Atlanta spa shootings: Biden and Harris to meet with Asian American leaders; family members remember shooting victims

ATLANTA — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Asian American leaders in Atlanta on Friday, after a gunman opened fire on Atlanta-area spas, killing mostly women of Asian descent in at least two massage parlors he frequented.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, waived his right to an initial court appearance in Cherokee County on Thursday. Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr.said they still needed to determine the motive, but that it was too soon to say whether Long “specifically targeted” victims. Authorities did say on Wednesday that Long indicated he committed the shootings because of sex addiction, but experts say it’s hard to disentangle race from the killings.

Authorities say Long opened fire at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth on Tuesday evening, killing four people and injuring a fifth, before driving 30 miles into Atlanta and killing four more people at two businesses, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa. Long was arrested about 150 miles south of Atlanta. Police said Wednesday he was heading to Florida and intended to carry out more shootings as spas there.

The shootings came amid a recent wave of attacks against Asian Americans that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus across the United States. Witnesses have only started to come to terms with the horror they experienced at the spas.

More details on the latest news in the Atlanta spa shootings:

  • A spokesman for a Georgia Sheriff’s Office investigating a string of massage parlor shootings near Atlanta was removed from the case Thursday after social media posts went viral showing him promoting a T-shirt with controversial language about China and the coronavirus. 
  • While the spas where the shootings happened were not on Atlanta police’s radar, according to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, there were red flags that the businesses provided illicit services.
  • He was getting a massage for his back pain. Then the shooter walked in and started killing people. Witness recalls deadly shooting.

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Suspect ‘frequented’ Atlanta spas before attack; authorities still investigating motive

Atlanta police held a news conference Thursday afternoon, offering new details that the suspect frequented the two spa locations in the city that he’s accused of targeting. 

“I can say that he had frequented both of those locations,” deputy police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said of Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa, the two spas that became crime scenes Tuesday.

Hampton said authorities are still investigating the motive and added he couldn’t say whether Long “specifically targeted” victims at those locations.

But Yale University Sociology Department chair Grace Kao, an expert on Asian American studies, said it was hard to disentangle race from the killings. 

The shooter had targeted Asian American women, and given how “Asian American women have been viewed as exotic and feminine objects in U.S. mass media and suspected of prostitution from the earliest U.S. immigration restrictions,” the suspect could easily have viewed Asian American women in the same manner, she said.

“If you talk to the average Asian American woman, most of us have been subject to varying degrees of sexual harassment that targets our gender and racial identities,” Kao said. “They do not exist separately in the lives of individuals.”

Harris, the first African American and South Asian American woman to be elected vice president, called the incident “tragic.”

Visual timeline: Here’s what happened at Atlanta spa shootings

“The investigation is ongoing, we don’t yet know, we’re not yet clear about the motive. But I do want to say to our Asian American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people.”

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the “crimes are beyond terrifying, but it just brings home to so many Asian Americans that they are fearful of their lives and circumstances” as they faced both the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in hate incidents. 

She said her group of lawmakers met with the Department of Justice to discuss a nationwide rise in hate incidents and “we are right now determining actions against AAPI hate.” She called for the passage of legislation to improve hate crime reporting and also for the establishment of a national day to speak out against anti-Asian American hate on March 26.

Trevor Noah on Atlanta shootings: ‘If that’s not racism then the word has no meaning’

‘She did everything for me’: Families remember shooting victims

Seven women and one man were killed in the string of attacks, the majority of whom were of Asian descent.

Atlanta police have yet to officially release the identities of the four victims who died at the two spas. Hampton said the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office identified three of the four victims and he hopes to release their names soon. 

“I was hoping we would be able to release the names of the victims, but we are not able to do that at this time,” Hampton said at the news conference. “We need to make sure that we have a true verification of their identities. And then, that we made the proper next the kin notification.”

At Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County, the victims were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44. A 30-year-old Hispanic man was injured.

Xiaojie “Emily” Tan was listed as the owner of a limited liability corporation associated with Young’s Asian Massage and another spa. 

