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'Enough Is Enough': Atlanta-Area Spa Shootings Spur Debate Over Hate Crime Label

Mallory Rahman and her daughter Zara Rahman, 4, bring flowers to the Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday, the day after eight people were killed at three massage spas in the Atlanta area. Authorities have arrested Robert Aaron Long, 21, in the shootings in Atlanta and Cherokee County, Ga.
Ben Gray
Mallory Rahman and her daughter Zara Rahman, 4, bring flowers to the Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday, the day after eight people were killed at three massage spas in the Atlanta area. Authorities have arrested Robert Aaron Long, 21, in the shootings in Atlanta and Cherokee County, Ga.

Most of the victims were women of Asian descent. Authorities say it's too early to declare the attacks a hate crime – but advocates say there's a pattern that can't be ignored.

Updated March 18, 2021 at 7:43 PM ET

Asian Americans and their allies are calling for solidarity and a push against discrimination and racist violence after a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas Tuesday. Most of the victims were women of Asian descent.

Authorities said it's too early to declare the attacks a hate crime – prompting a debate over when that label should be used and how to present the gunman's explanation. In an incident report filed by the Atlanta Police Department, officers checked "no" under whether the attacks were a suspected hate crime. But police said Thursday they are still investigating the attacker's motive.

The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, has confessed, according to police, who said Long denied being motivated by racial animus. Officials in Cherokee County cited sex addiction and a "bad day" as possible explanations for the crime. Police suspect Long was under the influence of alcohol, according to the Atlanta incident report.He is being held in Cherokee, the county northwest of Atlanta where the shootings started.

Atlanta's Deputy Chief Charles Hampton told reporters on Thursday afternoon that Long had purchased the weapon the day of the attack. He also confirmed Long had frequented at least two of the spas.

Criticisms in Atlanta

"We were quite disappointed to hear the narrative that is being pushed by law enforcement, especially through the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office, that this ... was not racially motivated," Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, based in the Atlanta area, said in an interview with NPR.

"I think the narrative that I heard yesterday is maybe [the victims] were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Mahmood said. "But we know that people that work in the massage parlor industry or other beauty industries are often working highly vulnerable or low-wage jobs, especially during this ongoing pandemic. And we know that a lot of the impacts around structural violence, white supremacy and misogyny is especially impacting them."

On Atlanta's Piedmont Road, people have been laying flowers outside Gold Spa, where three women were killed Tuesday. The crowd included Kat Bagger, who told reporter Lisa Hagen of NPR member station WABE that she's frustrated police haven't called the shootings a case of racist violence.

"I think we can really use our platform as Black people to push for the Asian community and support them in the way that we need to," Bagger said.

In Atlanta, Hagen said, "What we're seeing here is plenty of shock, anger and frustration about what happened, not just in Asian American neighborhoods, but in many communities of color. People are angry about what happened."

Spike in hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

"The Asian American community was dreading this day, and we were preparing for it," Texas state Rep. Gene Wu of Houston told NPR member station KUT.

The lawmaker had previously warned other politicians against using terms such as "kung flu" and "China virus."

"We were trying to convince people to stop using this language so that this day would not come sooner."

"I don't want to say, 'I told you so,' but I am out of anything else to say," Wu said.

"It's meant to be derisive. It's meant to be mocking. And [Asian communities] know that this puts a target on our backs," he said, according to KUT.

The group Stop AAPI Hate said it has received nearly 3,800 reports of what it described as hate incidents — including verbal harassment and physical assault — since the COVID-19 pandemic began a year ago.

On Wednesday, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta issued a statement saying that although details are still emerging, the broader context of racial tension in the United States cannot be ignored.

"While anti-Asian violence is woven throughout our nation's history, the Trump administration's relentless scapegoating of Asians for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased" those incidents, said the advocacy group, an affiliate of a national organization.

Official definitions of hate crimes vary widely depending on cities' and states' laws, making it difficult to arrive at a national tally. The method the United States uses to aggregate hate crime data is also being criticized as inconsistent and slow – and those observations come from the man who wrote the first federally mandated report on hate crimes 30 years ago.

"The data is really terrible, and I've spent my career looking at it," hate crime expert Jack McDevitt told NPR's Martin Kaste. "But you know, we have agencies that report zero hate crimes to the FBI — places like Indianapolis. It's absurd."

It will take two years for verified national data about hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic to emerge, McDevitt said. But there are already signs of a spike, he added.

"Big cities are reporting an increase in anti-Asian violence," McDevitt said. "Oakland is. San Francisco is. New York is."

Officials must not ignore the racial aspect of the Atlanta case, sociologist and author Nancy Wang Yuen told NPR member station KQED.

