Politics

Why the Atlanta Shooting Is So Hard to Talk About

Protesters hold up signs that say things like, "Stop anti-Asian racism now" and "Stop violence against women."
Activists demonstrate against violence toward women and Asians on Thursday in Atlanta. Megan Varner/Getty Images

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Over the weekend, protesters gathered in city after city, coming together to try to make sense of the shooting that took place last week in Atlanta, a shooting that left eight people dead, six of them Asian women. But in one key way, these protests sounded different than other recent protests over killings of people of color. “It’s become mainstream and normal after a horrific act of violence, especially in the Black community, to say their name, to say out loud the people who’ve been taken from their communities, and in this case, apparently, family members have asked for that not to happen,” said Lisa Hagen, who’s been reporting on this shootings for WABE, the local public radio station in Atlanta. “This is a private kind of grief for a lot of the family members.”

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It’s hard to know why the families made this request, but it may be because of where these women died—in massage parlors many equate with sex work. Families might not want strangers speculating about exactly what the victims’ work was. The story of what happened to the eight people who were gunned down in and around massage parlors on the outskirts of Atlanta last week can be understood as an expression of hate, aimed primarily at Asian people, primarily women. But it also seems to be a story about the dark side of religious fervor. A story about guns in America. It’s extremely delicate to unravel. “There’s an incredible amount of threads to pull on in this story, which has made it a pretty treacherous story for a lot of journalists to cover,” Hagen said.

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On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Hagen about this complicated tangle, how the state of Georgia is responding to this tragedy, and whether there’s anything that can be done to prevent this kind of violence going forward. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: I wonder if we can start with the Asian American community in Georgia, their response, and the response you’ve seen over the last week of so many people having an outpouring of grief and wanting to name what’s happened as a hate crime, as violence against Asian Americans. These deaths, of course, came as there’s been a surge in reports of anti-Asian crime around the country. Your public radio station has been reporting on growing anti-American sentiment in Georgia for months at this point. I found a report from May where bronze plaques were turning up on buildings in Atlanta with the words “Wuhan plague” on them.

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This is a supercomplicated question. There is no doubt that researchers have been doing much more than I have on this to collect the stories of people who have been discriminated against or violently attacked all over the country, especially in large cities like ours. It’s absolutely not a surprise that people would then interpret an attack on six Asian women as a culmination of that violence. And then you have the complication that we have a suspect who is still living and who is expressing his own motivations here as wanting to destroy temptation that he believe he faced.

On Twitter, this clip made the rounds because it seemed so eerie that one of your state senators, an Asian woman, Michelle Au, had made a speech at the state Capitol the day before the shootings warning about violence against people in the Asian American community. And it was a shockingly prescient. When you speak to people in the community, are they drawing those links together?

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Certainly they are. That link is being drawn nonstop. This feels like a culmination for many people in the community who have been discussing the rise in crime against Asian Americans. I mean, I’ve talked about it with my mom. I’ve told her to be careful.

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It seems like Georgia is a state that is just beginning to grapple with all the implications of being such a diverse place. Although it’s been diverse in many ways for a very long time, growing Korean and Chinese communities are making the state diverse in new ways. Just last year, 2020, is when Georgia passed a hate crimes law, right?

Of course, that was in many respects a reaction to the killing of a Ahmaud Arbery.

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Is there a chance that that law will be used now?

There is a chance. It’s not clear how much. And of course, you do also hear from folks in Asian American communities and the activists that they don’t want the response to these killings to be more policing or stiffer penalties. What is desired is a change culturally, which is so very much harder than passing a law or exercising it in a moment like this.

Or tacking more years onto someone’s sentence, which is likely to already be quite long, right? 

Precisely.

You mentioned how the alleged shooter himself is not saying his crime was motivated by hate. Instead, he and people who know him are talking about what he calls a sex addiction and specifically how he understood that sex addiction because of his religious background. What have you learned about that?

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What you see in this 21-year-old is that you see in the cases of a lot of men who destroy either the people around them or their families or communities around them, and it is that his life was falling apart. He had spent a year in college and dropped out. He was in an evangelical treatment program for his self-diagnosed sex addiction. His girlfriend had broken up with him recently, and his parents had thrown him out the night before. So a great deal was happening in this person’s life. He had access to gun stores and went and acted on what he saw as the world falling apart around him, essentially. We have learned that he was in treatment previously in 2019 and in 2020 at an evangelical institution called HopeQuest that used to do ex-gay conversion therapy. They believe in a subculture called “purity culture,” that any sexual desire outside of marriages is wrong and sinful. And his roommate in the treatment facility reportedly has said he would come back from these spas and say that he was having suicidal thoughts. So this is clearly something that was brewing in this person for some time now.

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Do you see churches in Atlanta grappling at all with what’s happened? I noticed that the alleged shooter’s own church has basically wiped their social media. They have expressed that what happened here was because of one individual’s action and expressed empathy for the victims. But I wonder if you’ve seen any more from the religious community.

I think it’s been a little quiet. What struck me in that statement from the suspect’s church itself is they said the responsibility is entirely on him. I’m sure neither of us are disagreeing with that, but it’s an interesting thing to hear from a community organization.

You spent some time this weekend visiting the areas where these shootings occurred, and in trying to characterize the area, you mentioned it’s sort of a place where there’s nightlife and sex shops and places that are open late at night—

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And my public radio station, for what it’s worth,

So you’re familiar with the area because you work down the street?

