HomeAsian AmericansOpEd: Atlanta puzzled by lack of hate crime charges in spa shooting

OpEd: Atlanta puzzled by lack of hate crime charges in spa shooting

By Adam Chau, AsAmNews Staff Writer

ATLANTA-It’s the first time I’ve flown since the pandemic. I wear a double mask–a medical grade mask underneath my cloth mask. Even though I’ve been fully vaccinated for over a month, I still want to be careful because I don’t know what I don’t know. 

Inside Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, I can’t help but notice all of the people whose masks are only covering their mouths and I think to myself that they just don’t want to wear their masks the right way–because the data and science is out there. 

A mask is only truly effective when it’s covering the mouth and the nose. 

I get up to use the bathroom, take my bags, and know that I won’t sit back in that area again.

After using the restroom, I find another seat away from my gate, and it’s not until I look up that I notice a woman sitting at a table twenty feet away in front of me, completely mask-less talking on the phone. I check my bags and get ready to leave, to find another place to sit.

But I can’t help but stare at her.

She stares back at me, continuing to talk to the person on the other end of the line.

It’s not a friendly face.

It’s that look that someone has right before they call me a Ch*nk. Or f*cking ch*nk. Or tell me to go eat some dog meat and get out of their country. 

I usually don’t mince words, but I also know that I’m not in the mood to have it out with someone in an airport at 5:00 in the morning.

So I choose my battle. 

I don’t want anything to derail my flight to Atlanta.

I’m going to Atlanta to pay my respects-to document the community response at each of the spas–their flowers, their messages, their voices. A community that geographically I am removed from, but with the current surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans, I am still connected.

During the flight the pilot has to make multiple calls for flyers to wear their masks correctly. 

I close my eyes, even though I can’t sleep. 

Even though it’s only a two hour flight, it feels like so much more. 

My body feels like it’s traveling back to Vietnam. 

After we land I take a cab to my hotel. I check-in and talk with the front desk person who’s South Asian, who sees I’m from Minnesota and tells me how nice everyone is to her in Minnesota when she visits. 

I want to tell her about the Derek Chauvin trial. That Minnesota is the state where we watched George Floyd died on the streets in South Minneapolis. Where Map Kong, a Cambodian American, was shot 15 times in the back in a suburb not really all that far from where Philando Castile, Fong Lee, and Jamar Clark die at the hands of police in the same state that prides itself on being “Minnesota Nice”.

But I nod instead, take the key, and go up to my room.

I set my bags down and start unpacking my equipment. I check everything over. 

I worry that something will malfunction. 

Did I bring enough batteries? Do I have the right lenses? Did I bring enough memory cards?

Should I even be here?

I feel restless. I feel tired. 

Should I even be here?

I lay down on the bed for a moment. My eyes slowly close…

I wake up a few hours later. 

I curse at myself. 

What are you still doing in your hotel? Move.

In front of the hotel I start plotting out the destinations on my phone. I light a cigarette and get ready to call a rideshare.  

As I start opening up my apps, I notice a young East Asian woman walking down the sidewalk. I approach her and tell her why I’m here and ask her if she wouldn’t mind being interviewed for the story I am writing.

She agrees and we do the interview in front of the courtyard outside.

By Adam Chau

Lisa is Taiwanese, studying at the nearby University. 

“I first saw the news and I was pretty surprised that this actually happened. I already heard about some Asian hate crimes since…the year…since COVID started, but it’s like the real first time ultraviolence happens and it’s so close to me, so actually it’s a little scary…I think it’s time that Asian [persons] should show out now since people should really recognize that, and maybe face that problem.

“Like we all know Black and White issues but we also know that Asian and Pacific Islanders, AAPI, they are already here but never been talked about, so it’s a good time to bring these up I think. I’m glad that people…really seeing these problems, and the internet and in the websites most people talk about how this shouldn’t be happening and how people should be standing up for AAPI, like proud Americans, and I hope these things are good signs for us.”

I want to talk to her more about the erasure of Asian American voices, sometimes lost in those discussions about civil rights, even though we were there and still are here, but instead, I ask what she thought about the shootings not being considered a hate crime, and if she thought it should be a hate crime.

She paused for a moment.

“It seems like when, when some…when two people can be easily identified, the targets, I think it can be considered like that….it looks like that.”

