Authorities charged the alleged gunman with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in relation to all three shootings, US media reported on Wednesday. He is expected to appear in court on Thursday.
Police told reporters the 21-year-old suspect told them he was “not racially motivated” but that he saw the establishments as “temptation” because of a sex addiction.
But Asian American leaders and experts say racism and stereotypes against Asian women played a role in the attacks, which have deepened an already widespread sense of fear within the community.
OUR WORST FEARS
“We cannot separate the race and the gender identity of the victims here in this case,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF).
Coimorrow says when she realised the shootings had taken place at spas, her first thought was that “there has been a mass killing of Asian American women”.
“It was almost like our worst fears had come to fruition,” she told Al Jazeera, pointing to a rise in anti-Asian racism and hate incidents that has disproportionately affected Asian-American women across the country.
“This is what we were afraid of, was that we weren’t going to get enough attention in time to avoid, to prevent, something like this from happening.”
Choimorrow says the attacks are being felt by Asian-American women “at a personal level that we’ve never experienced before and it’s because we’ve all lived and experienced racialised sexual harassment and violence that is directed at us”.
Race and gender identity played a role in the deadly violence, she adds, as did the fact that the women worked in the service industry. “They were completely invisibilised,” Choimorrow said.
Observers have pointed to hostile rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic, including by former US President Donald Trump, who labelled the coronavirus, the “China virus“, to explain the recent increase in anti-Asian hate incidents.
Asian Americans have reported being verbally harassed and physically assaulted, or having their businesses vandalised, among other instances over the past year.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Wednesday that regardless of the attacker’s’s motives, the attacks on Tuesday took place against that troubling backdrop.
“It is unacceptable. It is hateful and it has to stop,” she told reporters.
In a report published on Tuesday, the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center documented 3,795 hate incidents aimed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between March 19, 2020 and February 28 of this year.
But Borja tells Al Jazeera that anti-Asian racism and violence goes back much further, to the arrival of large numbers of Asian immigrants to the US in the 19th Century.
She points to racially motivated massacres of Chinese immigrants in California and other parts of the western US in the 1800s, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that blocked Chinese labourers from migrating to the US and the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“The current moment feels a lot like the backlash against Asian Americans in the 1980s when there was a decline of the American auto industry and competition from Japanese automakers. A lot of that was taken out on Asian Americans,” Borja added.
Meanwhile, Asian-American women leaders in Atlanta say they are still reeling from the attacks.
Stephanie Cho, the executive director of an advocacy group, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said the community is feeling “sadness, devastation, anger, fear and also resilience all at the same time”.
“It’s something that we are reeling from right now and we’re trying to come up with the best community response that really centres the needs of the victims and the victims’ families,” she said during a news conference on Wednesday evening.
“It has been a devastating day to say the least,” added Leng Leng Chancey, the Georgia-based executive director of 9to5, an organisation that supports women workers in the US.
“Our communities … here in Georgia and Atlanta [are] really grieving,” Chancey told reporters during the news conference. “I think the community is in shock. People are trying to process what happened, also trying to figure out what is the most important thing that we need to heal from this.”
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