1 Year After Atlanta-Area Spa Shooting, Asian American Community Still Healing

A year after the Atlanta-area spa murders, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reflect on the impact of the tragic day that brought together — locally and nationally — a community that says that it can sometimes be “stovepiped”.

On March 16, 2021, the Asian American community in Atlanta and across the United States was shaken by news of a shooting: a gunman entered three separate spas, killing eight people, including six women. Asian origin.

The victims were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul André Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49 years old; Daoyou Feng, 44 years old; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

“He also tried to shoot me,” Gold Spa employee and shooting survivor Eun Ja Kang previously told NBC Asian America. “I don’t know if I should be happy. It hurts to be alive and talking about it.

Robert Aaron Long pleaded guilty to murder and other charges related to the Cherokee County shooting and was sentenced to multiple life terms without parole. On September 28, Long pleaded not guilty to additional charges in Fulton County.

“Until the pandemic, we talked about AAPI hate crimes, but that voice often faded amid the many issues we faced during the pandemic,” said Sarah Park, president of the Korean American Coalition Metro. Atlanta. “We were often a lone voice within our community.”

The 36-year-old, who served as a community liaison for most spa shooting survivors and victims’ families, stressed that while the tragedy served as a turning point for many anti-Asian incidents, they don’t have not slowed down.

Suncha Kim, left, one of eight victims of the shooting at an Atlanta-area spa.
Suncha Kim, left, one of eight victims of the shooting at an Atlanta-area spa.through GoFundMe

Anti-Asian hate crimes rose 339% nationally last year, according to research published by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

The Stop AAPI Hate Coalition – which formed on March 19, 2020, in response to the spike in violence against the AAPI community resulting from the pandemic – said a total of 10,905 hate incidents against Native Americans Asian were reported from March 2020 to December 2021, with more in 2021 than in 2020.

More recently, a 67-year-old Asian woman suffered facial and brain injuries after being attacked in New York on Friday.

Anti-Asian bias rose after media and politicians, including then-President Trump, used phrases such as “China virus”, according to a report. The study found a 650% increase in Twitter retweets using the term “Chinese virus” and an 800% increase in similar rhetoric in conservative media.

But Park said there was no real revival before the spa shooting.

Protesters gather to honor the victims of the shootings and to end attacks on Asians in New York's Chinatown on March 21, 2021.
Protesters gather to honor the victims of the shootings and to end attacks on Asians in New York’s Chinatown on March 21.John Lamparski / Sipa USA via AP File

“As a Korean community, we’re sort of siloed,” she said. “Nobody took it that far – until it happened in Atlanta, and Atlanta really took it into account.”

In the year since the shooting, Atlanta-area leaders have held fundraisers, marches, and vigils with other elected officials, faith and community leaders, and people of all ages and of all races.

Byeong Cheol Han is another Atlantan who became a community leader after the shooting.

“I heard about the shooting from the media,” said the 58-year-old pastor of the Korean Central Presbyterian Church. “When I heard this, I was heartbroken and very sad and angry. At the same time, I felt that nowhere is safe. Nobody is safe.”

Han said his goal was to inspire political action in a community that often only interacted in small cultural circles and was not involved in civil rights activities.

“I said the shooting in the Atlanta area was that kind of wake-up call for Asian Americans,” Han said. “We were just focused on surviving for our success and the American dream. But the shooting really made us think otherwise.

Robert Peterson holds a photo of his late mother, Yong Ae Yue, one of eight victims of the shooting at an Atlanta-area spa.
Robert Peterson holds a photo of his late mother, Yong Ae Yue, one of eight victims of the shooting at an Atlanta-area spa.Ron Harris/AP

This focus on self and survival is what Han says has traditionally made his community hesitant to participate in activism involving other communities of color.

In the aftermath of the Atlanta-area spa shooting, scores of black and Asian protesters gathered in rallies across the country, holding signs that read ‘black-Asian unity,’ a gesture of solidarity for two groups that were often historically at odds with each other.

“When the Black Lives Matter movement happened, a lot of Korean Americans were very reluctant to do anything about it,” Han said. “So I told my members not to stay in your personal experience. It’s not a personal thing. It’s a structural problem in this society. Racism hasn’t been solved.

Alexis Suh, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer and board member of the Korean American Coalition Metro Atlanta, said generational and socioeconomic divides within the AAPI community add nuance to the policies and protests that they support.

“Asian Americans aren’t a monolith, so you’re going to get different reactions from people. There’s a group that believes in law enforcement, and a group that may have gone through the Los Angeles riots,” she said, making them think, “We have to protect ourselves. Nobody else is going to protect us.

Atlanta activists paint murals in solidarity with the Asian American community
A mural in Atlanta in remembrance of the eight people killed in the three spa shootings in the Atlanta area.Megan Varner/Getty Images File

This reluctance to activism is something Allison Wang saw from her family. The 32-year-old Augusta University student became involved in organizing Asian appreciation gatherings shortly after the spa shooting. She said her parents, who are immigrants from China, doubted the rise in activism equated to tangible change.

“It’s definitely a trauma because they’ve been disappointed for so long. They just don’t really believe this can happen to us because Asian Americans are used to being undervalued,” Wang said. No matter what we’ve done, it’s not going to erase all the pain that people are going through, and it’s that generational feeling of being a perpetual outsider.

Yet a year after the shooting, Atlanta residents feel ambivalent about the progress of Asian Americans in the region.

Sarah Park’s husband, Michael Park, 43, witnessed and helped the work his wife did after the shooting. But he said he wondered how much that had really changed.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had any major incidents in the Atlanta metro area since that time. Many of the things we’ve seen in the national news unfortunately happened in New York or California. But it affects us,” Michael Park said. “The fact that this is continuing to happen at a truly alarming rate makes you wonder, as an Asian American, have we made this progress?”

Xiaojie Tan was one of eight people killed in shootings at three spas in Georgia on March 16, 2021.
Xiaojie Tan was one of eight people killed in shootings at three spas in Georgia on March 16, 2021.Michael Webb/AP

But Sarah Park said she didn’t want people to use the spa shooting as a tool for a political agenda and instead wanted the focus to be on the eight lives lost that day.

“We didn’t want this tragic event to be some kind of platform.”

But he said the work being done by his wife and Asian American community leaders in Atlanta will make a difference in the future.

“The whole collaboration between different organizations and the AAPI community – which had its roots in civic engagement with voter registration and census work – is now set up to be a really good network which I think can be more proactive,” he added.

The couple said this kind of work was worth the time and effort.

“Even though we move our needles at our own pace and at a slower speed compared to New York or Southern California,” Sarah Park said, “it takes longer because we want to include all the demographics of our first generation to the next generation, and inviting them to the table and having that kind of conversation takes longer.

Part of continuing to work, said Michael Park, is staying vigilant.

“I think we have to stay very vigilant, now that we’re so visible,” he said. “Now that we are no longer that silent minority, we have to be careful because this is going to put a target on our backs.”

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