A Murderous Rampage in GeorgiaThe Daily
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- 18 Mar 2021
The pandemic has precipitated a rise in anti-Asian violence in the U.S. However, the full extent of this violence may be obscured by the difficulty in classifying attacks against Asian-Americans as hate crimes. A recent shooting at three spas in the Atlanta area, in which the eight victims included six women of Asian descent, has heightened anxiety in the Asian-American community. Many see this as a further burst of racist violence, even as the shooter has offered a more complicated motive. Today, a look at why it’s proving so difficult to reckon with growing violence against Asian-Americans and whether the U.S. legal system has caught up to the reality of this moment. Guest: Nicole Hong, a reporter covering New York law enforcement, courts and criminal justice for The New York Times. Sign up here to get The Daily in your inbox each morning. And for an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. Background reading: The suspect in the Atlanta spa attacks has been charged with eight counts of murder. Six of the people killed were women of Asian descent, setting off a new wave of outrage and fear.The killing of eight people in Atlanta and suburban Cherokee County has come amid a rising tide of anti-Asian incidents nationwide.Hate crimes involving Asian-American victims soared in New York City last year.For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.
From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, a murderous rampage at three spas in the Atlanta area has killed eight people, six of them Asian women. That has stirred fear and outrage among Asian Americans who see it as the latest burst of racist violence against them, even as the shooter himself offered a more complicated motive.
I spoke with my colleague Nicole Hong, about why it's proving so difficult to classify the growing violence against Asian-Americans as hate crimes under the law and whether the U.S. legal system has caught up to the reality of this moment.
It's Thursday, March 18th. Nicole, what were you thinking when you learned about these murders in and around Atlanta at these massage parlors?
So as the shooting unfolded, I mean, I was heartbroken and devastated when I learned that many of the victims were Asian women. I was just glued to the news with, you know, the sense of dread. I'm an Asian-American woman, I'm also a law enforcement reporter, so I knew that this situation was going to get very complicated and I could immediately feel the fear and the uncertainty coming from texts I was getting from family members, from friends.
You know, every Asian-American I've talked to has just been feeling under such attack the past few months. And this is just the latest thing to heighten people's anxiety right now about even doing the most basic thing, like walking outside. The attack raised all sorts of difficult questions that I was looking into myself as a reporter. I was looking at attacks against Asian-Americans in New York City to explore this question of what is a hate crime, what legally qualifies as an anti Asian hate crime, and why have they been so hard to prove for prosecutors?
And where did that reporting start for you?
It really started for me when I heard about this stabbing in Manhattan's Chinatown last month, there was a Chinese man who was walking home one evening. And then he was suddenly stabbed in the back, just out of nowhere, unprovoked. And it turned out that the perpetrator was a young man from Yemen, and immediately this attack prompted all sorts of outrage in the Asian-American community. The police said that after the stabbing, the perpetrator told the police, I didn't like the way that he looked at me.
Hmm. So Asian-Americans took that to mean that race was somehow a part of this.
So in many people's minds, this immediately starts to look kind of like a classic unprovoked hate crime against an Asian-American.
Exactly. And we did a lot of reporting looking into that. I spoke to the perpetrators, brother and his mother. They talked about him having a history of mental health issues. He had actually been charged before with assaulting his brother, his father. He had prior assaults. So it just really complicates the question of motive.
And so what ends up happening in this case? So ultimately, he is charged with a very, very serious felony. He's charged with attempted murder, but it is not charged as a hate crime. And so that decision by prosecutors prompted protests among Asian-American leaders in the city who are saying that they feel totally overlooked by law enforcement, that they feel like this decision just epitomizes the way law enforcement handles hate crimes when the victims are Asian is sort of triggered this very interesting conversation of what does it take to actually charge something as a hate crime against an Asian?
What qualifies as anti Asian bias under the law? So that's what I've been trying to unpack in my reporting.
And in this case, what were the answers? Why didn't this count, according to prosecutors, as a hate crime? Why didn't they try to prosecute it in those terms?
So according to prosecutors, they believe that the perpetrator never actually even saw the victim's face before stabbing him because he ran up behind to stab him, even though he told police, I didn't like the way he looked at me. Right. Prosecutors say they have no evidence that he knew he was Asian. Also, just in my interviews with his family members, they said that he had never talked about hatred towards Asians. He didn't say anything that any witness overheard during the attack.
