched a 24-hour hotline on Thursday morning for restaurant owners in need of emergency interpretation services if their shops are targeted.

“They’re afraid,” Kim said of his association’s more than 1,500 members.

About 6% of metro Atlanta’s population is Asian. In Gwinnett County, it’s nearly 12%, according to analysis of U.S. Census data by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Ching Hsia said she’s ratcheted up safety procedures this week at her Buford Highway restaurant, Yen Jing. She now locks the doors when her staff is cleaning up at the end of the night and is more mindful of the customers that walk through the door. She said she’s looking at adding more cameras to the restaurant’s closed-circuit television system and has urged her mother, who helps Hsia and her sister run the business, not to go out by herself.

“We make sure that the three of us always go to work together and leave work together and nobody’s alone,” said Hsia.

Hsia, who grew up along Buford Highway after emigrating from South Korea at age 9, said she’s seen an increase in harassment since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. People have prank called the restaurant asking if they served bat soup — referring to a long-discredited internet rumor about the origins of the coronavirus — and some customers have been belligerent in their refusal to wear masks, with one arguing that they shouldn’t have to since “it was you guys that brought the virus over here,” Hsia recalled.

“After COVID happened, it’s like the whole world is almost against you, mainly because you’re Asian,” she said.

The group Stop AAPI Hate recorded nearly 3,800 hate incidents across the country against Asian Americans between March 2020 and February 2021. More than two-thirds of those instances involved verbal harassment, and women reported hate incidents 2.3 times more than men.

Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, said targeting women would make Tuesday’s killings a hate crime under legislation the General Assembly approved last year. But she said the hate-crime law is not preventive. Lawmakers at the Capitol press conference sought additional laws to protect vulnerable people.

Among the legislation they cited: House Bill 716, which would require monitoring and investigation of domestic terrorism, and Senate Bill 179, which would require universal background checks for gun sales. Neither measure has received a vote in the General Assembly.

Michael Park, co-owner of a commercial insurance company in Duluth, home to many Korean businesses, said he hasn’t changed any procedures.

But he added that he’s being more vigilant and careful, especially when it comes to his neighbors and elderly parents. Park has a kindergarten-aged daughter and a second child on the way, and he said Tuesday’s events have him thinking about having “the talk” about race sooner rather than later.

“I didn’t think I was going to have to have this racial conversation this soon,” he said. “You just aren’t prepared to have it with a 5-year-old.”