(Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta to support the Asian-American community after eight people were killed, six of them Asian women, at three local day spas this week.
The killings followed a year of mounting anti-Asian violence in the United States, which community leaders said was due to Asian Americans being blamed for the coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China in late 2019.
Crowds wearing masks, waving American flags, and carrying posters that read “We Are Not the Virus” and “Stop Asian Hate” stood outside the gold-domed Georgia State Capitol on Saturday.
“I want to make sure that the world and the people know that I am here and that I am visible,” said Georgia rallyer Sunghee Han.
“The women who perished … I see my family in them,” Timothy Phan of Port St. Lucie, Florida, who drove eight hours to attend, told CNN. “I feel way too often, we’re just being erased.”
Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats elected in January, led the protesters in a moment of silence for the victims, a video on Twitter showed.
“Let’s build a state and a nation where nobody lives in fear because of who he is or where he or his family are from,” said Senator Ossoff.
Georgia authorities have yet to determine what drove the suspect, a 21-year-old white man who was charged Tuesday with murder at spas in and around Atlanta. Robert Aaron Long told investigators that sex addiction led him to violence, but lawmakers and anti-racism advocates said anti-Asian bias may have been at least part of the motivation.
“I’m not interested in whether or not he had a bad day,” said Warnock, making a comment from a department spokesman for an Atlanta area sheriff about Long’s state of mind.
“Whichever way you choose to twist it, the facts will stay the same,” Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen told the crowd. “This was an attack on the Asian community.”
Some of the women killed were immigrants and mothers, described by family and friends as hardworking, loving, and loved.
Hyun Jung Grant was one of the dead at the Gold Spa in Atlanta. Her son Randy Park set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for himself and his brother, who are now alone in the US while the rest of their family is in South Korea.
“She was a single mother who dedicated her entire life to caring for my brother and me,” Park wrote.
The shootings sparked grief from the local Georgia community to the halls of the US Congress. Since Tuesday, mourners have stacked bouquets of flowers and signs, lit candles, and said prayers outside the spas where the victims were killed.
US lawmakers condemned the rise in anti-Asian violence in a Congressional hearing Thursday in which Democratic Representative Grace Meng, of Taiwanese descent, testified that the “community is bleeding.”
On Friday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with leaders of the Asian-American community in Georgia to express their condolences and to ask Americans to stand together against hatred.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Richard Chang)