I asked her what she thought about her generation and people her age and what she felt was their response to the shootings.

“I think they are on my side, in support, classmates like me. In our college we already have a lot of Asian people and Pacific Islanders, and right after the shooting happened, our school sent out an e-mail, say they will support all the AAPI  students and that is pretty…heart warming and I haven’t been bullied by any of my classmates, and so…I hope most young people will think like me and my classmates.” 

I thank her, ask her if it’s okay to take her picture. She agrees and says that she hopes this will help.

After she leaves, I put in my destination to Gold Spa in my rideshare app.

15 minutes until pick up…

7 minutes until pick up…

The driver cancels the ride. The app says it’s finding a new driver. 

A new driver is found.

12 minutes until pick up…

10 minutes until pick up…

The driver cancels the ride. The app says it’s finding a new driver. 

A new driver is found.

20 minutes to pick up…

15 minutes to pick up…

The driver cancels the ride and I open up another rideshare app. 

A driver is found and is only 8 minutes away. 

This time I’m not canceled on. 

I get into the car and thank the driver because I wasn’t able to get another car to take me to my destination. The driver, a young Black woman from New York who moved down to Atlanta a year or so ago, tells me that this weekend is busy. I tell her why I’m here in Atlanta. She tells me the shooting is a horrible tragedy and that it should have never happened. 

We talk about communities of color and intersectionality.

When I arrive at Gold Spa I am struck by the location, the proximity to other businesses, and the outpouring of emotion from the community. 

I put my backpack down, light a candle and say a prayer. 

As I take pictures, documenting the voices by the community–the sadness, the anger, the messages from the AAPI community about Asian American women and White supremacy–I am again struck by the denseness of cards, the flowers, the arrangements and the messages in the small parking lot. 

I cross the street to the memorial at Aromatherapy Spa, a longer building with a much larger parking lot and start taking pictures. It’s later in the afternoon now, where the sun has stayed mostly behind the clouds, but peeks through occasionally.

As I’m there taking pictures at the memorial, another person pulls into the parking lot. She takes out her phone and starts taking pictures. I approach her and ask her if she would be okay speaking on the shootings for the story I’m writing. 

She agrees and we start the interview.

Talia is a dancer at the Club Platinum just up the street. She stops each day at both memorials and takes a picture. 

Identifying as Black and Bi-racial, originally from up North (she does not say where), she now lives in Atlanta.

“All of this was so devastating to us because this is our neighborhood and of course me working next door and knowing that everyone here and across the street, we were like a family, you know, and I feel as though…the way he come over and did this, it’s hurtful, it hurts. It feels like where is the security at, for the Asians? Where can they feel accepted here in Atlanta?

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair to anyone, you know, and that Gold Spa, I would go there all the time to get a foot massage when I got off work…and everyone went there, and just to know how devastating it was, it hurt all of us, it hurt us so much to the core, you know, and I put flowers on, I put flowers over there, and you know, it still, just to see it still hurts you know, and I just…”

She pauses for a moment catching her breath. 

“Justice, I hope justice comes out of it.”

I ask her if she felt the shootings should be classified as a hate crime.

“Absolutely. It’s definitely a hate crime. It’s definitely a hate crime for sure. Discrimination. It’s definitely a hate crime. I don’t care what’s going on in society–we’re all dealing with the same issues, but to hate on a nationality just to say you know what, oh let me go ahead…let me walk in as a pedestrian and go in here and shoot this place up because they’re Asian, or go to this place because they’re Asian. No. That’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

“Let me tell you something, he only targeted Asian. He only targeted this area and Buckhead, and it was Asians working there, and I feel like he only targeted this area, because he felt like it was beneficial to him. It made him feel like he was accomplishing something, you know, it made him feel like, you know what, if I’m going to target anywhere I’m going to come here and target and it’ll get somewhere…yes, definitely a hate crime.”

I thank her and we stay and talk for a moment more about how the shootings intertwine with the newly enacted state anti-voter laws pushed through by Governor Kemp. She talks briefly about the history of the state in regard to voting and says it feels like retaliation against marginalized communities, and communities of color. 

After she leaves I take more pictures, going back and forth between Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa. 

I see another couple paying their respects at the Aromatherapy memorial. I cross the street as I wanted to see if they would be okay sharing their thoughts on the shootings.

