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Stop Asian Hate: Connie Wun on Atlanta Spa Killings, Gender Violence & Spike in Anti-Asian Attacks

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Deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors that left eight people dead have stoked outrage and renewed fears about rising anti-Asian racism in the United States, which has already seen a rise in violence directed at Asian Americans during the pandemic. Police say the shooting suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, denies a racial motive behind the killings, blaming “sex addiction” and a “really bad day” instead, but six of the eight victims are women of Asian descent. Connie Wun, co-founder of AAPI Women Lead and a researcher on violence against girls of color, says it’s impossible to “disconnect race from sexism” in the Atlanta killings. “There’s a long-standing history around the hypersexualization, the ongoing sexual violence against Asian women. This has happened across the globe,” Wun says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The suspected gunman in three attacks on Atlanta-area spas Tuesday has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. Seven of the eight victims were women, six of them Asian. The suspect is a 21-year-old white man. Four of the victims’ names have been released: Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng. The attacks began around 5 p.m. Tuesday, when five people were shot at Young’s Asian Massage Parlor in a strip mall north of Atlanta. In a news conference Wednesday, Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department spoke to reporters about the suspect, Robert Aaron Long.

CAPT. JAY BAKER: He claims that these — and as the chief said, this is still early, but he does claim that it was not racially motivated. He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to — to go to these places and — and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

REPORTER: Sheriff, did you have a sense that he understood the gravity of what he did?

CAPT. JAY BAKER: When I — when we – I spoke with investigators. They interviewed him this morning, and they got that impression, that, yes, he understood the gravity of it. And he was pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope. And yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.

AMY GOODMAN: “Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” said Captain Baker. His comments and the decision by law enforcement authorities to focus on Long’s narrative drew widespread criticism. After reviewing Baker’s social media accounts, BuzzFeed News reported on an April 2020 Facebook post in which Baker shared an image of T-shirts with logos that look the Corona beer label and the racist slogan, quote, “Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.” Captain Baker wrote on the post, quote, “Love my shirt! Get yours while they last,” unquote.

California Democratic Congressmember Ted Lieu tweeted, quote, “If the … Facebook post is accurate, and based on today’s press conference, I would not have confidence in the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office to conduct a fair investigation that respected the Asian victims. I urge the @FBI to conduct its own independent investigation,” Congressman Lieu said.

This comes as a report published Tuesday by the organization Stop AAPI Hate documented nearly 3,800 reported hate incidents that targeted Asian Americans in the past year, and showed women reported attacks at more than twice the rate of men.

Since Tuesday’s attack, memorials for the victims have been held nationwide and at some of the Atlanta-area spas where they were killed. This is Atlanta resident Fred Morris, who works near one of the spas.

FRED MORRIS: Sad. It’s saddening. I mean, this whole past year and a half, just with everything that’s happened in this country, from Black Lives Matter to all this stuff happening to Asian people, it’s just vey sad. And it needs to stop. … They said the gentleman said that he was — it was not because of a racial issue. He said it was because of a sex addiction, which is — we all know that’s not true, because of the rhetoric that has been placed all throughout this country, with people thinking that the “China virus” and things like that. And just attacking Asian people all across the country is wrong, and it needs to be stopped. It really does.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Dr. Connie Wun. She is the co-founder of AAPI Women Lead organization — AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islanders — and a researcher on violence against girls of color. She’s joining us from Oakland, California. Her piece for Elle earlier this month is headlined “Ignoring the History of Anti-Asian Racism Is Another Form of Violence.”

Dr. Wun, welcome to Democracy Now! The words of Captain Baker seem to have framed the discussion, the view of what took place as the narrative of the alleged shooter, that this isn’t a hate crime. Can you talk about your response to what took place and how it has now been framed by the police?

CONNIE WUN: Great. Good morning, and thank you for having me on your show.

