Why Don’t We Know More About the Atlanta Victims?

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S1: Over the weekend, city after city sounded like this. This is Seattle. In Minneapolis, protesters filled a local park in our community.

S2: This is the first time we were even able to voice our fear and our anger. And I really am so grateful for everyone willing to be willing to listen.

S1: In Pittsburgh, the actress Sandra Oh got a bullhorn and led the crowd in a chant.

S3: Oh, poor.

S1: All of these people were 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 in Atlanta itself, newly elected Senators Raphael Warnock and John Asaph spoke to a crowd of hundreds at the Georgia state capitol.

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S4: I want you to know that I love you. And when I say that, I don’t mean that in any sentimental. I love you. Justice is what love looks like in public, so we’ve got to get some justice.

S1: But Lisa Hagan, who’s been reporting on the shootings for WABE, the local public radio station, she says there’s one way in which these protests sounded different than other protests she’s covered.

S5: You know, it’s become sort of mainstream and normal after a horrific act of violence, especially in the black community, to 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. This is a private kind of grief for a lot of the family members. You’re not seeing them, you know, show up in person to sort of mourn in front of news cameras. It’s a different kind of reaction to this level of devastation.

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S6: Lisa doesn’t know why the families made this request, though she says it could be because of where these women died in massage parlors that many equate with sex work, families might not want strangers speculating about exactly what the victim’s work was.

S5: One was, in fact, a licensed massage therapist who’d been laid off during coronavirus. And we know that a lot of them were single mothers who, you know, I’m an Asian-American and I know that Asian mothers are they will work tirelessly for their family and they will never, you know, talk about the sort of sacrifices that they’re making. And that’s the narrative that seems to be emerging from from a lot of the family members who are speaking out.

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S1: Yeah, I was struck by one woman whose son said. Their mom was so happy to have moved into a house, I think, but she was rarely there because she would she would spend the night at her job because she was working really hard.

S5: Absolutely. I mean, in many cases, you know, these were college aged kids who were who were being put through school by these incredibly hard working women. So, yeah, I think just the amount of dedication to family is something that really sticks out from hearing the stories of these these women.

S6: The story of what happened to eight people who are 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. What I’m saying is understanding the totality of this crime. It’s delicate.

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S5: I think there’s an incredible amount of threads to pull on in this story, which has made it, I think, a pretty treacherous story for a lot of journalists to cover. And you can’t really get your arms around it all in one story, which inevitably sort of irritates, you know, one group or another who want to see the part of the story they’re focused on covered.

S1: Today on the show, how the state of Georgia responds to this tragedy is going to reveal how its officials understand exactly what happened on Tuesday.

S6: But will anything they do be able to prevent this kind of violence moving forward? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

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S1: 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. And when I was getting ready to talk to you, I was struck by the fact that your public radio station has been reporting on growing anti-American sentiment in Georgia for months. At this point, like I found a report from May where bronze plaques were turning up on buildings in Atlanta with the words Wuhan plague on them. Yeah, I mean, I think.

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S5: This is a super complicated question, there is no doubt that I mean, researchers have been doing much more than than I have on this to to collect the stories of people who have been discriminated against or or violently attacked all over the country, especially in large cities like ours. And I think 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 he believe he faced.

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S1: Yeah, I mean. On Twitter, this clip made the rounds because it seemed so eerie that one of your state senators, an Asian woman, Michelle Al, made a speech at the state capitol the day before the shootings warning about violence against people in the Asian-American community.

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S7: According to a report released earlier this month, violence against Asian-Americans has increased by nearly 150 percent in the past year. But the vast majority of these incidents aren’t recorded and shared on social media, and many, if not most, are never reported at all. In the past year, the organization Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks discrimination against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, has received more than 3000 firsthand accounts of anti Asian-American harassment or attacks, compared to roughly 100 incidents annually in the previous years. And you know, not to perpetuate the stereotype that Asian people are good at math, but by my calculation, that’s a 30 fold increase in what looks to be racially motivated crimes.

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S1: And it was a shockingly prescient. When you speak to people in the community, are they sort of drawing those links together?

S5: Certainly they are, absolutely. That link is being drawn non-stop. Like like I said, this feels like a culmination for 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. You know, I’ve told her to be careful.

S1: In recent years, the face of Georgia has started to change. Growing Korean and Chinese communities are making the state diverse in new ways, but not without a level of tension. It seems to me 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. Just last year, 2020, is when Georgia passed a hate crimes law, right?

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S5: Yeah, that’s true. And of course, that was in many respects a reaction to the killing of Amanda.

S1: Is there a chance that that law will be used now?

S5: There is a chance. It’s not clear how much. And of course, you do also hear from from folks in Asian-American communities and activists that they don’t want the response to these killings to be more policing or, you know, 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 talking more years onto someone’s sentence, which is likely to already be quite long, right?

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S1: Precisely. You mentioned how, of course, the shooter himself is not saying his crime was motivated by hate. Instead, he and people who knew him 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?

S5: What we see in this 21 year old is what you see in the cases of a lot of of men who destroy either the people around them or their families or 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 a treatment program, an evangelical treatment program for his, again, self diagnosed sex addiction. His girlfriend had broken up with him recently and his parents had thrown him out the night before of their house. 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, you know, as the world falling apart around him. Essentially, we have learned that he was in treatment previously in in 2019 and in 2020 at an evangelical institution called Hope Quest that used to do X gay conversion therapy. They believe essentially in a subculture called purity culture. You know, that any sexual desire outside of marriage is wrong and sinful. And his roommate, you know, it’s been interesting. I think people have said, well, he doesn’t seem to have much of a mental health history. His roommate in the treatment facility reportedly has said, you know, he would come back from these spores and say that he was having suicidal thoughts. So this is clearly something that was brewing in this person for for some time now.

