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“Rising Against Hate”: Confronting Anti-China Rhetoric by Politicians That Fuels Anti-Asian Attacks

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With midterm elections three weeks away, a new report links reported hate crimes against Asian Americans to anti-China rhetoric used on the campaign trail. This issue is also examined in a new PBS documentary, “Rising Against Asian Hate,” which explores the fight against anti-Asian racism following the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021, when a white gunman targeted multiple Asian-owned businesses and killed eight people, six of them Asian American women. At the time of the killing spree, hate crimes against Asian Americans had been on the rise after then-President Trump blamed the outbreak of the coronavirus on China, calling it the “kung flu.” “We felt that we had to document this moment,” says executive producer Gina Kim, “and make sure that people recognize that this is an issue that we need to confront as a nation.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

With the midterm elections three weeks away, a new report warns candidates and elected officials not to use inflammatory rhetoric that contributes to hate-fueled attacks. The group Stop Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Hate, or Stop AAPI Hate, documents a trend of reported hate incidents on Asian Americans when politicians use inflammatory language, like blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and national security concerns. The report, called “The Blame Game,” finds more than 20% of Americans believe Asian Americans are at least partly responsible for COVID. This is nearly double from last year. On Monday, PBS explored the issue in a new documentary called Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March.

NEWS ANCHOR: Breaking tonight: People shot and eight killed.

REPORTER: At massage parlors.

ROBERT PETERSON: That was my mother.

BYUNG J. PAK: In Fulton County, all the victims are Asian American women.

PROTESTER: What it is is a hate crime.

VICTORIA HUYNH: During a time where Asian Americans were being targeted.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Maybe that’s a question you should ask China.

ROBERT PETERSON: It was an example of what racism towards Asians could lead to.

DR. MICHELLE AU: Our goal is to make sure people don’t think that our community is invisible anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Rising Against Asian Hate focuses in part on the March 2021 attack in which eight people were shot and killed by a gunman targeting Asian-owned spas in Atlanta. Six of the people killed were women of Asian descent. The film features Robert Peterson, son of the late Yong Ae Yue, who was one of eight people killed.

ROBERT PETERSON: That was when I started to do my hunt in search for my mother. I remember calling the Sheriff’s Office trying to identify the women. I don’t think some of them believed that it was my mother, when I was calling. They were like, “Yeah, these are Asian women.” And I’m like, “Yes, my mother is Asian.” My brother called me to get an update. Have I heard anything? What’s going on? At that moment I had just gotten off the phone with the medical examiner, and she told me that, yes, they did have a body downtown of a woman named Yong Yue. That was my mother.

LENA HERNANDEZ: Go back to whatever [bleep] Asian country you belong!

BENIGNO FRONSAGLIA: Take your [bleep] China flu and shove it up your [bleep]!

LOUIS GRAYSON: OK, well done, sir.

BENIGNO FRONSAGLIA: [bleep]! You Taiwanese chink mother [bleep].

LOUIS GRAYSON: Well done, sir.

CHARLES JUNG: Violence and bias against our community is nothing new. It becomes inflamed whenever there’s something that Americans don’t like about Asia. So, whether it’s World War II and Pearl Harbor, or whether it’s increased competition from Japan during the '80s, or whether it's 9/11, Americans are suffering, and they feel pain and fear. And I think it’s acutely manifesting the symptom of Asian hate.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Rising Against Asian Hate, which premiered Monday on PBS. The film also explores what some say are difficulties in documenting hate crimes against Asian Americans.

NARRATOR: The shootings in Atlanta reveal that prosecuting hate crimes aimed at Asian Americans presents unique challenges compared to other targeted groups.

BYUNG J. PAK: We had a lot of instances where there were nooses found in a workplace. We know what that means. It was geared towards intimidating Black workers. In the Jewish community, there is the Nazi symbol. But, towards the Asian American community, we don’t have one symbol, or multiple symbols, that really solidify the ideology against Asian Americans, so it makes it a little bit tougher. So you have to really look and dig to find evidence of that motive.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Gina Kim, executive producer of the new documentary, Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March, part of that PBS initiative called “Exploring Hate.”

Gina, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this film coming out now as the political rhetoric escalates leading into the midterm elections in three weeks.

GINA KIM: Thank you, Amy.

I think it’s important for us to remember, at the height of the pandemic, scrolling through our phones and just seeing one horrific attack after another, elderly Asian Americans being brutalized, innocent women being attacked senselessly. And, you know, we felt that it was — the hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by over 300% in those two years. And as we are entering the midterms, I think a lot of people have sort of forgotten that this issue is one of the most pressing issues in this country. I mean, when hate crimes, when crimes against Asian Americans are increasing by over 300%, that is startling. That is shocking. And so, we felt that we had to document this moment and make sure that people recognize that this is an issue that we need to confront as a nation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and, Gina, your film talks about some of the recent examples, and going back to the anti-Japanese hysteria during World War II, but even further back. I mean, most Americans are not aware that the first really racist immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, happened in the 1880s and that there were even massacres of Chinese Americans, like Rock Springs. Can you talk about some of that history that most of us have not been taught in school?

