“My mother is the American story,” said Robert Peterson, son of Yong Ae Yue, one of the victims. “She was a Korean immigrant who married a Black U.S. Army soldier during a time when interracial marriages were less common.”
After arriving in America, Yue became a citizen, taught herself English and worked hard to support her two sons and give them the best life possible, Peterson said.
“She was not only my mother, but one of my best friends,” he said. “My mother was an Asian woman who was targeted for who she was, for occupying a particular space, by someone she didn’t know.”
On March 16, 2021, a lone gunman opened fire in three metro Atlanta spas in Cherokee and Fulton counties. A year later, Robert Aaron Long is serving a life sentence for the Cherokee shootings after pleading guilty. He awaits trial in Fulton, where prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty, and faces sentencing enhancements under Georgia’s hate crime statute.
Wednesday’s downtown gathering, called “The Atlanta Asian Justice Rally — Break the Silence,” focused on the victims and their families, not the gunman. Similar events were held in major cities across the U.S. to commemorate the lives lost a year ago.
Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Michels, 54, died in the shooting at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County. A fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was injured. Afterward, investigators said Long drove about 30 miles to Piedmont Road where Yue, 63, Soon Chung Park, 74, Suncha Kim, 69, and Hyun Jung Grant, 51, were gunned down at the Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa.
“The entire community was affected by these acts of violence,” Mayor Andre Dickens said at Wednesday’s event. “No one should have to fear for their safety as they go about their daily lives.”
Several speakers mentioned the rise in violence against Asian Americans in recent years, particularly against Asian women. Attendees included victims’ family members, several state lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
“Breaking the silence of hatred against Asian women should have started in the 1800s, but by God it will happen today,” Abrams said.
Democratic State Rep. Bee Nguyen noted that many of the women killed came to the U.S. seeking better lives. “These women could have been our grandmothers, our aunties,” she told the crowd.
Long’s attorneys issued a statement on Wednesday: “On this anniversary of the shocking and tragic events in Cherokee and Fulton County, counsel, Robert Long and his family offer our deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and their communities. Though we can never fully comprehend the pain the families and the community feel, we share in the collective goal of beginning the healing process.”
After his arrest, Long told investigators he was driven by sex addiction, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported. But several people who spoke at Wednesday’s event rejected those claims, arguing Long was motivated by hatred when he walked into those three spas and opened fire using a handgun he had purchased hours earlier.
Michael Webb talked about falling in love with his former wife, Tan, during a trip to China in the early 2000s. They were married there and he adopted their daughter, Jami. The past year has been tough for both of them, he said, and Jami was still too distraught to come.
He recalled speaking with his daughter for hours that night as she waited at the hospital, only to be told her mother was among the dead. Webb said he wants the violence against Asian women to stop, so no other family has to go experience that.
“We want her mother’s memory to live on,” Webb told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And I’m going to do whatever I can to prevent this from happening again.”
Xiaojie “Emily” Tan was the owner of Youngs Asian Massage. The Kennesaw woman immigrated to the U.S. from China and raised her daughter, Jamie, who had recently graduated from the University of Georgia. Tan was killed just three days shy of her 50th birthday.
Daoyou Feng, 44, was born in rural China, prosecutors said. She moved to the U.S. to pursue the American Dream, but one day planned to return and start her own business. She leaves behind an 82-year-old mother, a brother and a sister,
Delaina Yaun Gonzalez was a 33-year-old mother of two enjoying a rare spa day with her husband when she was gunned down. She had a baby girl and a young son and had recently gotten married.
Paul Michels, 54, was a handyman who loved ones said could build or fix anything. The U.S. Army veteran worked hard every day, but loved spending time with his wife, Bonnie, whenever he could. He lived in Tucker, but was friends with Tan and regularly worked odd jobs at her home and her business, authorities said.
Yong Ae Yue, 63, adored her two sons and loved cooking for people anytime she got the chance. Rarely spotted without a smile on her face, the Norcross woman liked to visit Korean karaoke bars, where she joyously belted out songs by Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and other favorites.
Soon Chung Park, 74, loved dancing, especially the tango and the cha-cha. She’d raised five kids on her own after she was widowed, and she’d worked all her life — mostly as a cook, though she once owned a jewelry store. She planned to move north to be closer to her grandchildren, but her life was cut short before she got that chance.
Suncha Kim was 69. A mother of two and grandmother of three, she was married to a loving husband who she planned to grow old with, her granddaughter said.
Hyun Jung Grant, 51, worked hard to provide for her two sons. She lived in the Duluth area and loved disco and club music, regularly strutting or moonwalking as she did her household chores, her oldest son, Randy Park, said. In the car, she would jam with her sons to tunes blasting over the stereo.