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S1: Do you see churches in Atlanta grappling at all with what’s happened? Like I noticed that the shooter’s own church has basically wiped their social media. And this is after someone tracked down a sermon from November where you could hear a pastor being very specific about sex and pornography and saying, you know, you need to get rid of your phone if you’re battling with some kind of sexual thoughts. And, you know, they have expressed that, you know, what happened here was because of one individual’s action shooter, you know, expressed empathy for the victims, but I wonder if if you’ve seen any more from the religious community.

S5: I think it’s been a little quiet. What struck me in that statement from from the suspect’s church itself is, you know, 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 an organization, you know, that that is a community organization.

S6: When we come back, why calling the shooting victims sex workers is complicated.

S1: So you spent some time this weekend visiting the areas where these shootings occurred and you you were trying to characterize the area and you mentioned it’s sort of a place where there’s nightlife and sex shops and and my public radio station, for what it’s worth.

S5: So you’re familiar with the area because you work down the street? I literally saw Goldspot every day that I would leave work. It is surreal. You know, it is the vision that appears in my mind when I’m first leaving work.

S1: This familiarity gives Lisa unique insight on what these spores were like. It also gives her a reason to question the shooter’s claim that the attack wasn’t racially motivated.

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S5: It is very important to note there are strip clubs all over the place in this area and they are not. I think for the I’m not going to say how I know this, but it’s not they’re not they’re not full of Asian women there. 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, you know, sexual temptation spots for him, he certainly chose a very, very specific way to to exact that violence. And so as far as you know, I asked all these businesses, like, are you worried that even one that was a salon that had the word spa in his name? I you know, I asked you could have been a Google away essentially from from this. And targeting you and that 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 segment of the community. What I did learn from these business owners, you know, they’re you know, these are bars, strip clubs, et cetera. They’re all in touch. They know each other. This is a tight knit business community. People we’re talking about sharing Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes these businesses were not a part of that community.

S1: Yeah. I feel like we’re kind of dancing around, we’re dancing around the sex worker question of like, has anyone publicly identified their family member as a sex worker? Is that the appropriate term to use?

S5: I think dancing around is about all it’s possible to do, and I think 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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S1: Hmm. 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, you know, of course, these spies were part of the sex trade and they were actually kind of confused why it wasn’t being reported that way. Could you could you, like, take me inside a conversation where that came up?

S5: Yeah, it’s people would be like, well, of course it is. Where, you know, 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.

S1: Yeah, I mean, one woman, young John 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 unspeakable pity.

S5: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that same thing is playing out amongst city leaders here in the very first press conference about this Atlanta Mayor Keuchel against bottoms, he said, you know, these questions came up and she said, we’re not going to S.A.M. anyone here, that that’s not what we’re here to do. And we certainly will not begin to blame victims. And as far as we know in Atlanta, these are legally operating a business. And like even that reaction is maybe if we find out that these businesses are what many suspect and and by reputation, what what folks in Atlanta certainly believe they are, that there’s going to be shame associated with that. And I think 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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S1: I wonder if. You’re seeing sex workers in the Atlanta area responding to this shooting in any way, like we’ve talked about the Asian-American community and other communities and their response, our sex workers coming out and saying, you know, violence is something we confront every day and and seeing this as an expression of something they know, you know, Atlanta is not New York or California or the Pacific Northwest.

S5: I have been interested in the topic of sex work and the sort of anti sex trafficking crusading that happens a great deal, especially in our region. And it doesn’t have the. Same infrastructure that I have previously lived in New York, and there is an activist infrastructure there for four sex workers of all kinds, that is not so much the case here in Atlanta. And so I haven’t heard any folks here speak with a unified voice from that community. I have seen that there there’s a coalition of Chinese massage workers up in New York that issued a statement saying, you know, we don’t know whether we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what kind of work these women were doing. But just in case, you know, 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.

S1: Hmm. OK, so we’ve talked about understanding the shooting as an anti Asian crime, and it’s like a warped way of understanding religious teachings and into 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. Which is that 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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S5: 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 in our state legislature. So I think 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, 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 sort of mental health blocks that would have stopped him from 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 what would have stopped this guy?

S1: You also raise this point. When you spoke to one of my colleagues, he said, you know, this is the state’s first high profile national mass shooting, which I hadn’t realized until you said it, which was somehow Georgia hasn’t been a part of this in this way until now.

S5: That’s right. And I do think 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, you know, the group of people who were targeted, they’re not white schoolchildren, 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 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, you know, large movements for more gun regulation.

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S1: Yeah, and you mentioned that there’s this tension of the fact that the families may not want their their mom’s name allowed. They may not want to, you know, publicize what their family member did. And so when there’s not someone speaking out like that, it limits the amount of movement you might have. Like I think about Ahmad Marbury, his mother was so crucial to getting attention to his case.

S5: Absolutely. We’re not seeing that here. And that may change. That may change. You know, people are grieving over something very, very shocking that happened. But thus far, it’s not the same kind of response we see when when violence is visited on other communities of color.

S6: Lisa Hagan, thank you so much for talking to me. Thanks for having me. Lisa Hagan is a reporter with Georgia’s WABE. And that is the show What Next is produced by Elaine Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Kamal Dilshad, Daniel Hewett and Davis Land. We are led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery and Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.