President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta Friday to meet with Asian American leaders and activists following the series of shootings at three Georgia spas that left eight people dead Tuesday, most of them Asian women.
Both leaders spoke from Emory University after meeting with the group, which included Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta; Victoria Huynh, vice president of the Center for Pan Asian Community Services; and Bianca Jyotishi, Georgia’s organizing manager for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also attended the listening session alongside several other local lawmakers.
Biden opened his address by thanking the local leaders for sharing their experiences, saying it was “heart wrenching” to hear some of the stories of abuse and hate they had suffered over the past year alone.
The president honored the lives lost on that tragic day, saying of the victims: "Eight people killed. Seven women. Six were of Asian descent. All fellow Americans. Each one of them we mourn."
The Fulton County medical examiner released the names of the final four victims, who had previously been unidentified. Their names are Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Soon C. Park 74; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong A. Yue, 63.
Biden also stressed the need for Americans to come together against hatred, saying he believes there is more that unites the country than divides it.
“I believe with every fiber of my being there are simply some core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans,” he said. “One of them is standing together against hate, against racism — the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation."
Without naming the former president, Harris condemned people in positions of power for using rhetoric aimed at denigrating the Asian-American community.
“For the last year, we've had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans,” Harris said. “People with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.”
According to a new study released Thursday, the use of anti-Asian hashtags skyrocketed on Twitter last year in the days after then-President Donald Trump used the term “Chinese virus” for the first time in a tweet. According to Stop AAPI Hate, 3,795 hate incidents were reported to the advocacy group from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021 — more than 600 of them from March 19 to 25, 2020.
“We’re learning again what we've always known: words have consequences,” Biden said Friday, adding: “It’s the coronavirus, full stop.”
The president also called on Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill that would require the Department of Justice to conduct an expedited review of hate crimes spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
While officials have yet to announce a motive for the attack, police said Thursday that “nothing is off the table” in the investigation of the deadly shootings at two Atlanta massage businesses, including whether the slayings were a hate crime.
"Whatever the motivation, 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 at stake,” Biden said.
Biden and Harris were previously scheduled to travel to Atlanta to tout the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill as part of the administration's "Help is Here" tour, which talks about the benefits of the American Rescue Plan with the American people. The White House announced that their previously scheduled event was cancelled, but Biden pledged Friday evening that the rally would be rescheduled for a later date.
That event will be to tout the success of the American Rescue Plan, the passage of which Biden credited in part to Georgia’s two Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock.
"For those folks who either already have or will soon have $1400 in their pockets, you can thank Senators Warnock and Ossoff," Biden said. "But for their votes, it would not have happened."
“If anyone ever wondered if voting can change your country, Georgia just proved it can,” Biden, who met with both of Georgia's senators on his trip, said. Biden also met with voting rights advocate and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams during his visit.
The president and vice president made their first stop of the day at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, meeting with the team of health experts at the forefront of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
There, they were greeted by CDC director Rochelle Walensky, who opened the tour of the center by offering a tribute to the victims of the recent nearby shootings.
“Here at CDC we stand against hate, stigma, and discrimination,” she said. “We see it as our work every single day to combat racism and address the impact it has on health.”
Biden in turn stressed the important work the CDC does in tracking the impact of COVID-19 on minority communities, saying: “What you’re doing really makes a difference.”
"I came here to say thank you. You are changing lives. You are changing the psyche of the country,” Biden said to the assembled staff, adding: "We owe you a gigantic debt of gratitude and we will for a long, long time.”
The visit also marked the administration of the 100 millionth vaccine dose since Biden took office, to which Biden said: “Science is back.”
Earlier Friday, Biden stumbled when climbing the stairs to board Air Force One in Washington. The White House said he was “doing fine” and blamed windy conditions.
“It's pretty windy outside, it's very windy. I almost fell coming up the steps myself,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
“I know folks have seen that President Biden slipped on his way up the stairs to AF1, but I’m happy to report that he is just fine and did not even require any attention from the medical team who travels with him,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield tweeted later Friday. “Nothing more than a misstep on the stairs.”
Before leaving the White House, Biden went noted the actions he took in first week in the White House to combat anti-Asian American xenobphobia, including signing a memorandum "to condemn and combat racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States," as well as directing the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to "help lead our nation’s efforts to stop anti-Asian bias, xenophobia, and harassment."
