Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have condemned a “heinous act of violence” during a trip to Atlanta, hoping to console a city and Asian American communities rocked by the attack this week that left eight people dead and one injured.
Delivering remarks on Friday evening at Emory University after a day spent meeting with Asian American community leaders and politicians, the president and vice-president spoke out forcefully against the shooting, in which six of the victims were women of Asian descent, as well as the rise in anti-Asian violence.
“Hate can have no safe harbor in America,” Biden said, calling on Americans to stand up to bigotry when they see it. “Our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit.”
Biden said “it was heart wrenching to listen to” Asian American state legislators and other community leaders discuss living in fear.
“Racism is real in America. And it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too,” said Harris, calling the shootings a “heinous act of violence”.
“The president and I will not be silent. We will not stand by. We will always speak out against violence, hate crimes and discrimination, wherever and whenever it occurs.
“Whatever the killer’s motive, these facts are clear,” Harris added: six of the eight people killed were of Asian descent, seven were women, and “the shootings took place in businesses owned by Asian Americans”.
The visit comes amid a nationwide surge in verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans. Biden on Friday expressed support for the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill that would strengthen the government’s reporting and response to hate crimes and provide resources to such communities.
Both Biden and Harris spoke to the rise in anti-Asian violence over the past year, with Biden alluding to the Donald Trump and other Republicans who have repeatedly demonized China for the coronavirus.
“Words have consequences,” Biden said. “Whatever the motivation [for the shootings] we know this: too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying. Waking up each morning the past year feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are stake. They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed.”
“It’s been a year of living in fear for their lives just to walk down their street. Grandparents afraid to leave their homes. Small businesses attacked.”
“Asian Americans have been attacked and scapegoated” throughout the pandemic, Harris said. “We’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans. People with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.”
The gunman targeted two massage parlors in Atlanta and another on the outskirts of the city. Robert Aaron Long, 21, has been charged with the murder of eight people and the assault of another.
The ethnicity of the victims has prompted a discussion about race and the treatment of Asian Americans, particularly women, in America. The Cherokee county sheriff’s office was heavily criticized after claiming the shootings appeared unrelated to race, and for stating that Long related that he was “having a bad day” when he opened fire at the three spas.
Four more victims were named on Friday. Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong Yue, 63, were shot and killed at two neighboring massage parlors in north-east Atlanta.
Delaina Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44, were killed at a parlor north-west of the city. Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz was also shot, but survived.
The day after the shootings the Cherokee county sheriff, Frank Reynolds, was the focus of scorn after he said Long “gave no indicators” that his crimes were racially motivated. “We asked him that specifically and the answer was no,” Reynolds said. The seeming acceptance of Long’s statement prompted widespread backlash, with Asian American leaders pointing to the rise in hate crimes against Asians and the stigmatization of Asian women.
“It looked like a hate crime to me,” Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor, told CNN on Thursday night. “This was targeted at Asian spas. Six of the women who were killed were Asian so it’s difficult to see it as anything but that.”
Bottoms said: “There are many areas of hate that are covered within the definition of a hate crime.”
In Atlanta, Asian Americans are still trying to come to terms with the shootings. Woojin Kang, a young man of Korean descent, stood on the sidewalk in front of Gold Spa on Thursday evening, the site of one of the shootings, holding a neon yellow sign that read “Asian women’s bodies have been slayed” above the hashtag “#StopAsianHate”.
“The biggest thing I’m encouraging in my community is to lament. That means to viciously cry out in any way that may manifest. But we need to cry out. We can’t be silent any more,” Kang said.
“People say Asians are the submissive ones, we’ll be quiet. No. We need to cry out, whatever that looks like. For me, that looked like coming out today with signs, standing on the street.”
For some, the speeches by the president and vice-president were a poignant symbol.
“The showing of compassion from the White House is a welcomed change, and something that is needed at this time,” said Kat Goduco, an Atlanta-based Filipino American photographer.
She said that the visit from Biden and Harris was comforting.
“Hopefully they can use their leadership to address the concerns of the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community that tend to be overlooked.”
Biden and Harris had already been scheduled to visit Atlanta, as part of a tour designed to laud the recently passed $1.9tn Covid-19 relief bill, but the focus of the visit was changed in the wake of the shootings.
During the visit, Biden also celebrated a milestone in the nation’s vaccine efforts, as his administration announced it had reached its goal of administering 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days of his presidency, six weeks ahead of schedule. Biden met with scientists at the CDC in Atlanta to express his gratitude for their work.
The shootings came just days after Biden had warned of the rise in violence against Americans of Asian descent. In a speech on 11 March – his first primetime address as president – Biden condemned anti-Asian racism and hate crimes.
“At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, they’re on the frontlines of this pandemic trying to save lives, and still, still they’re forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America,” Biden said during that address. “It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop.”
Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its partner advocacy groups since March 2020.