‘No more silence’: Asian Americans speak up after spa shootings

Jing Zheng (left) and Jing Su at Su's home in Suwanee on Thursday, April 1, 2021. They are friends and Chinese American immigrants who have joined recent vigils and rallies in the wake of the March 16 spa shootings, the first time for either of them.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Jing Zheng (left) and Jing Su at Su's home in Suwanee on Thursday, April 1, 2021. They are friends and Chinese American immigrants who have joined recent vigils and rallies in the wake of the March 16 spa shootings, the first time for either of them. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Jing Zheng stands on a small platform in a parking lot outside Gwinnett Place Mall. It’s only sprinkling but the sky is ominous; the gathered crowd, maybe as many as 200 people, has been given ponchos.

Zheng peers out at them from the stage, a microphone in front of her face. She’s a mother, a former engineer, a first-generation Chinese American. She’s 62 years old. She’s never done anything like this before.

“We have to stop Asian hate,” she shouts. “Let’s remember all the lives lost, and make that a source of our strength and encouragement.”

“No more silence,” she says.

“No more silence,” the crowd shouts back.

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The days and weeks since March 16 — when a white gunman killed eight people at Asian-owned spas in Acworth and Atlanta — have been trying. Shock, grief, terror and anger still echo through Asian American communities, here and across the country. They’ll reverberate for a long time.

For Zheng and many others, though, the pain has also forged a new desire to show up and speak out, to make their voices heard, they say.

Racism, discrimination and mistreatment are not new. And data suggests a dramatic surge in harassment and violence against Asian Americans during the now-yearlong COVID-19 pandemic. But last month’s massacre, whose victims included six women of Chinese or Korean descent, marked something unspeakably horrific.

It left many in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities feeling like they’re under attack. The gunman claims the shooting wasn’t racially motivated, though authorities haven’t made any determination and hate crime experts have said the rampage could be prosecuted as such.

Vigils and rallies have sprouted up everywhere. New people — and new generations of people — have attended. Business and civic leaders have spoken out; church leaders have too.

Seasoned activists and advocates see the potential for a lasting change in the way their communities, ones that have often felt ignored and voiceless, engage in activism, larger movements against systemic racism, and simply being more vocal about their experiences.

Michelle Kang, 54, is vice president of the Korean Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta. She helped create a group called the Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate Crimes following the shootings.

It organized the rally where Zheng spoke.

“This,” Kang said, “is the moment to make change.”

03/19/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Members of the the Atlanta Korean-American Committee against Asian Hate Crimes hold 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 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

‘The cracks were there’

Asian populations — Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and others — started soaring in metro Atlanta in the late 1990s. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, they now represent about 7% of the total population in the 10-county metro area.

As Georgia has become more of a political swing state and margins in crucial elections have shrunk, Asian voters have become a sought after demographic. There’s been a lot of get-out-the-vote and other grassroots organizing done in recent years, which state Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, said helped lay the foundation for the type of mobilization that’s happened in the wake of the shootings.

“I think what’s different here is the understanding and the need for the change to be sooner rather than later,” said Park, the son of Korean immigrants. “Especially with how this attack hit so close to home for so many in the Asian American community.”

Many younger people of Asian descent in Atlanta and its suburbs, second- or third-generation Americans, were already politically active and tuned in to larger social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. The deaths of Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Yong Ae Yue, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim and Hyun Jung Kim Grant — mostly older, vulnerable women that could’ve been their mothers — hit them hard, of course.

But the shootings also appear to have been an awakening of sorts for many older Asian Americans.

First-generation immigrants often come to the United States with a simple mindset: work hard, keep your head down, don’t rock the boat. Daily indignities are part of the equation. They’re not easy to swallow, but they’re swallowed.

A massacre, though? It’s forcing some first-generation Asian Americans to confront what they already know: just “doing everything right” isn’t actually enough. Assimilation does not mean equality.

A large crowd gathers for a unity rally at Liberty Plaza near the state Capitol on Saturday, March 20, 2021. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
A large crowd gathers for a unity rally at Liberty Plaza near the state Capitol on Saturday, March 20, 2021. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

You’ll still be seen as something different, something less. A “perpetual foreigner,” as Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, put it.

