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A Lot Has Changed Since The Atlanta Spa Shootings. A Lot Has Not.

Two chalk boards display the names of the shooting victims. In front of them many lit candles shine brightly.
A vigil in San Gabriel for the victims of the Atlanta shooting spree.
((Josie Huang/LAist))
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Eight minutes of silence — one minute for each of the victims killed in the Atlanta spa shootings.

In Los Angeles, that’s how a coalition of Asian American community organizations on Wednesday observed the one-year anniversary of the massacre at three massage businesses in and around Atlanta. Of the eight people killed, six of them were women of Asian descent.

Organizers had been planning a remembrance event in Koreatown up until last week, when they learned from advocates in Atlanta that the victims’ families had called instead for a day of quiet reflection on one of the darkest moments in Asian American history.

A man holding an umbrella walks past a storefront with the neon sign reading Gold Spa.
Gold Spa is one of the 3 Asian-run massage businesses targeted by a gunman in the March 2021 massacre.
(Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

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What Has Changed Since Atlanta?

Certainly, the violence has not stopped. In Los Angeles, hate crimes against Asians were up last year by 173%. Recent months have seen four Asian New Yorkers die after being attacked.

The continued violence does not surprise Connie Chung Joe, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, one of the groups observing Wednesday's eight minutes of silence.

She said the racist rhetoric of former President Trump helped to catalyze anti-Asian sentiment, but that the antagonism runs deep in this country.

“We're not true Americans — that is an underlying perception about Asian Americans,” Joe said. “Look [at] the Chinese Exclusion Act, World War II, 9/11, Vincent Chin.”

When the Atlanta shootings happened, just three days after she had helped put on an anti-Asian hate rally that drew hundreds to Little Tokyo, Di Barbadillo said she almost expected it.

“My first reaction — it’s sad actually — was ‘I’m not surprised’,” said Barbadillo, a community organizer. “It just felt like with this recent wave of anti-Asian violence that something big was almost bound to happen.”

Standing at the intersection of xenophobia, racism and misogny is nothing new for Asian Americans. But Joe said the scope of the tragedy, perpetrated by a gunman who targeted Asian-run businesses and blamed his actions on sexual addiction, opened a lot of people's eyes.

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“We saw a huge influx of media interest, public interest in how to show solidarity and wanting to know what's happening, as well as funding coming in from corporations and individuals,” she said.

Momentum To Stop Anti-Asian Hate

In the initial days and weeks after the shootings, Asian Americans held rallies and vigils demanding justice for the victims: Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Yaun, Paul Michels, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant and Yong Ae Yue.

Atlanta "empowered the [Asian American Pacific Islander] community to really come out on the streets demanding justice, demanding equity and asking for assistance from the stakeholders," said Steve Kang, director of external affairs at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center.

The shootings propelled the passage of a federal hate crime reporting bill championed by Asian American members of Congress such as U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena). In California, state lawmakers last summer allocated more than $166 million to fund community initiatives, like helping victims of racist attacks.

At the grassroots level, volunteers turned out in larger numbers across Southern California to join newly-formed groups. Volunteers escorted pedestrians through Koreatown. Older Asians in Little Saigon gamely learned self-defense moves from mixed martial artists.

Community organizer Barbadillo worried that because some of the perpetrators of anti-Asian attacks were also people of color, the violence would ramp up racial tensions.

After Atlanta, she tried to stress the commonalities between races, and took part in an online discussion about Asian and Black solidarity.

“We're not just trying to highlight anti-Asian violence, but trying to not let this particular wave of violence act as a wedge between people who are also fighting their own fight,” Barbadillo said.

While she can work to build bridges to other groups, Barbadillo said she honestly doesn't know how to stop the violence. If history is any guide, the attacks will eventually ebb and racism will ostensibly become less severe, only to show itself again later.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.