That seemed to be some sort of slur. So I think from the prosecutor's point of view, they're saying we just don't have enough to go off of here to call this an anti Asian hate crime.
So what did you make of that conclusion as a law enforcement reporter?
I mean, I totally understand, you know, the need to have evidence that stands up to the burden of proof that can be presented before a jury at trial. You know, I've covered law enforcement for a long time, so I'm fully cognizant of what they're struggling with here.
And it made me wonder how many other attacks like this have been out there, because when you see incidents like this, including, for instance, the Atlanta shooting, the first thought that comes into your mind is, was this about race or was this not about race? And maybe it was about race, but maybe you can never prove it.
So I was trying to kind of get at this gray space that Asian-Americans fall into of just the verbal and physical harassment that they've experienced during the pandemic.
How many of those have actually been accounted for as hate crimes under the law? And if not, why has it been so difficult to do that? And what do you start to find? So in New York City, we saw a very sharp increase in the number of anti Asian hate crimes that were reported to the police. So in twenty nineteen, there were three. And the following year, twenty twenty there were twenty eight. Well, so that's a huge jump.
And these are explicitly seen and reported as anti Asian hate crimes. That's right.
And to the extent that people were arrested in those incidents, they were charged as hate crimes and some of them were extremely blatant. For instance, you know, if somebody punches an Asian person in the face and then says China virus, that's a hate crime. We saw some of those incidents that got prosecuted or in another attack that happened in Manhattan last year, there was an Asian woman who was crossing the street and somebody pulled out a chunk of her hair and said, you're the reason why the coronavirus is here.
So that was another incident that got charged as a hate crime.
But there is a whole universe of other types of assaults and attacks that have been reported that kind of fall into this gray area. And typically it's gray because the person did not say anything during the attack. Even the past few weeks, we've heard about Asian-Americans who got punched in the face unprovoked on the subway or getting verbally harassed in a subway car where there's other people around, but they're the only Asian person there. So that is where it gets really, really tricky of how much did race play a factor here and what do you make of that?
Why do you think that you found all of these crimes, attacks that fewer on the surface racially motivated against Asian-Americans, but are not being seen that way by law enforcement and not being called or charged as hate crimes?
So from a legal point of view, I mean, with these attacks, the question is always, could this have happened to anybody? Like was this Asian person just in the wrong place at the wrong time or was there some kind of unconscious bias or racism that's unspoken that motivated this attack but can never be proven in court because you can never have concrete evidence of that. And as I was talking to experts, what I learned is that proving anti Asian hate crimes is especially difficult.
I mean, it's difficult against many different groups, but especially against Asian-Americans. Why? Because there are not widely recognized symbols of hate that people immediately associate with Asian-Americans. For instance, the way a noose or a swastika can, when we see that everybody recognizes that for what it is, they know the history. And there's kind of an immediate public outrage with these things. I think it ties into sort of the history of Asian-Americans in this country. It's a lot less clear cut in that sense.
And that makes the search for motive and a lot of these attacks particularly confusing.
Well, to that point, how unique a situation is this on some level? Aren't all hate crimes inevitably hard to prove? My sense is that not all hate crimes or racially motivated crimes against black people, for example, involve a symbol as powerful and obvious as a noose or attacks on Jews involve something as obvious and potent as a swastika. So is that situation unique to Asian-Americans?
You're right. It's definitely not unique. You know, many other groups have protested things that were not designated as hate crimes. I think in these situations, the bar for evidence is always very high and can be very frustrating for entire communities. But something different is happening during this pandemic, particularly to Asian-Americans. I think the rhetoric, for instance, from President Trump around calling this the kung fu and the China virus, we see this now being parodied on the street level in many of these attacks.
And I think it's bringing into really sharp focus specifically what is happening to Asian-Americans, that this pandemic has now become racialized in a way that we haven't really seen before. And as a result, it's drawing all this attention to attacks on Asian-Americans and people using language that we have not really seen in recent history.
So what you're finding in your reporting seems to be a legal system in the US that has not.
