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360: Atlanta spa shootings spark conversation about hate crimes targeting Asian Americans

Posted at 5:16 AM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 07:17:16-04

MILWAUKEE — However you define the mass shootings at three Atlanta area spas earlier this month, the heartbreak in the aftermath is clear.

Rallies of solidarity have been held nationwide and right here in Milwaukee to condemn the violence.

Seven of the eight people killed on March 16 were women, six were of Asian descent and the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, has been charged with murder and aggravated assault.

Police say he claimed responsibility for the shootings but federal investigators say, so far, there is no evidence it was a hate crime. That announcement sparked significant social debate regarding racism against Asian Americans.

To fully dig into the debate, TMJ4 News is going 360. Reporter Ryan Jenkins speaks to Wisconsin's first Asian American legislator who is calling for solidarity and chance, to two attorneys who share perspectives on charging a hate crime, and to the co-chair of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition of Wisconsin who describes the history of racism in her own community.

360: Asian hate crimes

First, we start with what police in the Atlanta area are sharing about the investigation.

"He claims that these, and as the chief said this is still early, but he claims this was not racially motivated," said Jay Baker with the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office on March 17th following the mass shooting. "He apparently has an issue - what he considers a sex addiction - and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places and it's a temptation to him that he wanted to eliminate."

Baker described the suspect's temptations and possible motivation during that press conference and since then, there has been a growing debate about if Long should be charged with a hate crime.

"This man does deserve a fair investigation," said May Lee, a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee. "He has rights under the constitution like all of us do and if there are biases in any of the officers or in anybody involved in the conversation, it is his constitutional right to have a fair prosecution and fair defense."

From a legal standpoint, she said a hate crime does appear to be appropriate. But, even if added later, it wouldn't do much to change the outcome of any prison sentence.

"The Georgia statute, as I understand it, allows for an additional 2-years of imprisonment and a $5,000 fine so its not significant when looking at a homicide because he could be going away for life without parole or getting the death penalty," said Lee.

Assistant State Public Defender Kathleen Chung said even if it does not impact a prison sentence. The decision to charge a hate crime is an important one.

"The reason and significance that legislatures have passed hate crime statutes is because there is, under the law, a societal importance in identifying and stopping bigotry and discrimination based on race, gender and other factors like that," said Chung.

She said she is worried that a hate crime has not already been declared.

"In this case, the mirror fact of the identity, of the racial history and heritage of all of the victims is well-known, failing to charge that as a hate crime does raise concerns," said Chung.

Jessica Boling with the Asian American and Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin says racism against Asians has been invisible for far too long.

"It's still hard for me that it takes this for people to realize that there is racism against Asians in the U.S," said Boling.

Going in-depth, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism has found, based of crimes reported to police in some of America's largest cities, Anti-Asian hate crimes surged nearly 150% in 2020.

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In Atlanta, most of the victims were women.

"We know that we've been sexualized our whole lives and we know that there's that connection, we know that there's that racism there but when other people are not willing to acknowledge it is really frustrating. Its like we are being gas-lit and being told that your experience isn't valid and that this racism isn't real," said Boling.

She believes state and local leaders in Wisconsin need to be louder in their condemnation of the hate America witnesses.

Wisconsin State Representative Francesca Hong agrees. It's why she has introduced this new resolution to the State Assembly calling for change.

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"Solidarity is appreciated but we need to move towards a solution. I think it's important to recognize that first condemning and naming the violence is important, that this was a hate crime, that this was racially motivated and that hate crimes against Asians is not new to our community," said Hong.

Hong fears if action isn't taken now, violence will continue.

"Racially motivated violence, gender violence, shootings, hate crimes -- those are things that are a product of policy failure and if we had services available to folks, if people had access to affordable housing and good public education we would not be in this situation today. I firmly believe that," said Hong.

The federal investigation into the mass shooting at the Atlanta area spas is still underway. It is still not publicly known if the gunman ever visited the spas he targeted before the murders or if he knew any of the victims.

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