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Mourning and organizing: 3 activists on the impact of the Atlanta spa shootings

We listened in on a conversation between Asian American grass-roots organizers Esther Kao, Elena Shih and Phi Nguyen

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To Esther Kao, it is telling that she and other members of the advocacy group Red Canary Song have grown accustomed to — even adept at — organizing vigils.

Back in 2018, a group of activists launched Red Canary Song on the anniversary of the death of Yang Song, a massage worker who fell to her death in 2017 after a police raid at the spa where she worked in Queens. Since then, the New York-based grassroots collective, for which Kao is a core organizer, has helped organize U.S. massage workers, as well as sex workers. The group is currently working on legislation that would decriminalize unlicensed massage work.

This work was thrust into the spotlight in the days following March 16, 2021, when a White gunman shot and killed eight people at three Asian-owned massage businesses in the Atlanta area. Six of the victims were Asian women who worked at the spas. Organizers at Red Canary Song mobilized to hold an emergency vigil on March 18.

The event was pulled together quickly because they had done it so many times before, said Kao, who can’t help but ask herself now: “What does it mean for so much of our organizing to be around deaths of people?”

A year after the Atlanta shootings, Asian women live in fear: ‘How are we all going to stay safe?’

Unlike previous incidents of violence against massage workers, the Atlanta attack made national headlines and rattled Asian communities around the world. Red Canary Song was slammed with media requests after it was reported that the suspect in the shootings at Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa had a sexual addiction and said he went on the shooting rampage to “punish” sex workers.

Sex worker advocates were immediately concerned about how the attack would be covered. Massage businesses, particularly those that employ people of Asian descent, are heavily stigmatized in large part because of their association with sex work. While many spa workers don’t engage in sex work, they are often perceived to be sex workers because of long-held stereotypes. (Red Canary Song does not draw a distinction between the two kinds of workers because they consider both to exist on a continuum of intimate and criminalized labor.)

In July, suspect Robert Aaron Long pleaded guilty to four murder charges in Cherokee County; a prosecutor there said investigators saw no evidence of racial bias. In September, he pleaded not guilty to four additional murder charges in Fulton County, where the prosecutor said she plans to seek a hate-crime sentence enhancement along with the death penalty.

On Wednesday morning, Kao was at Washington Square Park organizing a vigil exactly one year after the shootings to honor the eight victims: Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

Perspective | One year after the Atlanta spa shootings, we can’t forget the victims’ names

On the morning of the anniversary, we listened in on a conversation between Kao, her Red Canary Song co-organizer Elena Shih and Phi Nguyen, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. Shih is an assistant professor at Brown University, where she directs research on human trafficking, along with doing outreach work with Red Canary Song. Nguyen was among the local organizers who sprang into action in the hours and weeks following the shootings, including organizing resources for the survivors and victims’ families.

They discussed how the shootings have affected their lives and work, what has stayed with them in the year following the attack, and who they think is missing from the conversations about anti-Asian racism.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Elena Shih: As we commonly do, we pour grief into organizing, and I don’t know for how long that is sustainable. I don’t know how long that can carry you on before you collapse. But I think this year has been marked by that kind of life for me, trying to manically do things to not have to pause and reflect.

Esther Kao: Yeah, that’s absolutely how I feel. I couldn’t sleep last night, and I’m supposed to speak for this vigil. And so I wrote my speech at 2 a.m., and in a lot of ways my body has been in survival mode for this entire year, not just as an organizer, but as an Asian sex worker and as a woman.

I realized I made March really, really busy because I was doing some extra coping around the fact that it’s the anniversary, how hard it’s been and how much our lives have changed since then, but also how it hasn’t changed. How the violence has existed before and it has continued to exist. There’s more awareness around it, but the work is still the same.

Phi Nguyen: I was in that boat last weekend, because we did our remembrance on the 12th, so I can totally imagine the way that Esther and Elena are feeling right now. But this morning I have a little bit more, I think, space.

Elena Shih: I’m a little sad to say that the first time that I saw a news article about the shootings, I had been so desensitized to people caring about this that I did not think people would care. I never thought it would have gotten the national attention that it got.

What was most triggering about the visual of police tape around the facade of a massage business is that that is exactly what it looks like when police raid massage businesses. So it conjured for me exactly the kinds of newspaper reporting that we saw for the Robert Kraft incident at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Florida.

That is why it’s really difficult to distinguish, like, a singular act of white-supremacist violence from the different kinds of systemic state violence and also “rescue” violence that’s enacted on these communities.