So, there’s a couple of things, right? Here in the United States, in particular, we can’t disconnect race from sexism or race from — racial violence from gender violence. That’s kind of first and foremost in addressing the police officer’s narrative around what took place. I think there’s a long-standing history around the hypersexualization, the ongoing sexual violence against Asian women. This has happened across the globe. This occurred during racialized colonial wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Korea. And so, our country has had a long history of sexual violence against Asian women.

And so, for the police officer and the national narrative to act as if this is not something based upon race is a little bit of a problem. Centering his narrative, instead of the survivors’ or the victims’ narratives, is also a part of the huge racial violence that this country is essentially guilty of.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Wun, could you say a little more about the media coverage of this? You tweeted, quote, “I don’t want to hear any symbolic gestures. I do not want you calling for more police or state surveillance in the name of the most vulnerable.”

CONNIE WUN: Right. So, you know, I think, for the past year and in the past couple of months, there has been a lot of media focus upon particular individual acts of violence against our communities. And it has been helpful to the extent that it has lifted up or amplified the violence against our communities. The way that we have framed the violence against our communities, however, has failed to address the systemic violence against our communities. We have not implicated white supremacy enough. We have not implicated xenophobia enough. We have not implicated gendered violence enough. We haven’t even come close to addressing, you know, the conflicts around anti-Blackness within the community enough. And so, what the narratives have done is they’ve individualized these acts of violence. And what we need to do is also have a systemic analysis of what’s happening.

The other thing around that is, when we individualize these acts of violence, especially the way that mainstream media has covered it, what we’ve done is we’ve also called — you know, some have called for increased hate crime legislation. They’ve called for more policing, more surveillance. And what they’ve failed to acknowledge when they’ve done that is that Asian communities are also survivors of racial profiling. We’re survivors of the criminal justice system. Thirty-three Vietnamese refugees were just — or, immigrants were just deported a few days ago by President Biden. That, to us, is also a form of anti-Asian violence. So, the media hasn’t covered enough of the systemic and long-standing history of violence against Asian communities. What they’ve done is they’ve narrowed in on particular incidences, which is important, but they haven’t historicized it enough, and they haven’t named other forms of violence. And they’ve called in — they’ve called for more policing and surveillance, when community organizers have asked for the complete opposite.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Wun, can you talk a little more about the exponential rise of crimes against — hate violence against Asian Americans, nearly 3,800 hate incidents just in the past year? What do you think accounts for this? And how does that compare to previous years?

CONNIE WUN: So, that’s been really painful, I’ll have to be honest. The recent hate reports, the anti-Asian violence that has been exacerbated in the past year, have been really hard for our communities, have been really hard on all of our lives. I think there are a couple things. One is, we also have to expand — there’s a couple things, actually, let me just say. One is that these hate incidences are also underreported. Surviving anti-Asian violence has been a large part of most of our lives. And most of the time, we haven’t reported the violence that we’ve experienced, number one, because our communities don’t trust the criminal justice system, and we have a different relationship to the mainstream.

The other thing is that I think the surge that we see today, or now, has a lot to do with the coverage, which is also — meaning we see more of what’s happening. But at the same time, we can’t separate this moment from Trump, Trump’s administration. We can’t separate it from the fact that this global pandemic, that has killed so many people and has hurt so many lives, was blamed on or was called the “China virus,” was called the “Wuhan virus,” or what, you know, the Georgia sheriff said was the — what did he call it? The China — it came from ”CHY-NA”? So, it makes sense to, you know — well, it doesn’t make sense, but I think we can implicate and say that this rise in violence today is because we’re being scapegoated, largely by the previous administration.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from a statement from Dr. Michelle Au, a physician and Georgia state senator. She’s the first Asian American Georgia state senator. Dr. Au wrote, quote, “Our AAPI community has been living in fear this past year in the shadow of escalating racial discrimination and attacks. This latest series of murders only heightens that terror. … I implore all Georgians, and all Americans, to reach out to your Asian-American neighbors [and] to pledge to stand with them in solidarity.” She gave a speech on the floor of the Legislature right before the attack, with this heightened, this escalating violence against Asian Americans. And I was wondering, Dr. Wun, if you can also go further and talk about these massage parlors. We don’t know if the victims, some of the victims, were sex workers. But you are writing — you’ve just finished a chapter on the dangers that sex workers of color, including massage parlor workers, face by police, clients and, now more definitively, white racist misogynists. Talk about this in the context of what we see happening now.

