For Asian-Americans, ‘hate crime’ label more than a legal decision

03/19/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Members of the the Atlanta Korean-American Committee against Asian Hate Crimes hold signs during a a vigil for the victims of the spa shootings outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Friday, March 19, 2021. The committee consists of Korean-American community members, business leaders and religious leaders.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/19/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Members of the the Atlanta Korean-American Committee against Asian Hate Crimes hold signs during a a vigil for the victims of the spa shootings outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Friday, March 19, 2021. The committee consists of Korean-American community members, business leaders and religious leaders. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Whether or not the massacre that spanned three Atlanta-area spas last week is prosecuted as a hate crime will, ultimately, be a legal calculation.

Prosecutors from Cherokee and Fulton counties — and perhaps from the federal Department of Justice — will decide what they can prove about the shooter’s motives, what they can’t, and proceed from there.

But for many Asian-Americans, the decision will represent much, much more.

They have no doubt that race played a role when Robert Aaron Long killed eight people, including six women of Korean or Chinese descent. They say that charging him under Georgia’s new hate crimes statute would amount to full-throated indictment of all anti-Asian violence — while also serving, in a painful way, as confirmation of their right to exist as human beings worthy of protection.

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“The resounding feeling is there needs to be a very large, forceful, impactful statement,” said Long Tran, 44, who owns a coffee shop in Peachtree Corners. “Kind of like setting an example that this won’t be tolerated in Georgia.”

There are still many unanswered questions about the shootings at Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Spa, and Aromatherapy Spa.

Some experts have agreed there’s likely enough to charge Long under Georgia’s hate crime statute, which includes sentence enhancers for race-, sex- and gender-driven offenses, among others. But investigators have yet to publicly assign a motive and a hate crime decision could be a long way off yet.

In a statement released Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta said it was “fully supporting the state investigation into the tragic events of March 16th, while independently assessing whether the shootings involved a federal hate crime.”

“Experienced civil rights prosecutors and agents are assessing all of the evidence and will continue to examine all evidence related to the shooter’s motivation,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the public discourse has been troubling for the Asian community.

Long purportedly told authorities that he killed eight people because he was a sex addict seeking to eliminate temptation. Some have used the suspect’s assertions to dismiss any suggestions of racial animus at play.

Some conservative politicians and talk show pundits have accused those pointing to racism of rushing to judgement and driving further racial division in the country. U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican whose district includes the Cherokee County area, denounced the shooting but told one publication that it was “just a mental health issue.”

Asian Americans say comments like that hurt, especially amid a nationwide rise in anti-Asian violence that’s been largely fueled by rhetoric surrounding the origin of the coronavirus.

Jing Su, a 35-year-old first-generation Chinese immigrant living Suwanee, is not an activist. But she attended — and spoke passionately at — a vigil last week hosted by a new coalition of civic leaders called the Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate Crimes.

“If it’s not a hate crime, why did [Long] go to three Asian stores to do what he wanted to do, to kill people without even knowing their names?” Su said.

Natalie Hamlett, a 51-year-old Atlantan of Korean descent, also said it’s important that the shootings be treated as a hate crime. Asian minority groups make up about 7% of metro Atlanta’s population, but community members often feel invisible.

Hamlett said when she told her 85-year-old mother about the shootings last week, the older woman said it was terrible. What was left unsaid, Hamlett could tell from her tone, was this: “But they’re not going to do anything about it.”

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Georgia’s hate crimes statute was created last summer after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man allegedly hunted down and killed by white men in Brunswick. If it’s prosecuted as such, last week’s shootings may be the first test of the new law.

Groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice and many others have not shied away from calling the shootings a hate crime.

Moments after leaving the Friday funeral of Xiaojie Tan, the owner of Young’s Asian Massage, Georgia NAACP president Rev. James “Major” Woodall said her death and those of the five other slain women were the very definition of hate.

”Regardless of his stated intentions, he targeted them because they were Asian, because they were women and because they worked in a spa. That constitutes a hate crime,” Woodall said. “That is violence against women. He intentionally went to this location because he wanted to murder these people, because he hated them.”

Georgia State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, reiterated her call for a formal hate crimes probe during a recent panel discussion hosted by the Atlanta Press Club.

“We don’t require an admission by the suspect to say this is a hate crime,” Nguyen said.

Asian-Americans who spoke to the AJC said that, admission or not, the post-shootings discourse has been oversimplified and unnecessarily painful.

Hamlett said she “went from being horribly angry to bursting into tears” last week when she heard a spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office describe the alleged shooter as having had “a bad day.”

Asked about those comments after her appearance at Thursday night’s vigil, Su pointed to her chest.

It felt — feels — like another gunshot, she said.

Staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.

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