Caught up to the reality of the past year for Asian-Americans, yes, and it hasn't just been the past year, there's been a long history of violence and discrimination against Asian-Americans that hasn't fully fit into the legal framework that's been set up in this country. We'll be right back. Verizon designed 5G to make the things we do every day better with the coverage of 5G nationwide, millions of people can now work, listen and Stream and Verizon 5G quality. And in parts of many cities, Verizon has ultra wideband the fastest 5G in the world.
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And right now we're talking about the N-word, a word that my most rebellious, youthful self loved using, but recently just started to feel Courtauld coming out of my mouth. I've never used it. I still can't believe that. I mean, it's been used on me, but I have never used it. We're going deep into why in this episode and into our cultural relationship with this word, too. It's an awful word. And yet it's still with us after all this time.
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So, Nicole, I wonder if you can put the events of the last year, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence into a broader historical perspective. Yeah, so in a sense, this is not new we've seen over and over again in US history. Asian-Americans being scapegoated and blamed during times of national crisis or economic uncertainty, and it really starts in the mid to late eighteen hundreds when Chinese laborers started moving to California to the West Coast, you know, one of the first major incidents of anti-immigrant violence was in the 70s.
There was an awful riot in Chinatown in Los Angeles, where several Chinese people were killed and lynched. That sort of led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration to the U.S. We saw this again around World War Two.
Soon after the enemy strike on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese living along the West Coast were quickly moved inland away from critical defense area and the internment of Japanese Americans, 100000 men, women and children.
Two thirds of the evacuees are American citizens. By right of birth.
We are setting a standard for the rest of the world in the treatment of people who may have loyalties to an enemy nation, them being painted as a national security threat.
We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency. We won't change this one.
Right. And these are government sponsored acts of discrimination against Asian-Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment camps. It is the US government blessing discrimination and not that many decades ago. Exactly. We also saw a major moment in the 1980s.
The crime was the beating death of an American of Chinese heritage in Detroit with the killing of Vincent Chin, who was a Chinese American man who lived in Detroit.
I want to test the for my son. I must know how they killed my son.
He was beaten to death by two white men who thought he was Japanese.
Ronald Evans and Michael NYTs got three thousand dollar fines and three years probation, even though they admitted clubbing Chin to death with a baseball bat in this McDonald's parking lot.
This was a huge galvanizing and unifying moment for Asian-Americans because they realized that even though a Chinese person and a Japanese person might feel like they have nothing in common, they are being lumped together in the eyes of the attacker.
So this is the long history that. Many Asian-Americans have in their head as the pandemic begins, as these incidents of violence grow over the past year or so and. As we have this horrible attack unfold two nights ago in Georgia, yeah, exactly, this is the backdrop of what's going on in the pandemic. This is the history, the decades of violence that have led up to what we're experiencing today. Hmm.
So let's talk about how the news of that attack unfolded and the response to it, because it felt like the question of motivation was absolutely instantaneous. Even the Times in reporting on this shooting on Tuesday night raised the possibility that this was motivated by anti-American sentiment.
Hey, guys, it's been a little while, but I'm sure you know what I'm here to talk about today. I immediately saw lots of Asian-Americans on Twitter today. I feel grief and. It is a hate crime when you kill eight Asian women. It's a hate crime on social media. Innocent immigrants working minimum wage just lost their lives because their skin color has been sort of jumping to the conclusion that this was racially motivated, urging media outlets to call this a hate crime.
This is terrorism and this is a hate crime. Stop killing us. I think the first few hours were just very confusing as people were trying to get the facts and figure out what exactly was motivating this. I'm angry.
I'm tired, I'm heartbroken. Starvation, hate.
And I think what added to the fear was we were also seeing police departments around the country announcing that they were going to add patrols to other cities, other neighborhoods with large Asian-American communities.
But, you know, with these kinds of incidents, it's it's so difficult early on to know whether something was motivated by race, but. Again, that's of very little comfort to Asian-Americans, and all it does is increase the fear, the anxiety for Asian-Americans when they see something like this. Mm hmm.
And as law enforcement begins investigating this case, what do they end up finding when it comes to this question of motivation?
So the investigation is still developing. But thank you, Madam Mayor.
They said at a press conference on Wednesday that I know that many we've received a number of calls about is this a hate crime? We are still early in this investigation, so we cannot make that determination at this moment.
So far, it does not seem like this attack was racially motivated.
Let me go in a little more detail. So the suspect did take responsibility for the shootings.