CONNIE WUN: Sure. So, I think, you know, what we have to recognize around the women and the men who were recently killed is that many of them were working in low-wage jobs, right? Which means that they were exploited, they were underprotected, they were underresourced. I learned that some of the women who were killed were actually living in that spa, living in that massage parlor. That means that they were living under conditions of, you know, poverty. So, I want us to really highlight that.

And I also want to talk about the ways that massage parlor workers, low-wage workers, sex workers, we tend to come from — I mean, this industry, massage parlors and sex workers, the sex trade, is a criminalized and stigmatized industry, which means that we are subject to criminalization, subject to police violence. Many of the massage parlors across the country have been subject to police raids. A few years ago in New York, there was a woman who was killed or who died. Her name was Yang Song. She was also — she was Asian, a Chinese woman who was running and escaping from the police. We learned later that she also shared that she had been a survivor of someone who had a badge. They had coerced her to be an informant, and she was running away from one of the raids. So, massage parlors and other informal industries, including the sex trade, are really — you know, we’re survivors of the criminal justice system, which is why when mainstream media or politicians or others call for more policing and surveillance in response to the violence that massage parlor workers face, including these women who were killed, you’re calling for more violence against our communities. And that isn’t the answer, either. Right?

So, I think what’s very painful at this moment is that while Asians, in particular, are being subject to so much interpersonal violence, including death, we also cannot rely on a criminal justice system that has also caused death and that of Black communities. That puts us in a very strange place and a very painful place. And so we are relying on our community organizers. We’ve long been relying on our community organizers. Our communities, who are working for community-based accountability, in solidarity with Black communities, Latinx communities, Indigenous communities, Pacific Islanders, we are all working together to end the violence against Asians and our other communities of color, because we know that we’re survivors from multiple forms of violence.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Wun, you talked earlier about the complicity of the Trump administration, of course, in the escalation of violence against Asians in the U.S. Your response to President Biden, last week, in his first primetime address to the nation, denouncing what he called “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans, who have been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated”? Do you think that response was adequate? Were you surprised that he spoke about it in last week’s address?

CONNIE WUN: You know, I’m not surprised, because there’s been enough pressure, and there’s been a lot of violence. While I appreciate the attention to the specificity of anti-Asian violence, I think it’s also important to separate the need to call everything a hate crime — right? — because for our communities, we know that violence is happening against us. And hate crime legislation does not — or, designating something as a hate crime does not necessarily validate the violence against us. So, what I’m trying to say is, while I appreciate the attention to anti-Asian violence, it’s not only hate crimes that’s happening to us. That’s one thing.

The other thing is designating something as a hate crime, again, individualizes a systemic issue. Right? We’re already having a hard time trying to prove that everything is a hate crime, and people saying that it’s not. So, for many community organizers, we’re actually going to say, “Look, you know what? We’re going to — we know the violence that’s happening against us. We need the resources to take care of our communities, to work in solidarity with one another.” That’s really important for us.

I think the other thing is, while Biden denounces the individual acts of violence, like I said earlier, he also deported 33 Vietnamese immigrants, who had never or who hadn’t been back to Vietnam since they were children. And for many community organizers, that is an act of anti-Asian violence. Right? And the fact that so many of us are still in ICE detention, facing more deportation, I think that is also anti-Asian violence. And Biden and the administration needs to account for that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Connie Wun, we want to thank you so much for being with us, co-founder of AAPI Women Lead and a researcher on violence against girls of color. We’ll link to your piece in Elle, “Ignoring the History of Anti-Asian Racism Is Another Form of Violence.”

When we come back, we go to Burma, where the military junta is intensifying its crackdown, but protests against the coup continue. Stay with us.

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