GINA KIM: Juan, I have to say, I wasn’t taught that in school. I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, and I didn’t know that history. I mean, I’ve learned it through the years. But the 1882 Asian American Exclusion Act — I mean, Asian Exclusion Act. I mean, you know, Chinese — people from China were not allowed to be citizens of this country until 1947, I believe. I mean, that’s recent. That’s not a long time in our history. These are the things that we’re not being taught in our schools. You know, I learned about Vincent Chin as an adult, when people were, you know, blaming the Japanese for taking auto worker jobs. I learned about the interment camps later in life.

And so, this is an issue with this country, that we don’t learn our history. And so that’s why it was important for us to document this film for the future generation, for my son’s generation. You know, we see that that’s changing, and more and more stories are being heard. But, you know, without creating these stories and telling our stories, history will be repeated. We will make these mistakes again. And so we wanted to make sure that we brought this to people’s attention and brought this to light.

AMY GOODMAN: Gina, the film is narrated by Sandra Oh. Take us back to that day in March when eight people were killed. Was it six of them women, seven of them Asian American? Even then, the Atlanta police were saying this is not a hate crime. Ultimately, one of them was thrown out, I think, the press spokesperson, because he was seen on social media wearing an anti-Asian T-shirt. But talk about what happened and how this now very well-known massacre actually unfolded.

GINA KIM: You know, as I was mentioning before, we were seeing the ramping of the rhetoric, calling the pandemic “China virus” and “kung flu,” and we were seeing these attacks, one after another, on our social media feeds and seeing it in the news. And so, when March 16th happened, I don’t think a lot of people were necessarily surprised — I mean, absolutely devastated, of course, but not necessarily surprised. We sort of saw it coming.

And the perpetrator, the person who killed these eight people, including six women of Asian descent, said that it was because of his sexual addiction. Well, you know, when he went to the first spa and killed the four people, brutally murdered four people, he then drove 45 minutes to the next two spas, where he killed additional four people. And he passed many different spas and bars and other businesses, and he targeted Asian-owned businesses, and he targeted Asian women. I mean, as we know, the stereotypes of Asian American women in this country is troubling. You know, Asian women are often thought of as hypersexualized or demure, submissive. And so, the fact that he targeted Asian women, I mean, there’s no doubt that the intersection of race and gender is there.

And it was troubling that — I think the Asian American community was very troubled that the police immediately dismissed it, said it was not a hate crime, that — you’re right — the spokesperson for Cherokee County, the sheriff, said that Robert Long, the shooter, was having a bad day. And then, later, he posted, you know, “China virus” T-shirts on his Facebook page. So, it was — you know, for a lot of Asian Americans, they remember that day. It is very remarkable how many people remember where they were that day when they heard about those eight people who were killed, including the six women of Asian descent.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering your thoughts also — there have been many videotaped incidents of individual violence against Asian Americans in the past few years. And it’s also not just white Americans, but many Black and Latino youth, coming from communities who themselves are discriminated against, yet they are also at times participating in this kind of violence. Your thought about this issue of attacks coming at times from members of the Black or Latino community, as well?

GINA KIM: It’s a complicated issue. I think there — as you know, there have been a history of — you know, of mistrust between Black and Asian communities. And I think that’s changing. What we found in our film is that there’s been a lot of solidarity, a lot of coming together of the communities to say, you know, that this is not acceptable and we can’t let this go on. I mean, it’s complicated. And, you know, we didn’t have an opportunity in this hour film to go into it, but, yes, you’re right. I mean, not all the attacks are perpetrated by white people.

But, you know, when you have — when we talked about — when you talked about the report earlier from the Stop AAPI Hate group that said that perpetrators of Asian hate incidents are repeating the rhetoric of politicians when they’re attacking people and calling — you know, and yelling out “kung flu” and ”COVID China virus” and blaming China for the economic issues this country is facing and also the security concerns, the national security concerns, I mean, that, it translates. It trickles down. Words matter. Words have consequences, and they’re often dangerous. And so, we do feel that with bringing this to light and to talk about it and to have Black and Brown and Asian communities come together and discuss this issue is one step in helping to stop what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Gina Kim, we want to thank you so much for being with us, executive producer of the new film Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March. It’s premiered this week on PBS.

Next up, as nuclear powers ratchet up tensions in the war in Ukraine, we speak to Norm Solomon of RootsAction, who says, “Don’t Just Worry About Nuclear War—Do Something to Help Prevent It.” Back in 30 seconds.

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