Jackson Heights community mourns victims of Atlanta shooting, denounce anti-Asian hate

jackson heights vigil
A vigil for the victims of the Atlanta shooting was held at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights on March 17. (Photo by Dean Moses)

More than 100 community members gathered for a candlelight vigil in Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights on Wednesday, March 17, to mourn the eight victims, six of whom were Asian American women, of the tragic mass shooting at several Atlanta spas earlier this week.

At nightfall, people of different ages and backgrounds held candles and chanted “stop hate crimes” as the 7 train roared overhead.

Photo by Dean Moses
Photo by Dean Moses

The tragedy that took place at three spas in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 16, has sparked more fear and anger among Asian American communities in the U.S. as reports of anti-Asian hate and violence have surged exponentially in the last year. Nearly 3,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the U.S. were reported over the last year, according to Stop AAPI Hate.

“We are beyond sad; we are angry. We are frustrated and we are heartbroken at the senseless violence that has deprived families of their mothers and sisters and daughters that they so dearly loved,” Ahyoung Kim, associate director of small business programs at the Asian American Federation, said through tears.

Weilai, a Jackson Heights resident, said she brought her 5-year-old daughter to the vigil to make sure she knows “we cannot be silent.”

“I don’t want her to grow up in this fear,” Weilai said. “Not even just talking about race, but just being a woman. We can’t be the silent minority anymore.”

Photo by Dean Moses

Atlanta authorities charged 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, a white man, for the shootings on Wednesday. Authorities said the suspect claimed he had a “sexual addiction” and carried out the shootings to eliminate the “temptation,” but haven’t ruled out bias motives, according to The New York Times.

Korean-language media have since reported Long expressed anti-Asian comments while carrying out the attacks.

An Atlanta police officer also said the suspect had “a really bad day,” a comment that’s outraged community members. The officer was later found to have posted racist T-shirts on social media, according to Buzzfeed News.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, referencing the police officer’s comment, said, “If you had a bad day, go get some ice cream.”

“This what white supremacy at its worst, let’s call it what it is,” Richards said. “Don’t tell me about a bad day; tell me about the domestic terrorism perpetrated by this individual. This had nothing to do about a bad day — this had to do with hate. Hatred stoked by those who were emboldened and who have been emboldened from the actions of the last administration.”

Richards has vehemently condemned the anti-Asian attacks that have recently occurred in Queens.

Photo by Dean Moses

In New York City, the number of hate crimes reported to the NYPD by Asian Americans last year grew nine times from 2019, according to a report by THE CITY.

Shekar Krishnan, a community activist and candidate for Jackson Heights City Council who organized the vigil, said anti-Asian hate and violence has existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But our AAPI communities have been invisibilized for so long, stereotyped for so long, and it is that bigotry, that prejudice and xenophobia that results in the violence after violence that we are seeing,” he said. “Today, we are here to say that we will not be silenced, that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, and that we as community, we as a city, keep ourselves safe together.”

Shekar Krishnan. (Photo by Dean Moses)

Krishnan added that it’s also a time to “recommit to dismantling white supremacy in all its forms.”

Carolyn Tran, a longtime community leader and candidate for Jackson Heights City Council, emphasized that 68 percent of the 3,800 reported racist incidents against AAPI community were toward women.

Tran said the shooting in Atlanta is a “continuation of the erasure, the dehumanization, the hyper-sexualization of Asian women” within the history of U.S. colonialism, adding that AAPI women must be centered to address the issues.

Carolyn Tran. (Photo by Dean Moses)

“East Asians, southeast Asians make up a majority of the service industry — nail salon workers, message parlors, hospitality — and it is because of our over-representation in this industries that we are also seen as vulnerable and we are always silenced,” Tran said. “Enough of that.”

The shooting also reignited calls for sex workers to be treated with dignity and respect. According to a USA Today report, illicit reviews of the spas have raised red flags that the shooter may have targeted vulnerable workers.

Chuck Park, a Jackson Heights resident, spoke about his parents, who’ve owned a store on 74th Street for 35 years, coming home with stories of assault for years.

He said he’s scared for his son, his wife “who gets heckled walking through Diversity Plaza,” and for “every single sex worker and street vendor” on Roosevelt Avenue. He brought roses to show solidarity with sex workers and other small business owners on the busy business corridor.

Photo by Dean Moses
Photo by Dean Moses

Jake Valencia, 22, and Shirley Wang, 22, from nearby Elmhurst, said they wanted to show solidarity, respect and commemorate Asian people.

Valencia, who is of Filipino descent, said it’s particularly important to recognize Asian women and sex workers.

“We need to destigmatize sex work. We need to honor these people and respect them,” Valencia said. “These are not people below us, they can be anyone.”

They also said they were there for their grandparents and elders, who they worry might experience hate, given the way China has been blamed for the pandemic.

Wang, who is of Chinese descent, said the virus being called the “China virus” — a slur coined by former President Donald Trump — is “unnecessary and starting hate for no reason.”

“Every country in the world has gotten this coronavirus, and it’s important to fight it together than start hate and point fingers and start blaming one race for all of this. It could have happened anywhere,” Wang said. “In the past there have been various viruses, diseases that start in other countries and we don’t blame them; we start to fix the problem. How are we going to fix a problem by creating another problem?”

Arthur Ahn, who was born and raised in central Queens, was moved to tears at the vigil and said the gathering reminded him “that our humanity is not lost.”

Photo by Dean Moses

“It’s a tragedy in itself that we even need to have a vigil like this, let alone the incredible tragedy of what happened yesterday in Atlanta,” Ahn said. “It’s uplifting to see all these people even in the face of mourning.”