Asian-American congresswomen warned the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the nation had reached a “crisis point” amid a spike in discrimination and violence targeting the Asian community, in the first congressional hearing on the issue held in over three decades.
The hearing, which was scheduled weeks ago, came on the heels of a mass shooting in Atlanta in which a white gunman killed eight people at spas, six of whom were of Asian descent. As lawmakers pledged to confront the rising tide of violence, they turned to six female lawmakers of Asian descent, both Democrats and Republicans.
In often deeply personal testimony, the lawmakers described the fear and trauma rippling through the Asian-American community, and argued that the uptick in attacks on Asian-Americans was a direct result of the rise of anti-China rhetoric stoked during the pandemic. In one particularly heated moment, a Democratic congresswoman tearfully confronted a Republican on the panel, saying members of his party had used language she said put “a bull’s-eye” on Asian-Americans.
At another emotional point, Representative Doris Matsui, Democrat of California, who was born in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, described how the hearing politicians including former President Donald J. Trump use xenophobic phrases to describe the coronavirus brought back memories of the discrimination her parents faced from the federal government decades ago.
Back then, Ms. Matsui said, “many leaders advanced the myth that the Japanese community was inherently the enemy. Americans across the country believed it, acceded to institutionalized racism, and acted on it.”
“Last year,” she continued, “as I heard, at the highest levels of government, people use racist slurs, like ‘China virus,’ to spread xenophobia and cast blame on innocent communities, it was all too familiar.”
The hearing briefly turned tense after Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, made a lengthy condemnation of the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus and asserted that objections to what he categorized as nothing more than hawkish rhetoric about China amounted to “policing” of free speech.
“There’s old sayings in Texas about, you know, ‘find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree.’ You know, we take justice very seriously, and we ought to do that — round up all the bad guys,” Mr. Roy said, in comments that drew outrage on Twitter. “My concern about this hearing is it seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric.”
Representative Grace Meng, Democrat of New York, took exception to the remark.
“Your president, and your party, and your colleagues, can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s-eye on the back of Asian-Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” she said, growing visibly emotional.
“This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community, to find solutions,” she added, “and we will not let you take our voice away from us.”
Later, Mr. Roy issued a statement responding to the backlash over his comments, which appeared to refer to lynching, saying he stood by the idea that “we need more justice and less thought policing.”
“No apologies,” he added.
For hours on a drizzly Wednesday, Jesus Estrella held a “Stop Asian Hate” sign outside Young’s Asian Massage, one of the three spas in the Atlanta area that were targeted in shootings that claimed the lives of eight people, six of Asian descent.
Mr. Estrella, who is Hispanic and Asian, said that the shooting made him feel unsafe in his hometown, Acworth, Ga., and that he planned to return in solidarity on Thursday.
“Today was a great example to show you just how much hatred there is in the world, in this country,” Mr. Estrella said. “We need to take care of our Asian neighbors.”
The suspect in the shootings, Robert Aaron Long, 21, was charged with eight counts of murder on Wednesday. A spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff said Mr. Long’s lawyer had waived his arraignment that had been scheduled for Thursday morning.
Mr. Long has told authorities that the attacks were an attempt to remove the temptation of his self-described sex addiction, and not motivated by racism. A former roommate of his at a halfway house said Mr. Long had tried to end his addiction as recently as early 2020 but had continued going to massage parlors for sex.
Still, community leaders said it could not be ignored that most of those killed in the rampage had been of Asian descent.
Behind Mr. Estrella, smears of blood on a door frame were obscured by signs and flowers placed in honor of the four people killed there. The police have identified the victims as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Tan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44.
Alex Acosta said on Wednesday that he had noticed the gunman parked in front of Gabby’s Boutique, next door to Young’s Asian Massage, for an hour before the shooting. On the other side of the spa, in Perfecto Beauty Salon, Martha Enciso said she and her co-workers did not make much of what sounded like someone pounding on the walls on Tuesday night.
But they returned to their jobs the next day with a mix of terror and dread. “Life can’t slow down,” Ms. Enciso, 46, said. “We came in fear: Imagine, we are Hispanic, and some people hate us too.”
Rodney Bryant, the acting chief of the Atlanta Police Department, said it was not yet clear whether the shooting spree would be classified as a hate crime. But many vigils on Wednesday, including one organized by Shekar Krishnan, who is running for New York City Council, highlighted the concerns of Asian-Americans.