As I approach them, I notice the woman looks to be from a community of color, there with a man who appears to be White. 

As I approach them I see a smile on his face.

But a strange smile. One that almost looks like it can’t help but almost laugh at the Asian American with a camera around his neck. It’s a smile that I’ve seen before. 

Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel something visceral inside me, and I go with my gut, my sense of survival, and I dismiss him. 

I never look at him again.

Stephanye, who lives in the area a few minutes away and identifies as Hispanic/Latina, agrees to share her voice and her thoughts on the shooting.

“It’s a tragedy. I couldn’t believe it, because I drive through here all the time you know, I live just down the street, and I couldn’t believe it at first and it’s just, you know, there has to be a change…he was…I feel sorry for the families…and it’s really tore the community.”

I ask her if she thinks it should be a hate crime.

“I think so. I think it should be…I think he targeted them because they’re women and they’re Asian. And they’re…I think some say they’re sex workers. I don’t know if that had something to do with that but you know, especially I think since what happened with COVID and…there’s been a rise on Asian hate crimes just around America, just nationwide so it’s like a pattern. Because there’s a rise nationally I feel like that’s also connected.”

I pause for a moment. I want to ask another question, but I am stuck on the term sex work, and I wonder how many of the victims who had nothing to do with sex work, will be classified as sex workers. And then I think to myself that for some people, there is nothing wrong with working in the sex industry. That being a sex worker doesn’t mean their life should be taken. That being a sex worker doesn’t mean they can’t be good parents. That they shouldn’t be devalued any less than anyone else. That it doesn’t matter in this context.

I ask her if she can speak to her experiences on intersectionality between different local communities.

“Locally I think everyone’s bonded together. There’s been a lot of show of support. I was a part of Black Lives Matter taking part in the protests, and local groups in my city, and a lot of those people I follow have been sharing GoFundMe’s for the families, basically just like sending, sharing on their Instagram, like charities that help Asian communities fight racism. So it’s just a lot of sharing and being vocal on social media.”

Stephanye tells me she’s trying to do her part, sharing and sending links on social media, and donating to the GoFundMe’s.

She asks me who I’m writing for and pulls up the site on her phone. 

I thank her for her time and walk past the man she is with, again dismissing him, for better or for worse.

I see a few groups of people come and go at Gold Spa as I’m across the street at the Aromatherapy memorial. They are leaving flowers, paying their respects, and I see a group of Asian Americans, one younger man and two older elders on the sidewalk. I cross the street and I slowly approach them, asking them if they would be okay to share some of their thoughts on the shooting and if they wouldn’t mind being interviewed.

While the man politely declines for the group, he looks at me and says “Right now, it’s a hard time for the community.”

I nod and say thank you and that I understand.

I meet-up with a long-time friend Kat, originally from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area via Iowa,  now living in the Atlanta area. As a Korean American, and Korean Adoptee, she’s been going to some of the rallies and protests in the area, but this is the first time she’s been at the spas. 

As we walk around Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa we talk about different aspects of the shooting.

“So am I just afraid and don’t want to go out? No, but my kids have asked me not to go out by myself in public. They’ve both said please don’t go out in public by yourself. Please call us if you’re going to the store, or if you’re going here, or going there, and [one of my daughters] has done, more than once, you know…texted me and said ‘I’m serious. I’m really serious mom, please don’t go out, you know, without notifying us.'”

“She and I will walk on the BeltLine…and again, I’m not specifically afraid, but I find myself glancing over my shoulder, just kind of perusing, you know, and looking and just making sure, because most of these attacks, they come up from behind. And I feel like if someone was coming at me I’d have a pretty good chance as long as they didn’t have a weapon, but if they’re coming from behind…”

Our conversation turns to the hate crime aspect of the shootings.

“Here in Atlanta, the first headline I saw in the morning come through [from the local ABC affiliate] was on Facebook…and it says ‘Sheriff says not racially motivated’ and I was just like ‘Are you kidding me? Six Asian women? Are you also saying that women weren’t targeted as well?’ Cause that’s really…two plus two equals four, and if you can’t come up with that, you know…it’s just like…no.”

“With the spike in rise and violence against Asian Americans, it’s really sad that it took this violent of an act, to literally get the national media spotlight on the totality of the rise, and violence against Asians. Why does it take such tragic things for everybody to get it?” 