"Now, it’s time for Congress to codify and expand upon these actions," Biden wrote. "Because every person in our nation deserves to live their lives with safety, dignity, and respect."
Hundreds of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders turned to social media to air their anger, sadness, fear, and hopelessness in the aftermath of the shootings. The hashtag #StopAsianHate was a top trending topic on Twitter hours after the shootings that happened Tuesday evening.
Many were also outraged that the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was not immediately charged with hate crimes. Police have not yet offered a motive in the shootings, but Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker told reporters that the suspect "apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate."
For the past several weeks, Asian Americans have questioned how to deal with a recent wave of assaults — many on the elderly — that have coincided with the pandemic. The virus was first identified in China, and former President Donald Trump and others have used racial terms to describe it.
Numerous Asian American organizations say Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened people to express anti-Asian or anti-immigrant views. Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian American Pacific Islanders, and its partner groups, since March 2020. Nationally, women reported hate crimes 2.3 times more than men.
"We’re becoming increasingly more visible and active in the political ecosystem," Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat who represents part of the growing, diversifying suburbs north of the city, said, but noted that: "What I’ve heard personally, and what I have felt, is that people sometimes don’t tend to listen to us."
Following the release Wednesday of a report showing a surge in white supremacist propaganda in 2020, the Anti-Defamation League told The Associated Press that a significant amount of the propaganda included anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The anti-hate group said 10% of propaganda descriptions in its inventory contained negative references to immigration, multiculturalism or diversity. The 522 physical flyers, stickers or banners included the use of words such as “invasion, deport, disease, illegal, infection and virus,” the ADL said.
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the U.S., and the deadliest since the August 2019 Dayton, Ohio, shooting that left nine people dead, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today, and Northeastern University.
Atlanta's mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, said that "we know that many of the victims, the majority of the victims, were Asian. We also know that this is an issue that's happening across the country. It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop."
President Joe Biden first weighed in on the deadly shooting Wednesday, saying that violence against Asian Americans is "very, very troubling," but would not comment on the motive of the killer as the investigation is still ongoing.
“The investigation is ongoing and the question of motivation is still to be determined," Biden said. "But whatever the motivation here, I know Asian Americans ... are very concerned, because as you know I have been speaking about the brutality against Asian Americans for the last couple of months and I think it is very, very troubling."
In a recent prime-time speech, he called violence against Asian Americans "un-American."
Vice President Kamala Harris shared her condolences Wednesday, adding that the tragedy "speaks to a larger issue, which is the issue of violence in our country and what we must do to never tolerate it and to always speak out against it."
Harris added that the White House "stands with" the Asian American community: "I do want to say to our Asian American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people. But knowing the increasing level of hate crime against our Asian American brothers and sisters, we also want to speak out in solidarity with them and acknowledge that none of us should ever be silent in the face of any form of hate."
"We're not yet clear about the motive. But I do want to say to our Asian-American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people," she added.
Former President Barack Obama said that "although the shooter’s motive is not yet clear, the identity of the victims underscores an alarming rise in anti-Asian violence that must end."
Asian American members of Congress spoke out at a House hearing on Thursday aimed at addressing violence against Asian Americans.
"Our community is bleeding. We've been in pain and for the past year we've been screaming out for help," New York Rep. Grace Meng said.
"Asian American community has reached a crisis point that cannot be ignored," Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, added. "What started out last January as just dirty looks and verbal assault have escalated to physical attacks and violence against innocent Asian Americans."
Many of the lawmakers criticized the rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chu claimed that many of these instances of violence were "stoked by the words of former President Donald Trump who sought to shift blame and anger away from his own flawed response to the pandemic."
"Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don't have to do it by putting a bull's-eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids," Rep. Meng said to Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy, adding: "This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community and to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice from us."
Roy's remarks were aimed at the Chinese government, calling them the "bad guys," adding: "And when we say things like that, and we're talking about that, we shouldn't be worried about having a committee of members of Congress policing our rhetoric because some evil-doers go engage in some evil activity as occurred in Atlanta, Georgia."
Roy also made a reference at the hearing that many lawmakers, including Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), called a reference to lynching when saying that the victims of the Georgia shootings "deserve justice."
In a passionate testimony, actor Daniel Dae Kim, said that "the moment is now" for the Asian American community to stand up and send a message: "You may consider us as statistically insignificant now, but one more fact that has no alternative is that we are the fastest growing racial demographic in the country. We are 23 million strong. We are united, and we are waking up."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.