They interviewed the suspect who was arrested. He apparently has an issue, what he considers a conviction.
And he told them that he had a, quote, sexual addiction and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places.
And it's a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.
It appears that he may have been a customer at some of these businesses. So the whole situation is still developing its early stages. But I think all it's done is just so more kind of confusion and frustration for Asian-Americans.
What do you mean? I think this is this gets to the heart of. Is it racial or is it not when it comes to Asian-Americans like. Do we believe that? The race of these women had nothing to do with why he targeted them. It's just too soon to know right now. And. That's not the answer that many Asian Americans want to hear. What is the answer in your reporting that you have found Asian Americans want to hear?
My sense is that a lot of Asian American leaders, at least in New York, are looking for some sort of validation from the government, from the legal system that they're. Paranoia is not crazy, that they're not being oversensitive, that they're justified and feeling scared to go outside, so designating a crime like this as officially racially motivated.
That is a form of validation that is essential. For people who have experienced what they have experienced over the past year, you're saying, but what if at the end of the day. Police just don't feel that's the appropriate label for this. We've been talking to you this whole time about. Not just the legal complexity of knowing that a hate crime has occurred, but in some cases. We just may not know if a crime has occurred. Yeah, that's the tricky part.
And we may come out from the end of this, yeah, with no signs that this was racially motivated and that's how we've seen a lot of these different incidents play out. But again, all you're left with there is the fear and the anxiety for Asian-Americans because. That doesn't align with their day to day lived experience. Over time, they're indisputably is. An increase in racially motivated violence. Yeah, I think my sense from talking to many Asian Americans over the past several weeks is that they do feel targeted, that when they're verbally harassed on the subway, they feel like there's something racial going on there, even if they might not be able to articulate to you why it's racially motivated.
And that's kind of the. Feeling of gaslighting that I think is going on in the community right now of are we being oversensitive or are these racial or is it racial in a way that we just can never prove?
So it just fuels this feeling for Asian-Americans of feeling overlooked by the legal system and even when law enforcement says, you know, look, we've charged this as a murder or whatever it is, this person will face very, very harsh penalties. I think this is why hate crime laws exist. They exist because they were intended to send a message to some marginalized community that you belong here, that when a hate crime happens, it terrorizes an entire community in a way that is very unique and in a way that we don't see for other types of crimes.
And that is why that designation is important to some people, just the idea that you have to call it what it is, because if you don't, then we will not get a full accounting of what is happening. So whether or not enforcement ends up calling this mass shooting a hate crime, calling hate crimes hate crimes is going to be essential to the Asian American community to feel that they are being seen by their government. Yeah, I think the reality is for Asian-Americans, whether this ends up being legally charged as a hate crime or not, it is making people feel a sense of terror and fear.
It's already a hate crime in the minds of Asian-Americans. Nicole, thank you very much. We appreciate it. Thank you, Michael. On Wednesday, the suspected shooter was charged with eight counts of murder. So far, authorities have released the names of four of the eight people he killed.
They are Delana Ashley, U.N.. Chuji Atem. Dow, Yaffa and Paul, Andre Micheal's. We'll be right back. In 2021, mental health is finally cool, but therapy doesn't have to be sitting around just talking about feelings, therapy can be whatever you want it to be, battling stress, feeling insecure. It's time to stop being ashamed of human struggles and start being happy. Better help. Online therapy offers video phone and live chat sessions. Plus, it's more affordable than in-person therapy, but just as effective for 10 percent off your first month visit.
Better health outcomes. The Daily Better l.P Dotcom slash the daily. Here's what else you need to know. Federal prosecutors have charged four leaders of the extremist group, the proud boys, in four different states for their role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The FBI now believes that the far right group whose members are vocal and violent supporters of President Trump was a chief instigator of the attack during a presidential debate last year. Trump told the proud boys to, quote, stand down and stand by language widely seen as encouraging the group to act on his behalf since January 6th.
The government has brought federal charges against 13 members of the group. And for the second year in a row, the Internal Revenue Service will give Americans extra time to file their taxes as a result of the pandemic instead of the usual deadline of April 15th, Americans will have until May 17. Today's episode was produced by us, the author Vedi Austin Mitchell, Nina Potok and Luke Vandersloot. It was edited by MJ Davis, Lynn and Page Kowit and engineered by Ann Lasan.
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