"They're not saying 'I'm a racist' or 'I'm only targeting Asians,' but they want to limit it to the gender or the roles of all the jobs," Yuen said. "But, of course, we know that six Asian women are dead. And these are from three different businesses. So there is a targeting. There is a pattern. And we can't ignore that."

''Our community is horrified''

News of the killings rippled through Asian communities in the United States, including Korean Americans who noted that four of the victims were reportedly of Korean descent.

"Our community is horrified — there's a lot of fear, anger, just appalled at what's happened," Inhe Choi, executive director of Chicago's HANA Center, a Korean American community organization, told NPR member station WBEZ.

Even before Tuesday's attacks, Choi said, her community was already alarmed by blatant anti-Asian incidents. She cited reports of Asian people being yelled at in stores or on public transportation. Someone threw a rock at a woman outside a grocery store, she said, and an Asian delivery worker was assaulted.

"The Asian American community here in Philadelphia, they're on edge," John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., told NPR member station WHYY.

Chin described speaking to parents who are afraid to send their kids to school, and workers who are leery of taking public transit, concerned by the chance of a violent assault.

"I think there's a sentiment and a fear and anxiety that it could have happened to anybody here because when we look at the news, there's no rhyme or reason. They seem to be senseless acts of violence, and that creates a lot of fear."

In San Francisco, David Chiu, a member of the CaliforniaAssembly, called the attacks horrifying.

"Make no mistake," Chiu said on Twitter, "this crime was driven by hate, fueled by racism that has festered during this pandemic. ... This must be an inflection point. Enough is enough."

Cherokee County's official response under scrutiny

Amid the grief and suspicion over what could have prompted the violence in Georgia, there is also frustration over how officials in Cherokee County are describing the attacks.

"Was this racially motivated?" a reporter asked Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds in Wednesday's news conference about the attacks.

Reynolds quickly noted that it was still early in the investigation. He added, "But the indicators right now are, it may not be. It may be targets of opportunity. Again, we believe that he frequented these places in the past, and may have been lashing out."

That idea was amplified by sheriff's 0ffice spokesman Capt. Jay Baker, who said the suspect was "pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did."

Lt. David Barone, with the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office of Professional Standards and Conduct, said Thursday that Baker is no longer the spokesperson for the shootings investigation.

To many people, the notion that sex addiction, or simply having a "bad day," could be seen as a motivator for someone to carry out a string of deadly shootings did not ring true. They questioned whether the officials were giving too much credence to the suspect's claims. To them, the "bad day" explanation quickly joined a list of lame excuses for racist behavior, from taking Ambien to having diabetes.

Critics are calling Tuesday's shootings yet another symptom of America's core sickness: racism. And they note that in the U.S., white supremacy has long been linked to sexism and violence.

"The fact that someone with a self-proclaimed sex addiction went on a murderous shooting spree targeting Asian women is racism," said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, on Twitter. "The association of Asian women with sex is a manifestation of our white supremacist (sexist) culture."

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the businesses targeted in Atlanta had not been on the city's radar as potential sites of crime or trouble. And while she agreed that the inquiry was still in its early phase, Bottoms also acknowledged that people of Asian descent were targeted, at a time when racist acts against Asians have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Obviously, whatever the motivation was for this guy, we know that many of the victims, the majority of the victims were Asian," Bottoms said. "We also know that this is an issue that's happening across the country. It is unacceptable. It is hateful. And it has to stop."

Moments after the mayor made that remark, Baker emphasized that Cherokee County had identified two of the victims as white.

"Just to be clear, of our victims — obviously, [in] Atlanta, all their victims were Asian," Baker said. "Two of our victims were white, in case anyone was unaware of that. We had two Asians and two whites that were killed."

Sheriff's office spokesman is criticized

Criticism of Baker grew when a Twitter user posted screenshots of his Facebook profile in which the spokesman promoted T-shirts with messages that played on racist perceptions of the coronavirus. The shirts are reportedly sold by a company whose founder is a former Cherokee County sheriff's deputy.

"Place your order while they last," Baker wrote as he shared photos of T-shirts emblazoned with the message, "Covid 19 Imported Virus From Chy-na."

On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., tweeted, "Based on today's press conference, I would not have confidence in the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office to conduct a fair investigation that respected the Asian victims."

The company that made the T-shirts Baker promoted is called Deadline Apparel. The business, which is reportedly owned by a former sheriff's deputy, sits on the same road as Young's Asian Spa, where Tuesday's shootings began just nine miles away.

As of Thursday morning, several social media accounts associated with both Baker and Deadline Apparel had been either deleted or restricted.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.