A Georgia state lawmaker set to meet Friday with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called on the Justice Department to investigate shootings earlier this week at three Atlanta-area spas as a hate crime.
The remarks from state Rep. Bee Nguyen, whose district encompasses Atlanta, came hours before Biden and Harris are scheduled to visit Georgia’s capital city to meet with legislators and advocates from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the aftermath of the massacre — which left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent.
The attacks Tuesday on Young’s Asian Massage Parlor, Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa represented the most violent episode of a year marked by anti-Asian discrimination, and recent days have seen a contentious national debate over the suspect’s motivation.
Nguyen, however, was unequivocal in describing the spate of shootings as the result of racial and gender animus, citing the text of Georgia’s hate crime law passed last summer after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in Brunswick, Ga., was shot and killed by a white man who pursued him.
“We have the facts. We know that he targeted three Asian-owned businesses,” Nguyen told CNN of the suspect, a 21-year-old white man. “He drove 40 minutes between those businesses, and along the way — and we know this area well — there are other adult entertainment businesses that are Black and white.”
But the suspect “chose not to go to any of them,” Nguyen said. “He specifically chose these… businesses. And, as a result, six Asian women are dead. Under the hate crimes law, both from a racial and a gender perspective, I believe it is a hate crime.”
Asked whether the White House should refer to the shootings as such, Nguyen said: “I believe they ought to investigate it as a hate crime. And they ought to listen to the Asian people living in Georgia and to the community as a whole, because we are the ones asking this to be considered a hate crime and to be investigated as one.”
Local and federal law enforcement officials have come under intense criticism in recent days for their assessments of the individual in custody and his potential motive. On Wednesday, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office repeated the suspect’s claim that his crimes were not related to race.
Baker told reporters that the suspect suffered from “what he considers a sex addiction,” and that the suspect viewed the spas as a “temptation” that he “wanted to eliminate.” He also said the suspect had “a really bad day” and that “this is what he did.”
News outlets reported later Wednesday that Baker himself had shared racist images on Facebook last year, and he was replaced Thursday as a spokesperson for the investigation.
At his own news conference Thursday, Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton said his office’s probe “is looking at everything, so nothing is off the table for our investigation.” FBI Director Christopher Wray also weighed in, saying in an interview that “it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated.”
Addressing Wray’s remarks, Nguyen said Friday that when law enforcement thinks “about whether or not this crime is racially motivated, you cannot simply take the word of the suspect in custody.”
“You have to take into the context the history of Asians living in this country, as well as present day,” she said. “And one of those things that is being underlooked is the fact that you cannot divorce racism and gender-based violence and misogyny and the hypersexualization of Asian women [and] the sexual exploitation of Asian women. Those are all very relevant in this case.”
Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, also broke with the FBI director. “I think that they’re still investigating, and I am not law enforcement, so I don’t know how they’re doing it. But I do feel like it is racially motivated, as does most of the country,” she told CNN.
As for a potential hate crime designation, Cho said: “I think that that’s a prosecutory term. But in terms of, is it racially motivated? Yes, it is. Was it targeting particularly Asian American women? Yes. That is definitely a fact.”
Similar acts of discrimination and violence against Asian Americans have proliferated across the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 3,800 hate incidents reported between March 2020 and February 2021, according to the Stop AAPI Hate nonprofit organization.
Activists, lawmakers and public health experts have tied the disturbing trend at least in part to former President Donald Trump’s repeated use of ethnic identifiers when referring to Covid-19 — terms which have been echoed by most Republican officials and conservative commentators.
The World Health Organization first warned against using such language to describe the coronavirus last year, saying that doing so could lead to increased racial profiling. A study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than half of all tweets with the hashtag #chinesevirus posted from March 9-23, 2020 — the week before and the week after Trump tweeted the phrase — showed anti-Asian sentiment.
Asked what she hoped to hear from Biden and Harris during their visit to Atlanta, Cho said Friday that they should be as “consistent in their messaging” on the coronavirus as Trump, who “consistently berated and harassed the Asian American community in his entire presidency.”
“In the same way that former President Trump consistently called it the ‘China flu,’ the ‘Wuhan flu,’ that actually is something that I want [the] Biden and Harris administration to do differently,” she said. “Consistently come out and negate that. Consistently come out in favor of the Asian American community. And create policies that really make a difference.”