As word spread Tuesday night that a White man had gunned down six women of Asian descent at three spas in the Atlanta area, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) tweeted out the names of every Republican House member who had voted “nay” on her resolution to curb anti-Asian hate crimes. “There is blood on their hands,” she wrote on Twitter.
“I put forth that resolution last year not for any partisan purpose of attacking anyone,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “I wanted to show the Asian community that Congress, your leaders on both sides of the aisle, condemn this sort of bigotry. I never expected it to be partisan at all.”
The rhetoric the legislation tried to squelch, she said, “certainly contributes to these sort of violent actions.”
The massacre that left eight people dead immediately sparked a political fight Wednesday, with Meng and some other Democrats viewing the tragedy as an outgrowth of virulent anti-Asian rhetoric and hate crimes tied to the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China.
Authorities investigating the spasm of violence in Georgia say early signs pointed to a disturbed suspect who claimed he was a sex addict and who saw the spas as “a source of temptation that needed to be eliminated.” Authorities said it was too early to know whether the killings were also racially motivated.
But many advocates and Democratic lawmakers said it was hard to separate Tuesday’s killings from the recent increase in anti-Asian animus, including rhetoric from President Donald Trump.
“Asian Americans, including people like me who are born and raised here, we have always been made to feel like we are foreigners and not true Americans,” Meng said. “There’s already a stigma about Asian Americans and if you add onto that a president with a worldwide platform who has blamed us for the coronavirus, I would say that laid a foundation for what happened Tuesday.”
While many Democrats were quick to condemn the shooting and link it to Trump’s rhetoric, Republicans remained mostly quiet. Top House and Senate GOP leaders did not release statements or tweet about the killings Wednesday, with House leaders choosing to keep the focus on the immigration battle and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivering criticism of President Biden’s China policies.
The only two Republican Asian American members of Congress, Reps. Michelle Steel and Young Kim of California, expressed their ongoing concern over the rise of attacks against members of their own community.
“My heart breaks to hear of the tragic events in Atlanta. I’m praying for the victims & their loved ones,” Kim wrote on Twitter. “While we wait to learn more, I stand with the AAPI community today & always as we witness more hate & attacks. This is not what we stand for.”
Steel said the Atlanta case “only adds to a long list of recent, violent crimes against our Asian American and Pacific Islander community. . . . This has to stop. We have to do everything we can to put an end to hate and help our neighbors, especially as we work together to defeat the covid-19 pandemic.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted Wednesday that Asian Americans “have nothing to do with a repressive Communist Party or with a virus that originated 7000 miles away.”
“Anyone without enough common sense to understand that is an idiot,” he wrote.
Since the virus spread, Asian Americans, including in the Atlanta area, have faced escalating harassment and verbal abuse. Words of derision have come from random people on social media or the street, but also from the nation’s highest office. Trump repeatedly blamed China for unleashing the virus on the world — and tanking the United States’ economy. During the tirades, Trump repeatedly used racially insensitive names like “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu.”
On Tuesday, during a Fox News appearance, Trump referred to “the China virus,” as he often has during the pandemic.
“We were the envy of the world and then when we got hit by the — as I call it the China virus, covid — it obviously went down with every other economy,” Trump said during an interview with Fox News host Maria Bartiromo.
In the Atlanta area, where the killings occurred, plaques that read “Wuhan plague” have appeared on buildings. An Asian American schoolteacher and her husband found a slur spray-painted on the side of their Nissan Altima after leaving a movie theater. An Asian American man on his way to a boba tea shop was told, “Thanks for covid.”
Across the nation, authorities have investigated roughly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian abuse, advocates say. For people who have spent the last year highlighting such acts, Tuesday’s deaths represented a violent escalation.
Police arrested Robert Aaron Long, 21, after a brief manhunt and said he is the suspect in all eight deaths. Authorities said Long, who is White, took responsibility and they believe he acted alone. He has been charged with murder.
At a news conference, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said Long told investigators the killings weren’t racially motivated, and that he claimed to be a sex addict who had frequented some of the spas in the past. Baker stressed that the assertions were just the initial things Long told investigators and that “we still have a lot of things to process.”
One of those things is what role, if any, anti-Asian sentiment may have played in the killings.
Lawmakers in Washington broadly condemned the killings, including many who said slurs and invectives directed at Asian Americans had laid the foundation for physical attacks.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tweeted that “Words matter. Xenophobia has deadly consequences. We must #StopAsianHate now.”
“People who are loose in their language in this time of covid-19 have made some racial slurs in the process that have cost many people dearly,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “We need to be helpful to this population and to be knowledgeable about what they’re facing and to make it clear this is absolutely unacceptable.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), said whatever the motive for the crime, it’s a sign that the nation’s leaders have failed to protect some of society’s most vulnerable citizens in a year where hateful rhetoric and action has increased.
Chu added during an interview that, though Trump is out of office, other Republicans have still hesitated to denounce his rhetoric, including many who voted against Meng’s resolution about hate speech.
“You would have thought that would have been a no-brainer,” Chu said. “Do you actually support anti-Asian hate crimes? That’s really what [a nay vote] implies.
“I think that they were irresponsible and derelict in their duty, but very obviously they were doing that because they followed Donald Trump and his rhetoric,” Chu said.
Both Chu and Meng will take part in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on anti-Asian hate speech scheduled for Thursday morning — around the same time that Long will be arraigned.
Advocates are also trying to make March 26 a day where victims and concerned citizens can speak out against anti-Asian American hate speech.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said the city is trying to speed resources to AAPI communities to address the uptick in hate speech and stem fears about potential violence.
“We’re hearing the stories,” she said. “We’re seeing them on television. We’re seeing them on social media, so we are certainly aware.”