2021 Atlanta spa shootings: Victims’ families grieve, heal year after Robert Aaron Long shooting spree

ATLANTA – Robert Peterson struggled for months to stop thinking about the day his mother and seven other people, mostly Asian women, were was shot and killed last year in an Atlanta spa.

He found some comfort living in Norcross, Georgia, in the home that Yong Ae Yue’s mother worked hard to acquire and in the memories of the many nights they played poker together, but Peterson says he can not let others forget that His family and the Asian The American community sees the March 16, 2021 killings as hate crimes.

The gunman may not have said racist slanders loudly during the shooting spree, but his actions “are the representative of his misogyny, his racism,” said Peterson, 39.

Following the mass shooting, the gunman pleaded guilty to four counts of murder in Cherokee County and was sentenced to life in prison. However, he still faces 19 additional charges in nearby Fulton County, where prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty for hate crimes targeting the sex and race of the victims.

Ignoring this racial aspect and the long-term objectification of Asian women has intensified the trauma of losing his mother and fueling his fight for justice, Peterson told CNN.

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The spa killings sparked a debate about racism in the Asian community in the United States, but reports of Asians being attacked and harassed had already risen since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year later, not much has changed in America, according to supporters, survivors of the violence and their families. The alleged Atlanta gunman has not been tried in a state or federal court for hate crime, anti-Asian racism continues to be reported, and provocations against the Asian-American community continue to exist.

“We see swastika or Nazi symbols and salutes. There is nothing in the Asian American community that unites everyone as something that targets, intimidates or seeks to harm the AAPI community,” said Byung “BJay” Pak, a former US lawyer. in Atlanta representing Peterson.

First test of hate crime law in Georgia

Yue, 63, and the other seven victims, Daoyou Feng, 44. Paul Michels, 54; Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Delaina Yaun, 33; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51, were killed at three Atlanta spas.

Robert Aaron Long, then a 21-year-old suspect in the shootings, told authorities he was upset by what he described as a sex addiction. His claim sparked a debate about the motive behind the attack, as well as numerous calls in support of hate crime – a trend that continues today.

“We have to tell and count the whole truth because it is not here with us today: systemic racism, white supremacy, gender-based violence, the ongoing impact of war, both here and in Asia,” said Phi Nguyen. The executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta, said about the victims during a memorial service on Saturday in Brookhaven, a suburb of Atlanta.

The Fulton County Attorney’s Office did not respond to numerous requests for comment, but a preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 19 in Long’s case.

The case is expected to be the first test of the hate crime law passed by the Georgian legislature after the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. The law allows prosecutors to classify existing charges as hate crime prior to trial. A jury should first determine the guilt and then examine whether it is a hate crime.

Pak, who also represents Sundja Kim’s family, said Long’s case would not change Long’s possible imprisonment or death sentence, but would be symbolically significant.

“My wish for our clients is to spend their day in court and receive an answer to a situation that is simply incomprehensible in order to try to put some logic into it and see justice being done,” Pak said.

So far, federal authorities have not filed hate crimes against Long. A Justice Department spokesman told CNN that the federal investigation into the Atlanta spa shootings remains open as officials continue to monitor state affairs.

Judy Chu, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Asia-Pacific US Congress who had previously worried that Long would not be charged with hate crime, told CNN she was encouraged by the response from state and federal officials. Fulton County prosecutors are treating the case as a hate crime, and the Department of Justice “has committed to reviewing the evidence to see if it meets the criteria for a federal hate crime,” Chu said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that these killings were deliberate acts of hatred,” Chu said in a statement.

“I miss the little things”

As Peterson and his family await trial, he tries not to feel the loss of his mother in every corner of their home, especially in the kitchen, where he proudly holds the ceramic bowls and pots his mother taught him to cook. his favorite dish, Kimchi-jigae, a kind of traditional stew.

“I miss the little things. I miss having to change the light bulb, update her computer, go to the store to pick up cat litter, or carry a 24-‘s case with water,” Peterson said. “You know, these are the things I wish he could ask me today.”

Yue was a traditional Korean woman, a mother who taught her interracial sons to fully embrace their Asian heritage and do a good job, she says. She understood the outrage and pain of the killing of black men and women by police, says Peterson, just as she was appalled by the rise of anti-Asian attacks at the start of the pandemic.

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“He loved America, he loves Georgia, but he has not lost, as most (Asian) women in America feel today, the threat of violence. It is a permanent thing that hovers over their lives in their daily activities,” she said.

If he could talk to her today, Peterson said his mother would be proud to be willing to talk about her and the other victims.

More Asian Americans are being attacked

The year after the Atlanta spa shootings, violent attacks and harassment left Asian Americans across the country frightened and physically injured.

One of them is Hoa Nguyen, a 68-year-old grandmother in Brooklyn who was punched in the face by a stranger on January 19 while going to the market.

“I turned my head to the right and he punched me two more times behind my ear on the left side. Then he came back to walk the road he had come,” Nguyen said.

While Nguyen, a Vietnamese woman, was not seriously injured, she no longer feels safe walking the streets as before, nor does she take the bus or train to visit her daughter in Brooklyn’s Dabo neighborhood.

“We never had to look over my shoulder while walking in the city and now, every time I walk outside, I look over my shoulder,” said Nguyen’s son, 42-year-old Khanh Nguyen.

The suspect, Mercel Jackson, 51, was arrested and charged with assault, harassment and hate crimes, according to the Brooklyn Prosecutor’s Office. He told police he “did not like the Chinese appearance”, believed that “the Chinese look like measles” and “did not like the Chinese looking at him”, according to court documents.

The attack led neighbors and several nonprofits in New York to offer the Nguyen family their emotional and legal support, Khanh Nguyen said. Unfortunately, it sparked another kind of anti-Asian hatred for the family.

“Nobody goes out on the streets and yells at us, but despite the sadness of these stories, you still have people going to the internet and launching hatred against us,” he said.

In New York alone, there were 131 incidents that were confirmed to be motivated by Asian bias last year, according to data from the NYPD. This is a significant increase from 27 incidents reported in 2020 and one in 2019.

The full extent of the violence across the country is unclear. Statistics from the Stop AAPI Hate defense team collected after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic suggest that there have been more than 10,000 anti-Asian hate incidents in the US, but the agency’s data are self-reported and unverified. independently.

But even when these incidents are reported, a hate crime conviction is a challenge, said Jennifer Wu, a lawyer representing the Nguyens and the family of GuiYing Ma, a 61-year-old woman who was attacked in Queens by a man with a rock. and who died last month.

In New York, which has a law to increase sanctions for hate crimes, as in Georgia, the statute requires that bias be the “total or substantive factor” that drives an attack.

This is a high level, Wu says, because it “requires getting into the perpetrator’s mind” and there may be more than one contributing factor, Wu says.

“The way the law deals with hate crimes is to force people to choose a reason why hate crime is committed,” Wu said. “The law is not structured in a way that recognizes the reality that the reason we love and hate people is for many reasons and not for one reason only.”

For Peterson, who lost his mother in a shooting at an Atlanta spa, there was no single reason why the victims were targeted. His mother was not just in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said. Peterson believes the suspect had in mind his racial identity, his gender, his place of work and what it represented for him.

“She was not just Asian and she was not just a woman. These two are inextricably linked. They are both at the same time and you can not separate them from each other,” Peterson said.

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