A murderous rampage by a 21-year-old white man that left eight people dead – most women of Asian descent – in the US state of Georgia has sent shockwaves through Asian American communities already reeling from increased discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the investigation has so far raised more questions than answers.
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Police have charged Robert Aaron Long with the killings, which took place at three separate massage and spa businesses in the Atlanta area. He will be arraigned on Thursday.
Long told police the attacks were not racially motivated and were instead related to his “sex addiction”. Six of the eight victims were of Asian descent.
At least one official, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Captain Jay Baker, also sought to downplay the racial component.
That has prompted a groundswell of backlash, with many expressing dismay that Long has not immediately been charged with a hate crime. Baker’s own anti-Asian Facebook posts have also raised concerns over the integrity of the investigation.
We have a history of violence against Asian Americans in this country — including an immigration exclusion act directed at an entire continent. The rise in AAPI hate crimes is a continuation of the brutality AAPIs have endured since the inception of this country. #StopAAPIHate pic.twitter.com/iGgV65OLhl
— Bee Nguyen 🐝 (@BeeForGeorgia) March 17, 2021
Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen said the killings sit at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia” in the United States.
She also noted that as the attacks are being framed as “a sex addiction killing spree”, Georgia’s hate crimes statute also protects against violence motivated by gender.
Meanwhile, US Representative Marylin Strickland, a Korean American Democrat, accused investigators of making excuses for the murder spree.
“Racially motivated violence should be called out for exactly what it is,” She said in a speech on the House floor on Wednesday. “And we must stop making excuses or rebranding it as economic anxiety or sexual addiction.”
Who are the victims?
The attacks began on Tuesday just before 5pm (21:00 GMT), when five people were shot at Young’s Asian Massage business near Woodstock, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Atlanta, authorities said.
Four people died there: 33-year-old Delaina Ashley Yaun, 44-year-old Daoyou Feng, 49-year-old Xiaojie Tan and 54-year-old Paul Andre Michels. A fifth victim, an Hispanic male, was wounded but survived the attack.
Jill and I are keeping everyone impacted by the shootings in Atlanta in our prayers. We don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight. The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop.
— President Biden (@POTUS) March 18, 2021
Yaun’s mother, Margaret Rushing, told WAGA-TV that Yaun and her husband had visited the spa for a date. Yaun leaves behind a 13-year-old son and eight-month-old daughter.
Her half-sister, Dana Toole, said Yaun’s husband survived by locking himself in a room and was not injured.
Tan was a licensed massage therapist and reportedly owned the establishment and a second spa in the area.
Andre Michels was a local business owner, according to the Daily Beast. Family members described him as an Army veteran who owned an electric company. His brother said he was interested in opening massage businesses.
No details have so far emerged on Feng.
About 45 minutes later, the gunman attacked the Gold Spa in Atlanta, where three women were shot to death.
Another woman was fatally shot at the Aromatherapy Spa across the street.
The identities of the victims in the last two attacks have not yet been released.
Long was arrested at about 8pm (00:00 GMT) after police blocked his vehicle about 240km (150 miles) south of Atlanta. A 9mm gun was found in Long’s vehicle, which he had reportedly purchased legally before the attack.
The FBI is aiding local authorities in the investigation.
What was the motive?
Long told police the killings were not racially motivated, instead saying he had a “sexual addiction”. Authorities said the targeted businesses appeared to symbolise “temptation” for Long, who was apparently heading to Florida to attack “some type of porn industry”.
“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” Cherokee County Sheriff’s Baker told reporters.
Long was also a member of the Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia. A former pastor at the church told the New York Times that Long was one of the most committed members of the church’s youth groups.
Meanwhile, CNN reported that Long had previously been in rehab for sex addiction, citing a man who shared a housing unit with Long at the facility in Roswell, Georgia, between August 2019 and January or February 2020.
To our Asian neighbors, family, and friends. I know that the world seems more scary today. More cruel. Know that we love you.
We mourn those killed last night in Atlanta with you. We will dismantle white supremacy alongside you.
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) March 17, 2021
The roommate, Tyler Bayless, told the network that Long struggled with his conflicting religious views and his addiction.
So far, no manifesto or social media posts have emerged to give further insights into what motivated Long.
On a since-removed Instagram account that appeared to be Long’s, he wrote in his bio: “Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life.”
On Wednesday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms warned investigators against “victim blaming, victim shaming”.
“We don’t know additional information about what his motives were. We will not begin to blame victims, and as far as we know in Atlanta these are legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar, the radar of [the Atlanta Police Department],” she said.
Was the killing racially motivated?
Many have been outraged that Long has not been immediately charged with a hate crime, with the hashtag #StopAsianHate trending on social media in the wake of the killings.
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds told reporters on Wednesday it was too early to tell if the attack was racially motivated – “but the indicators right now are it may not be”.
Margaret Huang, the president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said law enforcement needs “some training understanding what a hate crime is”.
Did the murderer in the Atlanta area shoot employees at strip clubs to relieve his alleged temptations? Or adult video stores? Or adult movie theaters? NO. He specifically went to three locations that disproportionately had Asian women employees. #StopAsianHate https://t.co/HFEEgstM9n
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) March 17, 2021
Long “was very clearly going after a targeted group of people,” she told the Associated Press.
The attack comes as the wider Asian American community has seen increased discrimination and attacks amid the coronavirus pandemic, which many say has been stoked by former President Donald Trump, who often gave the virus anti-Asian names like the “China flu”.
Hate crimes motivated by anti-Asian sentiment in New York City surged by 1,900 percent in 2020 , with only one instance reported in 2019 and 20 reported in 2020, according to the NYPD.
Meanwhile, the Stop AAPI Hate group, which documents instances of discrimination and assault against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country, has reported 3,795 instances between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021.
Does racial bias extend to investigators?
The xenophobia towards Asians appears to have been perpetuated by at least one official aiding in the investigation, with recently surfaced Facebook photos showing Cherokee County Sheriff’s Captain Baker last year promoting a T-shirt with racist language about China and the coronavirus.
The Facebook account, belonging to a “Jay Baker” and featuring numerous photos of Baker going back months, including a photo in which he is in uniform outside the sheriff’s office, was deleted on Wednesday night.
Baker has also stoked concerns that Long would receive preferential treatment, appearing to strike a sympathetic tone when he told reporters on Wednesday that Long was “pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope”.
“Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” he said.
this is what we are NOT going to do
— Jenny Yang (@jennyyangtv) March 17, 2021
Asian American activists said Baker’s comments and the Facebook post undermine public confidence that investigators are adequately addressing Tuesday’s atrocity.
“To see this post is both disturbing and outrageous. It speaks to the structural racism that we’re all up against,” said Vincent Pan, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights organisation working to address anti-Asian hate crimes.
“Coupled with the comments coming out of the news conference, it does not give community members confidence that our experiences and the pain and the suffering that we’re feeling are being taken seriously, at least by this particular person,” Pan told the Associated Press.