I literally saw Gold Spa every day that I would leave work. It is surreal.

It is very important to note there are strip clubs all over the place in this area. I’m not going to say how I know this, but they’re not full of Asian women. They are Black, Latino, white, not necessarily the same sort of employees that that these businesses had. And so if this was a person who was only interested in shooting up sexual temptation spots for him, he certainly chose a very, very specific way to exact that violence. I asked all these other businesses, “Are you worried? You could have been a Google away from this man targeting you.” And it just doesn’t feel like it was something that threatened other types of businesses in the area, and that is mostly what I heard from folks.

Why do you think that is?

We’re talking about a very isolated segments of the community. What I did learn from these business owners—these are bars, strip clubs, etc.—they’re all in touch. They know each other. This is a tightknit business community. People were talking about sharing Thanksgiving dinner sometimes. These businesses that were targeted were not a part of that community.

I feel like we’re dancing around the sex worker question. Has anyone publicly identified their family member as a sex worker? Is that the appropriate term to use?

I think dancing around is about all it’s possible to do, and that’s true for many reasons thus far. You’re talking about an underground industry, potentially, and you’re also talking about cultures in which this kind of work is especially shameful.

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You also tweeted out that no one wanted to say this on the record with you, but all of the businesses you spoke with said, “Of course, these spots were part of the sex trade,” and they were actually kind of confused why it wasn’t being reported that way. Could you take me inside a conversation where that came up?

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Yeah, people would be like, “Well, of course it is. We don’t understand why no one’s talking about that part.” And the reason no one’s talking about it is because it’s an incredibly difficult thing to confirm. It’s an incredibly sensitive topic, especially to, again, people of Asian descent. There’s a lot of shame in the culture. But it is not just among the business owners themselves, but Atlantans know the area for what it is, which is kind of seedy nightlife time, and I say that with absolutely no judgment.

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Yeah, one woman, Hyun Jung Grant, it was reported that she told people she worked at a makeup store, which is not where she worked. And you can just hear in that how there was a sense of shame about what was happening and an unspeakability.

Yeah, absolutely. And that same thing is playing out among city leaders. In the very first press conference about this with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, these questions came up, and she said, we’re not going to sex shame anyone here, that’s not what we’re here to do.

Maybe if we find out that that these businesses are what many suspect and by reputation what folks in Atlanta certainly believe they are, there’s going to be shame associated with that. And that, honestly, has a lot more to do with whoever is doing the shaming than it does with the folks reporting on it. But it’s an incredibly tricky, thorny area to discuss.

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I wonder if you’re seeing sex workers in the Atlanta area responding to the shooting in any way. Are sex workers coming out and saying, “Violence is something we confront every day” and seeing this as an expression of something they know?

Atlanta is not New York or California or the Pacific Northwest. I have previously lived in New York, and there is an activist infrastructure there for sex workers of all kinds, and that is not so much the case here in Atlanta. So I haven’t heard any folks here speak with a unified voice from that community. I have seen that there’s a coalition of Chinese massage workers up in New York that issued a statement saying, “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what kind of work these women were doing, but just in case, policing isn’t the answer to what happened here. What we need is more protection and access to resources.” So that’s the one statement that I’ve seen.

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We’ve talked about understanding the shooting as an anti-Asian crime and as a warped way of understanding religious teachings and as a kind of window into the dangerous world of sex work. But when I think about what happened here, I feel like there’s one way of understanding the shooting that I’m just not hearing as much about. I’m not hearing a lot about gun control, which is usually one of the first things you hear when there’s a mass shooting. Does that surprise you?

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Well, this is Georgia. We have very permissive gun laws, and Democrats in the state or others who might be interested in changing any of those gun laws are not in power, so that’s a very tricky political conversation here. Certainly, it is something that I have heard from AAPI leaders here who are part of the state Legislature. But as someone who’s covered politics here for six years, I know it would be a tremendous uphill battle. The truth is: I don’t believe this man had a record, I don’t believe he had any mental health blocks that would have stopped him from getting a gun, and he was within his right to buy this weapon. So while many people are certainly welcome to have a larger conversation about just the ease of access to guns in this country, it’s not clear even if universal background checks had existed in this case, what would have stopped this guy?

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You also raise the point that this is the state’s first high-profile national mass shooting in many years, which I hadn’t realized until you said it.

That’s right. It’s going to be interesting to watch the state grapple with this. However, for all the reasons that we’ve been discussing, which is that the group of people who were targeted—they’re not white school children, they’re not Black men in the street being gunned down by police officers. This is a community that doesn’t necessarily garner the same kind of outrage and policy organization as other groups we’ve seen that face gun violence. And so it’s not clear to me that it’s going to be able to strike some of the same chords we have seen around the country that have resulted in large movements for more gun regulation.

You also mentioned that there’s this tension of the fact that the families may not want their mom’s name allowed. They may not want to publicize what their family member did. When there’s not someone speaking out like that, it limits the amount of movement you might have. I think about Ahmaud Arbery, and how his mother was so crucial to getting attention to his case.

Absolutely. We’re not seeing that here. And that may change. People are grieving over something very, very shocking that happened, but thus far it’s not the same kind of response we see when violence is visited on other communities of color.

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Update, March 23, 2021: This post has been updated to clarify that this was the first high-profile mass shooting in Georgia in many years.

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