Despite heavy rain, about 100 people gathered for a candlelight vigil in Bliss Plaza in Sunnyside on Thursday, March 18, to honor and mourn the death of the eight people shot and killed by a 21-year-old Georgia man in Atlanta and Cherokee County on Tuesday, March 16.
Six of the deceased were Asian-American women.
The organizers of the vigil, Julie Won and Steve Raga, are both City Council candidates running to represent District 26. They began the vigil by reading the names of six victims of the identified victims and urged the crowd to repeat the names.
“There are countless others who have not been named or have not had their names read out loud. But I hope that today you will remember them at this vigil,” Won said.
Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Julie Park, Hyeon Jeong Park and Paul Andre Micheles were all killed during the attack.
Tuesday’s violence came amid a sharp increase in anti-Asian-American hate crimes that began in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last March. In the past month alone, a 13-year-old Asian-American boy was beaten up by group of teenagers who told him to, “go back to your country,” and an Asian-American woman was spit on and called the “Chinese virus.”
Many at the vigil questioned why authorities in Georgia have not qualified the killing spree as a hate crime.
Sunnyside resident and Queensboro Poet Laureate Paolo Javier was heartened to have learned that the NAACP of Atlanta reached out to Asian Pacific community leaders in the area. He also expressed his gratitude that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who will meet with community leaders and state lawmakers from the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in Atlanta on Friday.
But he pointed out that for a year, the AAPI community has been asking for help from political leaders, urging them to address the steep increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.
“We did so in the hope that Atlanta would not happen,” Javier said. “We don’t want to rely on law enforcement. The same law enforcement that refuses to call a targeted mass shooting of six AAPI women a hate crime.”
The suspected shooter, Robert Aaron Long, reportedly bought the weapon on the same day of the killings and passed an instant background check.
Brent O’Leary, another candidate for City Council in District 26, recalled that two years ago, he attended a vigil for the 51 shooting victims who were killed in the Christ church mosque shootings in New Zealand. He pointed out how quickly New Zealand changed its gun laws to prevent further mass shootings from happening and called out the lack of action in the United States dealing with gun violence.
“What do we do? Nothing. We wait for it to happen again,” O’Leary said. “Our country is not based on ethnicity or language. We are based on principles. We are based on the principle that everyone is equal, that everybody deserves a safe place to live and a dignified existence.”
Won and Raga shared steps everyone can take to show their support for the AAPI community, including learning about the Chinese Exclusion and Page Acts, Japanese Internment Camps and acknowledging that Asian-Americans are people of color.
Raga told the crowd that friends tell him regularly that they are afraid to walk down the street or take the subway. One of his friends, a frontline worker who works in an emergency room, is too scared to take public transportation to work. Instead, she relies on her parents or cabs, the candidate said.
“This is the situation now that Asian-Americans, specifically Asian-American women, are experiencing on a daily basis. They’re telling us now that our loss can be reduced. Our pain can be reduced. Our experiences can be reduced,” Raga said, referring to Captain Jay Baker of the Atlanta sheriff’s office who said that the shooter had a “bad day” during a press conference on Wednesday.
Raga added, “We are not the virus folks. Let me make it clear, and call it what it is. This is an epidemic of societal disease of hate, of racism, of xenophobia and violence against the Asian American community.”
Won, a first-generation immigrant, recalled watching her mom work at a nail salon because the college degree she obtained in her home country didn’t amount to much in the United States.
“These are the survival jobs that help you raise your family, pay your rent and pay for food,” Won explained. “To know that these women remained unnamed, then names were misspelled. Their names are so hard to find on the internet that people say, what are their names? And not even knowing what their faces look like.”
Won said it was heartbreaking to know if six white women had been killed by a Black, brown, or Asian person, few would question the nature of the crime and how the perpetrator should be punished.
“Yet, we see the opposite of what should be happening. The police are trying to humanize the perpetrator instead of the victims. And if you question whether these women’s professions were appropriate, if you think even for a second that they deserved to die because of the work they’re doing, then you’re abetting white supremacy,” Won said.
She also pointed out the stigma media and Hollywood have created about Asian women.
“There’s always hyper-sexualization of Asian women and their bodies. And as long as we continue to allow the media to hyper-sexualize us, we are objectified. And as we’re objectified, we are dehumanized,” she said. “And when we’re dehumanized, we’re violently killed and murdered. And we cannot allow it to happen anymore.”