“You might could ignore it, but the cracks were there,” Cho said. “You can’t not see it now. You can’t ignore it.”

Alison Wang, a 31-year-old nurse and first-time activist, said a lot of her friends and family weren’t thrilled with her role organizing a march the weekend after the shootings. They were worried she’d get hurt. Others, Wang said, were supportive but afraid to come and talk publicly.

But Kang, the organizer with the Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate Crimes, said elders are coming around on being more vocal.

Roger Baik Kyu Kim, 76, is the chairman of the committee.

“Let us all stand up in solidarity and become more active around racial and social justice efforts, and call for actions for change,” he said at a recent rally. “For if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will.”

‘No more silence’

Jing Su is a 35-year-old, first-generation immigrant from China who lives in Suwanee. Even with a five-month-old and three other kids to care for, she put together a car rally and has spoken at other events after the shootings. She’s also trying to start a nonprofit to help those affected by violence and trauma.

“We covered our feelings too long,” Su said. “I just want the message sent everywhere that there’s no more silence. We care about Black people, we care about Latinos, and we hope people care about us too.”

That last part has been a common refrain in the weeks following the shooting. While the next steps for Asian American activists and civic leaders remain undetermined, they know that solidarity with other communities of color and larger social justice movements will be key to making progress.

The plight of immigrants, Black people and other communities of color are not identical but they’re interwoven, all part the same structures that were built to benefit white Americans, said Cho, the leader of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

Recognizing that — and acting on it together — is crucial to creating a real impact.

“If we’re really going to come up with some real solutions that are going to make some long-lasting, systematic change, we need to at least have a couple weeks to come up with something that looks at it more critically,” Cho said.

Kang said her committee is also evaluating next steps, but they will undoubtedly involve forging stronger relationships with other groups.

Jing Su (center right) is starting a nonprofit called Help & Heal to help those affected by violence and trauma. She's joined (from left) by Jack Wongtam, secretary; Jing Zheng, volunteer; and Ambrose Xie, CFO, during a photo shoot at Su's home in Suwanee on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Jing Su (center right) is starting a nonprofit called Help & Heal to help those affected by violence and trauma. She's joined (from left) by Jack Wongtam, secretary; Jing Zheng, volunteer; and Ambrose Xie, CFO, during a photo shoot at Su's home in Suwanee on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Jared Sawyer, a 23-year-old Black Atlanta activist who helped organize many of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests around the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breanna Taylor, would like to see that. He said he would occasionally see Asian allies on marches, but wished for more.

“We are all inextricably tied to one another,” Sawyer said. “Any time that minorities have a target on their back, we have to stand next to them and remind them that we know how it feels.”

Keisha Brown, president of a local organization called the Alliance for Black Lives, said the Asian community in Gwinnett County — where many of the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings lived — showed up in big numbers during a George Floyd rally last summer.

But it hasn’t always been easy and there’s still reckoning to be done, Brown said. Black and Asian communities have their own historical tensions; scholars, historians and advocates say the same systems that have kept minority groups down also pitted them against each other.

“You don’t want until your house starts burning to get involved,” Brown said. “Because if a fire starts, it spreads. If it’s not your house today, it will be your house tomorrow. You have to participate in the community in putting out these fires.”

Brown said bridge-building starts with keeping the lines of communication open, keeping the conversation going.

Those efforts includes events like last year’s Floyd demonstration — and the solidarity rally the Alliance for Black Lives hosted outside Gwinnett Place Mall last weekend. Asian, Black, Latinx, Jewish and many other communities were represented by activist groups and everyday residents.

Park, the state lawmaker from Lawrenceville, was among the speakers.

“There is a new Georgia emerging, in which each and everyone one of us may be treated with equal dignity under the law,” he said. “In which each of us have the freedom to live in peace and prosperity in our homes and our communities.

“And it is our responsibility to bring that new Georgia into being — for the sake of us and the sake of future generations.”

—Staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this article

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