“We are here today to send a message that we will not be silenced,” said Mr. Krishnan, whose parents are from India. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”
Mr. Long, who is white, was arrested about 150 miles south of Atlanta after his parents told the police he might be the suspect. He bought a gun the day of the shootings at Big Woods Goods, a gun shop in suburban Atlanta, according to a lawyer for the store.
Within an hour of the shooting in Acworth, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in northeastern Atlanta were also attacked. The police have not named the four victims at those spas, but flowers and signs were piling up outside on Wednesday.
Sierra Houang, a Georgia Tech student who came with a friend to lay flowers, said she did not usually have to deal with anti-Asian sentiment because she passed as white.
“I carry a lot of guilt because my grandparents and my dad bore a lot of that burden,” said Ms. Houang, whose father is Taiwanese. “They worked hard so I would never have to be in a place where I’d know that. Still, this feels very personal to me.”
Priscilla Smith, who drove from Kennesaw with a bouquet, said the sight of the memorial was overwhelming. She said she wanted to show support for the Asian-American community.
“You have to embrace everybody,” Ms. Smith said. “America is everybody.”
The shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area left eight people dead on Tuesday and one man critically injured. So far, authorities have identified those who were hurt and killed at a spa in Acworth, Ga. Four other victims, shot at two spas in Atlanta, have not yet been identified by authorities.
Officials have named the victims found inside Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54, whose brother said he lived in Tucker. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, was injured in the attack and remained in critical condition, family members said.
Officials with the Atlanta Police Department said on Wednesday that they would not release the names of the four victims who were killed in the other two massage businesses until family members had been notified.
Six of those killed on Tuesday were of Asian descent and two were white. Seven were women. Although the shooter was apparently targeting employees of the massage parlors, the victims also included customers.
Here’s what we know so far about the victims.
A patron in the line of fire
Delaina Ashley Yaun was looking forward to a date with her husband on Tuesday afternoon. The couple chose a relaxing massage at Young’s Asian Massage in a modest shopping center outside of Atlanta — a spa she had never visited before, according to relatives.
She and her husband arrived shortly before the shooting began. She was killed, but her husband survived, locked in a nearby room as gunshots rang out, according to Dane Toole, Ms. Yaun’s half sister.
“He’s not OK,” Ms. Toole said about her sister’s husband. “He’s taking it hard.”
Ms. Yaun, one of four siblings who grew up in the area, had worked as a server at a Waffle House restaurant. She raised a 13-year-old son as a single mother and had an 8-month-old daughter, family members said.
“It was just all about family,” Ms. Toole said. “Whatever we’d do, we’d do it together. It doesn’t seem real. I expect to see her walking through the door any minute. It just hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”
DeLayne Davis, a relative, called Ms. Yaun “a good, godly woman.”
Ms. Davis stood with family and friends outside Ms. Yaun’s home in Acworth on Wednesday afternoon, wiping tears from her eyes.
“She was the rock for this family,” Ms. Davis said. “If any family needed anything, they went to her. She doted on her kids.”
A U.S. Army veteran
Paul Andre Michels, who was among those killed at Young’s Asian Massage, was one of nine siblings, his brother John Michels said.
“We did almost everything together,” said Mr. Michels, 52.
His brother, he said, was a businessman and a veteran of the U.S. Army infantry, where he served in the late 1980s. Paul Michels had been married for more than 20 years and was a Catholic as well as a strong political conservative, his brother said. He grew up in southwest Detroit and moved to Georgia about 25 years ago for work.
“My brother was a very hard-working, loving man,” Mr. Michels said.
A survivor: ‘I’ve been shot!’
Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, the man injured in the Acworth attack, was making his way to a money exchange business next door to Young’s Asian Massage when shots rang out, his wife, Flor Gonzalez, said. Moments later, he desperately reached for his cellphone.
“I’ve been shot!” Mr. Hernandez-Ortiz told his wife, she later recalled. “Please come.”
Ms. Gonzalez, 27, said she rushed to the hospital on Tuesday and was unable to see her 30-year-old husband until after midnight. Doctors told her that he had been wounded in his forehead, throat, lungs and stomach. He underwent surgery on Tuesday night.
“Doctors told me he had been very lucky, but that he was still very grave,” she said. “He was lucky that the bullet didn’t penetrate his brain.”
Ms. Gonzalez said she reminded her husband that next week the couple had been planning to celebrate their daughter’s 10th birthday, as a form of encouragement.
“I pleaded with him to keep fighting and that he has a family,” she said. “He loves his daughter a lot. He’s always been a dedicated father, very loving.”
