Bronze-colored plaques with the message “Wuhan plague” popped up on buildings across Atlanta. An Asian American student on his way to a boba tea shop was told, “Thanks for covid.” In suburban Atlanta, an Asian American couple returning from the movies found a slur spray painted on their car.
For months, Asian Americans in Georgia, like in many areas across the country, have faced escalating verbal abuse and harassment, local advocates said. The already on-guard community reacted with shock and fear on Tuesday as it mourned the deaths of six Asian American women and two others fatally shot at Atlanta-area spas.
The violence toward the businesses “is frightening and alarming,” Chris Chan, an advisory chair for the Asian American Action Fund Georgia Chapter, told The Washington Post.
Chan said Asian Americans in Georgia had recently faced “words yelled at us or threatening gestures and actions” but “nothing rising to what we are seeing tonight.”
Police, who arrested Robert Aaron Long, 21, in connection with the shootings, said they have yet to know a motive. Local authorities, who are being assisted by the FBI, said they will consider whether race was a factor.
But as the shooting came amid a national surge of racist attacks and threats against Asian Americans, advocates on Tuesday reacted with alarm and police from Seattle to New York ramped up security in Asian American neighborhoods.
Local and national organizations, as well as public officials, took to social media to condemn the killings and demand action on the rise of racially motivated attacks.
“We’re horrified by the news coming out of GA at a time when we’re already seeing a spike in anti-Asian violence. Although details are still unfolding, at least half of the victims appear to be Asian American women. Our hearts go out to the victims & their families. #StopAsianHate” the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus tweeted on Tuesday.
In Atlanta, Asians make up about 4 percent of the city’s population, but Asian American and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing community in Georgia and played a significant role in swinging November’s elections to Democrats in the state, The Washington Post reported. Gwinnett County, just outside Atlanta, is home to the biggest Asian community in the state.
Last year, local advocates began sounding alarms about a recent string of attacks against Asian Americans. In May, a group of community leaders reported the sighting of small bronze-colored plaques with the words “Wuhan plague” and a picture of Winnie the Pooh eating a bat with chopsticks, WABE reported.
The phrase echoes racist slurs used by President Donald Trump, whose anti-China rhetoric during the pandemic many advocates blame for the rise in hate crimes.
“It’s doing nothing but reinforcing really awful stereotypes,” Krystle Rodriguez, the owner of a restaurant where one of the plaques was glued, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution at the time, speaking of the signs. “I have Asian American friends that said it’s allergy season and they’re afraid to sneeze in public because of all of the hate speech.”
The Atlanta Police Department confirmed it had received at least four reports of plaques matching this description, WABE reported. No arrests were reported at the time.
Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat who represents a swath of North Fulton and Gwinnett counties, said that she was “shocked and saddened” when she first saw news of Tuesday night’s shootings, but also that she was “not surprised.”
“Obviously the events are still unfolding, and we’re still getting more information. So I don’t want to jump to any conclusions as to the motivations behind this particular crime,” she said. “But just stepping back for a bit, I think that there is a picture in this country, especially over the past year, of increasing discrimination and violence against our Asian American communities.”
She said that regardless of what authorities determine to be the motive for Tuesday’s shootings, “it is taking place in a landscape where Asian Americans are increasingly terrified and fearful for their lives and their safety because of these escalating threats against our people.”
In December, a group of Asian American and international students at Emory University told Georgia Public Broadcasting that they had faced ongoing harassment and verbal threats during the pandemic.
Molina Zhang, a 20-year-old international student from China, recounted how once when she was waiting for her takeout order at a restaurant, a man asked what was she majoring in. When she replied, “biology,” the man said, “Oh, I hope you don’t invent any viruses in the future.”
The anti-Asian sentiment has also reached the Atlanta suburbs. In February, an Asian American couple found a racist slur spray-painted on their car outside a movie theater, WAGA reported.
Authorities have not yet identified the victims killed on Tuesday. In the first shooting, in Cherokee County, two Asian women, a White woman and a White man were killed and a Hispanic man was wounded, police said. Less than an hour later, four Asian women were then killed at two businesses across the street from each other in northeast Atlanta.
Four of the women killed in Atlanta were of Korean ethnicity, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Long, who was caught after a manhunt about 150 miles south of Atlanta, is the suspect in all three shootings, police said.
Local community organizations and public officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp (R), urged the public to remember the victims and police to take quick action on the case.
“We are shaken by the violence in our city that has left 8 people dead, including members of the Asian American community,” tweeted Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. “We are gathering information about what happened & the needs of directly impacted are. Now is the time to hold victims and their families in our hearts & with light.”
Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, D-Ga., referred to the fatalities as “senseless deaths.”
“My heart grieves with the loved ones of the 8 people killed tonight,” Warnock tweeted on Tuesday. “We cannot stop working together to drive out the hate that caused these senseless deaths.”
Chan told The Post local organizations are planning a rally to support the victims and their families.
“It will be a turning point in America and in the Asian communities’ attention for the hate crimes that have been going on for the past year,” he said. “Asian Americans will not be silent about it and we will demand justice and take steps to prevent the next crime. . . . Everyone has heard enough words. It’s time to take some action.”