“And still some people don’t get it.” 

We leave, driving out to a Korean BBQ place for dinner, eating our food on the sidewalk, reminiscing about the old days, talking about the future. 

It’s a needed respite after spending the time at the memorials—the privilege to leave, to turn it off, in a way the victim’s families never can, I am keenly aware of.

By Adam Chau

The next day I travel up north towards Acworth, where Young’s Asian Massage is located. 

I get this feeling in my stomach the farther we drive out of the city. 

Even though I understand where I am on the map, how many miles away it is from Atlanta, it feels so far away and I can’t help but think to myself that there was so much time to turn around.

There was time to re-think. 

To not take more lives. 

While I try to re-route that feeling, talking with the driver, a young White man about our shared experience from the Midwest–him originally from Chicago, myself originally from Milwaukee–I still have this sinking feeling. 

We talk about the shootings. He tells me how sad he is about them and that it’s good people are coming down here to report on it. 

I ask him if he thinks it should be classified as a hate crime.

He says yes without hesitation.

Reaching Young’s Asian Massage, my stomach sinks even more, and even though I’ve asked the driver if it’s easy to get a ride back at least two or three times and he’s said yes, I don’t want to be here without a known way back. We talk and I make a change on the destination to head back into Atlanta, and he agrees to wait for me.

By Adam Chau

Young’s Asian Massage is located in a little strip mall adjacent to a small and somewhat rundown auto dealership, the strip mall on one side of the highway, another one on the other side of the highway.

I get out of the car and set my bag down. I light a candle and say a prayer. 

Somehow, this feels different to me than at the Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa memorials. I notice the signs and the bible. The memorials, while all entrenched in the sadness of the lives lost–at Young’s Asian Massage, there’s a noticeable absence of messages about Asian American racism, White supremacy, and stopping AAPI hate–and I find myself looking over my shoulder just a little more as I take pictures of the memorial.

While I want to see if some of the store owners would agree to an interview, I am still weary of my surroundings, and with the car waiting, I feel the need to go back into the city. 

Before I leave, I quickly stop at the Smoke South shop two stores down to get a pack of cigarettes, but after entering realize it is strictly a vape and CBD store. Since I’m already in the store, I ask the person working there, a younger White man, if he wouldn’t mind commenting on the shootings in regard to the surrounding community for the story I am writing.

He’s hesitant, but agrees, and speaks in a quiet tone.

“So, yeah, you know, the community as a whole was just kind of like brought down by it but I feel like here in particular it kind of brought us together a little bit, more than I had seen in many years that I lived here…but…that’s really all I have to say about it.”

When I ask him if he thought it should be a hate crime, he pauses for a moment. 

“In my opinion, yeah.”

I say thank you and leave the store.

I head back into Atlanta with that sinking feeling still in my stomach.

___

The next morning I leave for the airport to go back to Minneapolis/St. Paul. There’s a rally at the capitol organized by the local Asian American community that I want to attend later that day.

RELATED: In Pictures: Stop Asian hate rally in Minnesota state capitol

As I wait in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport, I find a spot in the rotunda to sit and start transcribing the interviews before my flight leaves.

There are plenty of open spots around me, placed in locations that allow for safe social distancing. As I look up to take a break from transcribing, I notice a White family that walks into the area. I look back down at my laptop and continue transcribing, but I feel them stop close to where I’m sitting, three other chairs around me, my bag on one, my laptop on the table. 

I don’t look up, but see their feet pointed in my direction. Standing in front of me, it feels like they are waiting for me to offer the space to them, but it’s early and there’s plenty of space and other tables and chairs to sit on, and I keep typing. 

Later I look up and I see the father with his face mask on only covering his mouth. 

I look over at his son, his mask on in the same way as his fathers and I think to myself how the views we have are learned and shaped by those around us.

I close my laptop and get ready to board my flight. 

Soon I’ll be back in St. Paul where I’ll take my daughters to the rally at the capitol.

___

This story is dedicated to the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings and the communities they belonged to, and the families that mourn them. 

Soon Chung Park (74)
Hyun Jung Grant (51)
Suncha Kim (69)
Yong Ae Yue (63)
Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzales (33)
Xiaojie Tan (49)
Daoyou Feng (44)
Paul Andre Michels (54)

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