Mr. Hernandez-Ortiz, who goes by Alex, moved to Georgia from Guatemala more than 10 years ago, his wife said, and worked as a mechanic. They had been married just as long.
“Many others died,” she said holding back tears, “and my heart breaks for them. Whoever did this is not human.”
Robert Aaron Long, the man charged with killing eight people in a rampage at Atlanta-area massage parlors, spent several months being treated for what he described as a sex addiction and regularly went to massage parlors for sex, one of his former roommates at a halfway house said.
Tyler Bayless, the former roommate, said in an interview that he lived with Mr. Long at the house in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell for about five months beginning in August 2019. Nearly once a month, Mr. Long, who was then 20, would admit to Mr. Bayless and others in the apartment that he had again relapsed by visiting a massage parlor to have sex with an employee, Mr. Bayless said.
He said Mr. Long’s admissions were always paired with discussions about his Christian faith and his relationship with God and his parents.
“It tore him up inside,” Mr. Bayless said.
Mr. Bayless, 35, said he did not want to diminish the pain that Asian-American people were feeling in the wake of the attack and was only describing his recollections of Mr. Long to give people more clarity about what he described as the “religious mania” of Mr. Long.
Mr. Long was a member of the Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga., where a pastor described him as one of the most committed members. A post on the church’s now-deleted Facebook page indicated that he was baptized as an adult in 2018.
During the manhunt on Tuesday evening, his parents recognized him in a surveillance image released by the police and called the authorities, leading to his capture, the police said. The authorities said he had been heading to Florida to commit similar violence at a business tied to the “porn industry.”
Mr. Bayless said Mr. Long told him he had tried repeatedly to stop himself from acting on his sexual urges: he used a flip phone so that he could not access pornography, his computer blocked pornographic websites and he had once even asked Mr. Bayless to take his computer from him.
Still, he did not stop visiting the spas. Mr. Long had told his roommates that his parents knew about his addiction and also suggested that he had lost a girlfriend because he did not stop visiting the massage parlors.
Once, after Mr. Long had relapsed in the fall of 2019, Mr. Bayless recalled that Mr. Long had called him into his room and asked him to take a knife from him, saying that he was worried he would hurt himself.
“I’ll never forget him looking at me and saying, ‘I’m falling out of God’s grace,’” Mr. Bayless said.
He said that Mr. Long had told the roommates, all of whom struggled with a form of addiction, that he had gone to spas run by people of Asian descent, and that other roommates in the halfway house asked him several times if that was intentional. He said he had chosen the businesses not because of the employees’ race, but because he thought the spas were safer than paying for sex elsewhere.
While at the halfway house, Mr. Long held a job in which he did some kind of work outdoors, Mr. Bayless said.
The two fell out of touch in early 2020, Mr. Bayless said, when Mr. Long moved from the halfway house for more intensive treatment at HopeQuest, a Christian addiction center.
“I think he just felt like he could not be trusted out there alone,” Mr. Bayless said.
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet in Atlanta on Friday with community leaders and state lawmakers from the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, and cancel a planned political event, the White House announced on Thursday.
“Given the tragedy in Georgia on Tuesday night, President Biden and Vice President Harris will postpone the evening political event in Georgia for a future date,” officials announced in a news release. “During their trip to Atlanta, they will instead meet with Asian-American leaders to discuss the ongoing attacks and threats against the community, meet with other local leaders, and also visit the Centers for Disease Control to receive an update from the team of health and medical experts helping lead the fight against the pandemic.”
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris had been scheduled to visit the city as part of a promotional tour for the $1.9 trillion economic relief package that Mr. Biden signed into law last week. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported details of the meeting with community leaders.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden ordered that flags outside the White House, other public buildings, military posts and naval stations in the District of Columbia and throughout the country and its territories be flown at half-staff to honor the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings.
The proclamation, which will run through sunset on Monday, also includes “all United States embassies, legations, consular offices, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations,” he said.
Mr. Biden said on Wednesday that “the question of motivation is still to be determined” in the Georgia shootings, while renewing his concerns over a recent surge in violence against Asian-Americans.
“Whatever the motivation here,” he said, “I know Asian-Americans are very concerned. Because as you know I have been speaking about the brutality against Asian-Americans for the last couple months, and I think it’s very, very troubling. But I am making no connection at this moment to the motivation of the killer. I’m waiting for an answer from — as the investigation proceeds — from the F.B.I. and from the Justice Department. And I’ll have more to say when the investigation is completed.”
