Biden and Harris condemn anti-Asian violence as investigation into Atlanta shootings continues

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President Joe Biden on Friday forcefully condemned anti-Asian violence in response to the shootings earlier this week at three Atlanta-area spas, but did not go so far as to label the attacks a hate crime.

"Whatever the motivation, we know this," Biden said about the attacks, which left eight dead, including six Asian women. "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. They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated, harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed."

Speaking at Emory University in Atlanta, Biden addressed the Tuesday shootings that followed recent national reckonings over race, gender and gun violence. During his remarks, he called for the country to come together after the attacks by "standing together against hate, against racism, the ugly poison that’s long haunted and plagued our nation."

Biden also reiterated the call he made earlier in the day for Congress to “swiftly pass” the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, introduced by members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who introduced Biden, emphasized the need to speak out against discrimination "wherever and whenever it occurs."

"Everyone has the right to go to work, to go to school, to walk down the street and be safe, and also the right to be recognized as an American, not as the other, not as them, but as us," said Harris, the nation’s first South Asian American vice president. "A harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us."

To the families of the victims, Biden offered his sympathies: "A day will come when their memory brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye, as unbelievable as that is now," he said. "It will take a while, but I promise you it will come. And when it does, that’s the day you know you’re going to make it."

The remarks from Biden and Harris were made in lieu of an original plan to hold a rally touting the recently passed Covid relief package, which was scrapped after Tuesday’s events.

As part of their visit to Georgia’s capital city, Biden and Harris spoke with legislators and advocates from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the aftermath of the massacre, a meeting that he described as "heart wrenching."

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who also participated, told MSNBC that the meeting was "a combination of sadness, frustration, tangible recommendations and then righteous indignation." She added that she felt everyone left the meeting with "marching orders" for how to support Asian American communities.

Although police are still looking into motive, Bottoms said she believes the attacks were a hate crime, whether based on race or gender.

"I will be very surprised if he’s not charged with a hate crime, but I can’t speak to what prosecutors will do in that regard," she said after Biden’s address.

Prior to the afternoon meeting, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, whose district encompasses Atlanta, had called on the Justice Department to investigate the shootings as a hate crime.

The attacks Tuesday on Young’s Asian Massage Parlor, Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa represented the most violent episode of a year marked by anti-Asian discrimination, and recent days have seen a contentious national debate over the suspect’s motivation.

Nguyen, however, was unequivocal in describing the spate of shootings as the result of racial and gender animus, citing the text of Georgia’s hate crime law passed last summer after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in Brunswick, Ga., was shot and killed by a white man who pursued him.

“We have the facts. We know that he targeted three Asian-owned businesses,” Nguyen told CNN of the suspect, a 21-year-old white man. “He drove 40 minutes between those businesses, and along the way — and we know this area well — there are other adult entertainment businesses that are Black and white.”

But the suspect “chose not to go to any of them,” Nguyen said. “He specifically chose these … businesses. And as a result, six Asian women are dead. Under the hate crimes law, both from a racial and a gender perspective, I believe it is a hate crime.”

Asked whether the White House should refer to the shootings as such, Nguyen said: “I believe they ought to investigate it as a hate crime. And they ought to listen to the Asian people living in Georgia and to the community as a whole, because we are the ones asking this to be considered a hate crime and to be investigated as one.”

Local and federal law enforcement officials have come under intense criticism in recent days for their assessments of the individual in custody and his potential motive. On Wednesday, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office repeated the suspect’s claim that his crimes were not related to race.

Baker told reporters that the suspect suffered from “what he considers a sex addiction,” and that the suspect viewed the spas as a “temptation” that he “wanted to eliminate.” He also said the suspect had “a really bad day” and that “this is what he did.”

News outlets reported later Wednesday that Baker himself had shared racist images on Facebook last year, and he was replaced Thursday as a spokesperson for the investigation.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), who represents the district where the shooting took place, told POLITICO he spoke to the investigating sheriff Wednesday and conveyed that law enforcement believed the suspect’s stated motive.

“[The sheriff] felt — by the cooperation of the shooter and that he admitted … why he did it — they didn’t feel that it was racially motivated,” Loudermilk said. “Definitely there has been an increase of attacks against Asian Americans across the nation, but it doesn’t look like this is related to that. This is just a mental health issue. It’s tragic.”

Loudermilk went on to argue that law enforcement “coming out and telling the truth” should be “healing to our nation. It should be a relief to say, ‘Good, I’m glad that this wasn’t racially motivated.’ But we’re taking the opposite approach and saying, ‘Because I want it to be, then there’s something wrong with the sheriff.’”

At his own news conference Thursday, Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton said his office’s probe “is looking at everything, so nothing is off the table for our investigation.” FBI Director Christopher Wray also weighed in, saying in an interview that “it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated.”

Addressing Wray’s remarks, Nguyen said Friday that when law enforcement thinks “about whether or not this crime is racially motivated, you cannot simply take the word of the suspect in custody.”

“You have to take into the context the history of Asians living in this country, as well as present day,” she said. “And one of those things that is being underlooked is the fact that you cannot divorce racism and gender-based violence and misogyny and the hypersexualization of Asian women [and] the sexual exploitation of Asian women. Those are all very relevant in this case.”

Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, also broke with the FBI director. “I think that they’re still investigating, and I am not law enforcement, so I don’t know how they’re doing it. But I do feel like it is racially motivated, as does most of the country,” she told CNN.

As for a potential hate crime designation, Cho said: “I think that that’s a prosecutory term. But in terms of, is it racially motivated? Yes, it is. Was it targeting particularly Asian American women? Yes. That is definitely a fact.”

During the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, Cho read statements from the families of the victims in a "very emotional" and "very somber" moment, she told CNN in a later interview. One of the things Biden spoke about, she said, was the need to speak out against anti-Asian rhetoric.

"It seems like he’s trying to take it very seriously, but like I said, I want to see more actions, not just when it’s in a crisis situation," she said.

Similar acts of discrimination and violence against Asian Americans have proliferated across the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 3,800 hate incidents reported between March 2020 and February 2021, according to the Stop AAPI Hate nonprofit organization.

Activists, lawmakers and public health experts have tied the disturbing trend at least in part to former President Donald Trump’s repeated use of ethnic identifiers when referring to Covid-19 — terms which have been echoed by most Republican officials and conservative commentators.

In his remarks, Biden condemned these characterizations of the coronavirus, saying that "words have consequences."

"It’s the coronavirus, full stop," he said.

The World Health Organization first warned against using such language to describe the coronavirus last year, saying that doing so could lead to increased incidents of racial profiling. A study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than half of all tweets with the hashtag #chinesevirus posted from March 9-23, 2020 — the week before and the week after Trump tweeted the phrase — showed anti-Asian sentiment.

Asked what she hoped to hear from Biden and Harris during their visit to Atlanta, Cho said Friday that they should be as “consistent in their messaging” on the coronavirus as Trump, who “consistently berated and harassed the Asian American community in his entire presidency.”

“In the same way that former President Trump consistently called it the ‘China flu,’ the ‘Wuhan flu,’ that actually is something that I want [the] Biden and Harris administration to do differently,” she said. “Consistently come out and negate that. Consistently come out in favor of the Asian American community. And create policies that really make a difference.”

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