Atlanta spa shootings: Georgia hate crimes law could see first big test

By Lois Beckett

A hate crimes law passed in Georgia amid outrage over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery could get its first major test as part of the murder case against a white man charged with shooting and killing six women of Asian descent at Atlanta-area massage businesses this week.

Prosecutors in Georgia who will decide whether to pursue a hate crimes enhancement have declined to comment. But one said she was “acutely aware of the feelings of terror being experienced in the Asian American community”.

Until last year, Georgia was one of four states without a hate crimes law. But lawmakers moved quickly to pass stalled legislation in June, during national protests over racial violence against Black Americans including the killing of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was pursued by several white men and fatally shot while out running in February 2020.

The new law allows an additional penalty for certain crimes if they are motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or mental or physical disability.

Governor Brian Kemp called the new legislation “a powerful step forward”, adding when signing it into law: “Georgians protested to demand action and state lawmakers … rose to the occasion.”

The killings of eight people in Georgia this week have prompted national mourning and a reckoning with racism and violence against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. The attack also focused attention on the interplay of racism and misogyny, including hyper-sexualized portrayals of Asian women in US culture.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, has been charged with the murders of six women of Asian descent and two other people. He told police the attacks at two spas in Atlanta and a massage business near suburban Woodstock were not racially motivated. He claimed to have a sex addiction.

Asian American lawmakers, activists and scholars argued that the race and gender of the victims were central to the attack.

“To think that someone targeted three Asian-owned businesses that were staffed by Asian American women … and didn’t have race or gender in mind is just absurd,” said Grace Pai, director of organizing at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Chicago.

Elaine Kim, a professor emeritus in Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “I think it’s likely that the killer not only had a sex addiction but also an addiction to fantasies about Asian women as sex objects.”

Such sentiments were echoed on Saturday as a diverse, hundreds-strong crowd gathered in a park across from the Georgia state capitol to demand justice for the victims of the shootings.

Speakers included the US senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and the Georgia state representative Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American in the Georgia House.

“I just wanted to drop by to say to my Asian sisters and brothers, we see you, and, more importantly, we are going to stand with you,” Warnock said to loud cheers. “We’re all in this thing together.”

US senators Raphael Warnock, right, and Jon Ossoff participate in a march and rally in downtown Atlanta.
The US senators Raphael Warnock, right, and Jon Ossoff participate in a march and rally in downtown Atlanta. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Bernard Dong, a 24-year-old student from China at Georgia Tech, said he had come to the protest to demand rights not just for Asians but for all minorities.

“Many times Asian people are too silent, but times change,” he said, adding that he was “angry and disgusted” about the shootings and violence against Asians, minorities and women.

Otis Wilson, a 38-year-old photographer, said people needed to pay attention to discrimination against those of Asian descent.

“We went through this last year with the Black community, and we’re not the only ones who go through this,” he said.

The Cherokee county district attorney, Shannon Wallace, and Fulton county district attorney, Fani Willis, will decide whether to pursue the hate crime enhancement.

Wallace said she could not answer specific questions but said she was “acutely aware of the feelings of terror being experienced in the Asian-American community”. A representative for Willis did not respond to requests for comment.

The US Department of Justice could bring federal hate crime charges independently of state prosecutions. Federal investigators have not uncovered evidence to prove Long targeted the victims because of their race, two unnamed officials told the Associated Press.

A Georgia State University law professor, Tanya Washington, said it was important for the new hate crimes law to be used.

“Unless we test it with cases like this one, we won’t have a body of law around how do you prove bias motivated the behavior,” she said.

Surveillance footage shows Atlanta shooting suspect leaving massage parlour – video
Surveillance footage shows Atlanta shooting suspect leaving massage parlour – video

Given that someone convicted of multiple murders is unlikely to be released from prison, an argument could be made that it is not worth the effort, time and expense to pursue a hate crime designation that carries a relatively small additional penalty. But the Republican state representative Chuck Efstration, who sponsored the hate crimes bill, said it was not just about punishment.

“It is important that the law calls things what they are,” he said. “It’s important for victims and it’s important for society.”

The state senator Michelle Au, a Democrat, said the law needed to be used to give it teeth.

Au believes there has been resistance nationwide to charge attacks against Asian Americans as hate crimes because they are seen as “model minorities”, a stereotype that they are hard-working, educated and free of societal problems. She said she had heard from many constituents in the last year that Asian Americans – and people of Chinese descent in particular – were suffering from bias because the coronavirus emerged in China and Donald Trump used racial terms to describe it.

“People feel like they’re getting gaslighted because they see it happen every day,” she said. “They feel very clearly that it is racially motivated but it’s not pegged or labeled that way. And people feel frustrated by that lack of visibility and that aspect being ignored.”