In his first prime-time speech as president last week, marking a year of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Biden denounced “vicious hate crimes against Asian-Americans, who have been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated.”
“At this very moment, so many of them — our fellow Americans — they’re on the front lines of this pandemic, trying to save lives, and still they are forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America,” he said. “It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.”
Ms. Harris, the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold the office, expressed condolences for the families of the victims on Wednesday.
“This speaks to a larger issue, which is the issue of violence in our country and what we must do to never tolerate it and to always speak out against it,” Ms. Harris said, adding that the motive in the shooting was still unclear.
“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,” she added.
A sheriff’s deputy in Georgia who has been a main conduit for information about the deadly rampage at three Atlanta-area massage businesses faced criticism on Wednesday for saying that Tuesday “was a really bad day” for the suspect, and for anti-Asian Facebook posts that he made last year.
At a news conference, the deputy, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, discussed the frame of mind of the man charged with eight counts of murder in Tuesday’s shootings. He said that the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Ga., had understood the gravity of his actions when he was interviewed by investigators on Wednesday morning.
“He was pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope,” Captain Baker said. “Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”
The comments were widely panned on social media, with critics characterizing them as callous and pointing to Facebook posts from March 30 and April 2 of last year by Captain Baker, in which he promoted sales of an anti-Asian T-shirt. The shirts, echoing the rhetoric of President Donald J. Trump, referred to the coronavirus as an “imported virus from Chy-na.”
“Place your order while they last,” Captain Baker wrote at the time in one of the posts. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
“Cop says it’s not a hate crime, it’s him just having a bad day,” Ms. Cho wrote on Twitter. “Oh ok.. NO. It’s because you’re a racist also Jay Baker.”
The shootings in Atlanta, in which six women of Asian descent were killed, come amid a tortured public conversation over how to confront a rise in reports of violence against Asian-Americans, who have felt increasingly vulnerable with each new attack.
Many incidents have either not led to arrests or have not been charged as hate crimes, making it difficult to capture with reliable data the extent to which Asian-Americans are being targeted.
Investigators said it was too early to determine a motive in the Atlanta attacks. After a suspect, Robert Aaron Long, was arrested, he denied harboring a racial bias and told officials that he carried out the shootings as a form of vengeance for his “sexual addiction.”
The Atlanta shootings and other recent attacks have exposed difficult questions involved in proving a racist motive. Did the assaults just happen to involve Asian victims? Or did the attackers purposely single out Asians in an unspoken way that can never be presented as evidence in court?
Many Asian-Americans have been left wondering how much cultural stereotypes that cast them — especially women — as weak or submissive targets played a role.
As the debate over what legally qualifies as anti-Asian bias unfolds, the community is grappling with the reality that the law is simply not designed to account for many of the ways in which Asian-Americans experience racism.
Proving a racist motive can be particularly difficult with attacks against Asians, experts say. There is no widely recognized symbol of anti-Asian hate comparable to a noose or a swastika. Historically, many Asian crime victims around the country were small-business owners who were robbed, complicating the question of motive.
“There’s a recognizable prototype with anti-Black or anti-Semitic or anti-gay hate crime,” said Lu-in Wang, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “They’re often more clear-cut.”
Asian-Americans are sharply divided over the best measures to curb the violence, reflecting the wide ideological and generational differences within a group that encompasses dozens of ethnicities.
From New York to Washington, crowds gathered on Wednesday night to pay tribute to the victims of Tuesday’s shootings in the Atlanta area and stand in solidarity with Asian-Americans who have become increasingly targeted for violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
They brought candles and signs proclaiming “Asian Lives Matter” with them to a series of vigils, one night after a gunman shot and killed eight people at three metro Atlanta massage businesses. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent.
The outpouring of tributes recalled previous public showings of solemnity and outrage after mass shootings and bias attacks, though the authorities have said they were still determining whether the rampage constituted a hate crime.
A hate-crimes law that was passed in Georgia last year could come into play if the authorities determine that the suspect in this week’s deadly shootings at Atlanta-area massage parlors was motivated by racism or misogyny.
The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, told investigators that he was driven by what he has described as a sex addiction, not by racism. Six of the eight victims were of Asian descent.
Hate-crime charges for attacks against Asians are rare, as they require proof of a racist motive that can be difficult to establish. Mr. Long was initially charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.
But hate-crime charges could be added later under the new Georgia law, which passed with bipartisan support and was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, in June. Before that, Georgia was one of the few states without a hate-crime law.