Esther Kao: Something else I remember from that week, vividly, was massage workers saying that the press is flooding Chinatown and they don’t feel safe and there’s so many cameras in their faces. The fact they’re being commodified for newsreels or a headline; how dehumanizing that was to hear.

Elena Shih: Our outreach work, really, really, really had to step back once again to not have communities feel like we were one more of these journalists or “helpers” trying to settle in, because so many reporters descended on [the community].

We still get press requests into our inbox that just say: We need a survivor. It’s satiating the emotional needs of people who read newspapers, but does very little for the community.

Esther Kao: It brings me to this larger and really heartbreaking issue. The Atlanta shootings grew into this broader “stop Asian hate” movement, but sex workers and massage workers have been essentially erased.

Phi Nguyen: One of the things that also sticks out to me the week after the shootings, was that a lot of the reporters who were talking to us kept asking us what we thought of hate-crimes legislation and pushing that as the answer to all of this. And our organization does not support or advocate for hate-crimes legislation.

It was a lot of trying to push back against that and trying to do it in a way where we could communicate effectively why we didn’t think hate-crimes legislation is what will ultimately make anybody safer in the long run.

The day before the Atlanta shootings, the Biden administration deported 33 Vietnamese refugees to Vietnam. It got really no attention and our communities were grieving that. And then the shootings happened.

There was this really quick need to pivot from one form of violence and one thing that we were grieving to another incident that we needed to wrap our care around and then grieve, too.

Elena Shih: The state violence reframe really does encapsulate the shared experiences of migrants, refugees, low-wage workers, sex workers, undocumented people.

It’s easy to cast aside a lone gunman with sex addiction — that is certainly a figure that you can hold at arm’s distance — as opposed to considering the broader calls for worker occupational health and safety; or the labor rights of massage workers so that they feel comfortable making claims to demand wage theft; or confront the violence that they may experience in the workplace by the hands of both clients or police, as we’ve heard over and over again from workers.

These systemic issues and demands to support safer workplaces for all on the massage worker issue are much less interesting than, say, to condemn a single person.

Phi Nguyen: Systemic change is hard and it takes a long time. When people are in fear, there’s a sort of knee-jerk reaction to come up with the quickest solution. And it’s hard to not have a solution. And so people get stuck in a cycle of not reimagining what other solutions can be.

When the criminal legal system and police have been framed as things that have existed in the name of public safety, people don’t necessarily challenge that.

I think activists have done really powerful work in surfacing and visibilizing interpersonal acts of anti-Asian violence, but maybe one of the unintended consequences of the slogan “stop Asian hate” is there’s a hyper-focus on that. That can sort of erase systemic and structural violence.

Esther Kao: Something that hasn’t been talked about as much is destigmatizing [massage] work. Even just saying you’re a massage worker, it’s such an overwhelming identity that it makes you one-dimensional, and people tend to pigeonhole you.

I didn’t come out as a sex worker before for that reason. It felt like anything I say will be just so overwhelmed by this identity, even though it’s just a type of work that I do.

I’m really looking forward to the art installation at this vigil, because we have massage workers who made gorgeous art pieces that will be displayed, and some of our beloved massage workers’ food, to humanize us and help people see us beyond the work.

Elena Shih: One of the [Red Canary Song] members, Yves Tong Nguyen, is always having us think through how the people who died in Atlanta are not martyrs for this cause; that there are people dying constantly who are not seen. And how do you engage in the longevity of struggle and to know that that struggle is very, very brutally mundane?

And I say mundane, because I think that it is the sensationalism of this act that has drawn so many people in.

Phi Nguyen: There’s a desire to sort of thread the needle between different struggles and focus on the things that unify different experiences. But I think sometimes what happens there is that we then don’t recognize those who are directly impacted and all of their identities and all of the different factors at play that contributed to these specific acts of violence.

I also read a Vanity Fair article yesterday that was written about the victims and the survivors. And to me, that was the best piece that I’ve read, that really tied together a lot of things. It was so contextualized in a way that so much reporting has not been.

That’s kind of one of the things that is missing in how we talk about the Atlanta shootings, separate and apart from how we talk about some of the acts of violence that we see elsewhere. They’re connected, but they’re specific in a way, too.

Esther Kao: It was that article that actually got me to grieve and mourn and process after one year of working nonstop.

There was one part where it said the shooting started after one of the workers asked for a tip, and [Long] refused. And that’s when he went to the bathroom and came out and started shooting people.

The fact that maybe the motivation for him was because he didn’t think these women deserve money — “I don’t think these women deserve to live and have to be seen for their labor” — I think that says a lot about America.