Biden condemns anti-Asian violence in Atlanta after spa shootings

In an emotional address Friday on Emory University’s campus, President Joe Biden condemned the “skyrocketing spike” in violence against Asian Americans and pressed Congress to pass a law to protect people victimized by hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During his 20-minute speech, the president also praised Georgians for the Democratic sweep of January’s U.S. Senate runoffs that ensured his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure could become law. And he blasted proposed GOP-backed voting restrictions pending in the Statehouse.

The trip came amid a broader struggle to stem the surge in racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans, a grim trend that garnered more national scrutiny after a white gunman this week killed eight people at three metro Atlanta spas, six of them women of Asian descent.

After a “heart-wrenching” closed-door meeting with Asian American community leaders, Biden implicitly criticized the rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and his allies blaming China and foreigners for a disease that’s killed more than 500,000 Americans and sent the economy reeling.

“Whatever the motivation, we know this: Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying,” he said. “They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted. And killed. It’s been a year of living in fear for their lives.”

He added: “We’re learning again what we’ve always known: Words have consequences.”

Friday’s presidential visit was initially planned last week as a celebration of the far-reaching coronavirus aid package, which includes $1,400 direct checks for many Americans, extended unemployment benefits, new child tax credits and billions in new spending for schools, public health infrastructure and local governments.

The Atlanta leg of the victory lap was to highlight Georgia’s role in the sweeping measure, which couldn’t have passed without the upset victories of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock over GOP Senate incumbents in January runoffs, flipping control of the chamber.

But Biden refocused his trip after Tuesday’s shootings, instead holding a mournful meeting with state legislators and advocates from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community about the surge of anti-Asian hate incidents in Georgia and across the nation since the pandemic.

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

“They heard the heartbreak, fear and anger of the Asian American community and shared our pain,” state Rep. Sam Park, a Gwinnett County Democrat, said of the private meeting with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. “They reminded us that we are all in this together, that we are not alone and that together we shall overcome.”

Biden said the grieving families of the victims were left with “broken hearts and unanswered questions” that should force Americans to confront their role in the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes fueled by detestable rhetoric.

“Because our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit,” he said. “We have to speak out. We have to act.”

‘A harm against all of us’

Harris, the first woman and first Asian American to serve in the role, also delivered a passionate condemnation of racism, sexism and xenophobia that have factored into the attacks and deepened fears about rising anti-Asian hatred in the U.S.

“Everyone has the right to go to work, to go to school, to walk down the street and be safe, and also, the right to be recognized as an American — not as the other, not as them, but as us,” she said. “A harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us.”

Authorities have charged a 21-year-old Woodstock man with the killings after authorities tracked his SUV to rural Georgia. Though authorities say he claimed the attacks were not motivated by racism, community leaders say it can’t be ignored that Asian Americans were targeted.

Before they gathered with local leaders, Biden and Harris visited the Atlanta headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where they thanked scientists for waging an ongoing battle to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Declaring that “science is back,” Biden warned that the outbreak could be a harbinger of what’s to come in an increasingly globalized culture. His remarks drew a contrast from Trump’s visit to the CDC a year earlier, when he downplayed the threat of the virus and maintained that it was under control.

Attendees at Friday’s meeting praised Biden for his motivational words.

“I felt joyful and, frankly, grateful,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University public health expert.

Though the trip was refocused to center on the shooting tragedy, with plans for a campaign-style rally scrapped, Biden touched on politics in praising Georgia voters for the runoff sweeps that enabled him to pursue a far more ambitious legislative agenda.

And he criticized Republican-backed efforts to increase voting restrictions in Georgia, which include measures that would severely limit who can vote by mail and place restraints on weekend voting.

“We’re in a fight again. It’s a fight we need to win. Because if anyone ever doubted that voting mattered, Georgia just proved it,” the president said. “If anyone ever wondered if one vote can make a difference, Georgia just proved it 11,779 times.”

As Biden spoke, hundreds of Emory University students gathered around the broad Quadrangle, cheering as Ossoff, Warnock, Stacey Abrams and others ducked into the grand Convocation Hall to meet privately with Biden.

After they emerged from their meeting with Biden, Ossoff and Warnock were greeted as conquering heroes by the throngs of students. Republicans have framed the COVID-19 relief package as wasteful spending, but the two U.S. senators labeled it as transformative progressive policy that couldn’t have happened without their victories.

“Know that as this agenda goes forward,” Warnock said, “it’s because of Georgia.”