The day before Tan would have celebrated her many accomplishments- making a life in the United States, building a family, launching two businesses- a gunman broke into her business and opened fire.

Instead, Jami Webb, 29, and her father, Michael Webb, 64, spent Tan’s birthday planning her funeral at a Catholic church. 

“She did everything for me and for the family. She provided everything. She worked every day, 12 hours a day, so that me and our family would have a better life,” Jami Webb said of her mother.

Yaun leaves behind a 13-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter. Her mother, Margaret Rushing, told WAGA-TV, that her daughter and son-in-law went to the spa on a date. When the shooting happened, Yaun’s husband locked himself in a room and wasn’t injured, said Yan’s half-sister, Dana Toole.

Opinion: Asian Americans aren’t here for you to objectify, ridicule or kill in Atlanta shootings

“He’s taking it hard,” Toole said. “He was there. He heard the gunshots and everything. You can’t escape that when you’re in a room and gunshots are flying – what do you do?”

Paul Michels, who also died at the spa in Acworth, owned an alarm company in Atlanta, where he and his wife, Bonnie, have lived 26 years, his brother John said. 

He believes his brother was “just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” They grew up with nine siblings in Detriot, riding dirt bikes and spending summer weekends at a lake and getting into mischief together, he said. They both served in the U.S. Army at the same time and his brother served as an infantryman in the late 1980s. 

The lone shooting victim who survived the attack, Elcias Hernandez Ortiz, is hospitalized in intensive care. 

His wife, Flor Gonzalez, said in an interview Thursday that he is currently intubated and due to have surgery as early as next week to remove the bullet in his abdomen. 

Gonzalez said her husband, a Guatemalan immigrant, was on the way to a business next door to the massage parlor, where he sends money to family back home. He called her as the shooting was unfolding. 

“They shot me, they shot me, come help me please,” she said Hernandez-Ortiz supplicated. Those were the last words Gonzalez has been able to hear from him, she said on the verge of tears. Read more about those who were killed here. 

– Trevor Hughes, Romina Ruiz, Dennis Wagner and John Bacon

Historic congressional hearing on Asian discrimination turns emotional

A historic hearing Thursday on anti-Asian violence and discrimination, Congress’ first on the issue in more than 30 years, turned emotional as lawmakers gave emotional pleas to end the use of divisive language just days after the spa shootings in Atlanta left the Asian-American community rattled. 

“Our community is bleeding. We are in pain. And for the last year, we’ve been screaming out for help,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., said, noting the continued pleas throughout the pandemic and rise in hate crimes targeting the Asian community. 

‘We will not let you take our voice from us’: Rep. Meng responds to Republicans at hearing on anti-Asian discrimination

Responding to Republican lawmakers’ arguments that the focus on hate crimes could hamper free speech Meng told lawmakers they could criticize other countries but “you don’t have to do it by putting a bulls-eye on the back of Asian Americans across the county, on our grandparents, on our kids.”

Getting visibly emotional, Meng said “this hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community, to find solutions. And we will not let you take our voice from us”

Earlier in the hearing, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, asked whether the committee’s attempts to prevent hate crimes and hate incidents against Asian Americans would hamper free speech.

“It seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society,” he said of the hearing, though he said he opposed hate crimes and wanted justice to be served for the perpetrator of the shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of whom were Asian or Asian American. 

– Nicholas Wu 

What to do if you are a witness to anti-Asian racism

If you see anti-Asian racism, Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks acts of discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, recommends these five safety steps: 

  • Take action. Go to the targeted person and offer support. 
  • Actively listen. Before you do anything, ask — and then respect the targeted person’s response. If need be, keep an eye on the situation.
  • Ignore attacker. Try using your voice, body language or distractions to de-escalate the situation (though use your judgment).
  • Accompany. Ask the targeted person to leave with you if whatever is going on escalates.
  • Offer emotional support. Find out how the targeted person is feeling and help them determine what to do next.

A rise in anti-Asian attacks: Here’s how to be an ally to the community.

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