The bill had been stalled for years but gained steam last summer after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was fatally shot near Brunswick, Ga., in February 2020. A graphic video of the shooting sparked widespread outrage, one of several killings that inspired nationwide protests over racial justice.
The law allows for extra penalties to be applied for crimes motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
Chuck Efstration, a Republican state representative who sponsored the hate crimes law, told WSB-TV in Atlanta that he believed it could apply in this case. Even if investigators can’t prove racism as the motivation, the law also covers gender, he pointed out. All but one of the eight people who were killed in Tuesday’s shootings were women.
“The great thing about the bill that we passed last year — it provides both sex and gender as protected classes in addition to race and other protected groups,” Mr. Efstration said.
At least eight police departments in major cities across the United States have announced plans to increase patrols in Asian communities after eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in a series of shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta this week.
On Tuesday, shortly after details of the deadly shootings made national headlines, the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism bureau said on Twitter that it would “be deploying assets to our great Asian communities across the city out of an abundance of caution.”
In Seattle, the Police Department said it would increase patrols and outreach to support the city’s Asian-American community.
Since then, at least six other police departments have promised increased security to residents and business owners.
Houston’s chief of police said on Wednesday that a virtual town-hall meeting would be organized to discuss concerns about crimes targeting the Asian community there and that the department would increase patrols in certain areas out of an “abundance of caution.”
In San Francisco, where there had been a rise an anti-Asian violence in recent weeks, including a fatal attack on an older Thai man, the police department said it was coordinating with the federal authorities and increasing its presence in Asian neighborhoods.
Gun control activists have seized upon a key element of Tuesday’s shooting rampage at spas in metro Atlanta: Because Georgia has no waiting period for gun sales, the suspect was allowed to buy a weapon on the same day the authorities say he killed eight people.
The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, legally bought a gun from Big Woods Goods, a gun shop and shooting range outside Atlanta, on Tuesday, according to a lawyer for the business. It was unclear whether the gun he bought was the 9-millimeter handgun the authorities recovered while arresting Mr. Long.
The gun shop’s lawyer said the business had complied with all laws and regulations and was cooperating with the authorities. But critics of Georgia’s gun laws said that had the state required Mr. Long, 21, of Woodstock, Ga., to wait several days before completing the purchase, as some other states require, the bloodshed might have been averted.
“In Georgia, it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to vote,” Matthew Wilson, a Democratic state representative from the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven, said on Twitter.
Igor Volsky, a co-founder and executive director of the group Guns Down America, said on Twitter that 10 states and the District of Columbia had waiting periods on gun purchases. He said they reduced gun homicides by about 17 percent, citing a 2017 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
To buy a firearm from a licensed gun dealer in Georgia, buyers must pass an instant background check. Gun control groups noted, however, that people who have a weapons carry license can avoid that background check.
The weapons carry licenses, which are valid for five years, require a background check and fingerprint to be kept on file with law enforcement. People with felony convictions or who have been recently discharged from a mental hospital or drug treatment facility are not eligible for the licenses, which can take up to 30 days to approve.
A representative for the Georgia Department of Public Safety said in an email on Wednesday night that the agency did not keep records of registered firearms.
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Long, who has a hunting license, had passed an instant background check or if he had a weapons carry license, or whether he had bought any firearms before Tuesday.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who are on a trip in East Asia, on Thursday condemned the deadly shootings in Atlanta and offered condolences to the victims’ families during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea.
Four of the women who were killed in the attacks were ethnic Koreans, according to an official from the South Korean Consulate in Atlanta, citing the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.
At the news conference, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong of South Korea thanked Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin and said his government was following the news from Atlanta closely.
The American officials also met with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who “expressed sadness over the shocking news of the Atlanta shooting and offered his condolences to the victims’ families,” said his spokesman, Kang Min-seok.
In South Korea, where gun ownership is strictly banned and crimes involving firearms are extremely rare, people have been mesmerized and concerned by a recent spate of shooting attacks in the United States, their country’s most important ally.
“The Atlanta shooting is so shocking,” a commentator said on Twitter. “You are free to own firearms in the United States! Is it a real developed country?”
South Koreans closely follow crimes against ethnic Koreans in the United States because many families have children or relatives studying or living there.
“I have a relative in Atlanta and the first thing I did when I heard the news was to call the relative to see if everything is OK,” another Twitter user said. “Hating China under the pretext of the coronavirus is leading to violence against all Asians there.”