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What the 'Atlanta Spa Worker Killings' Tell Us About America Today

"These hate crime murders did not happen in isolation. They happened because good people did not rise up to take back our country from right-wing extremists and demagogues."

People march in a March 18, 2021 demonstration against anti-Asian violence in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

People march in a March 18, 2021 demonstration against anti-Asian violence in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Here I sit in my room, devastated and contemplating all that went wrong for this young white man to have gunned down eight people, six of whom were Asian women, four of whom were Korean American women. This man who proclaimed "I love God and guns."

"The hatred and violence toward Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander people is not new. There is a nexus of anti-Asian hatred, hatred of women, conflation of massage therapy and sex work, violence against perceived sex workers, disgusting racism."

Sadly, this violence is not new. The level of anti-Asian violence may be increased, however it is not different in kind from all the other violence our communities have faced. What's new is that the former president of the United States has been calling the coronavirus pandemic the "Kung Flu" and the "Chinese virus." The hatred and racism toward Asian people and immigrants and people of color (especially women of color) has gone from bad to intolerable. And at the same time, politicians, police officers, even community leaders have been minimizing and ignoring this crisis of racist violence. This is the model minority myth, coupled with xenophobia, along with a misunderstanding of the real danger that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people are living with every day.

I want to remind us all that Vincent Chin (whom the racists thought was Japanese) was beaten to death on the street in Detroit in 1982 just before his wedding. The two white male murderers were given a $3,000 fine and let go. When Korean shop owners were beaten and our businesses burned down during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, who spoke up for us then? The LAPD drove the riot toward Koreatown and did nothing. Divide and conquer is used time and time again to use our communities against one another when we should be standing together. Enough is enough.

The hatred and violence toward Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander people is not new. There is a nexus of anti-Asian hatred, hatred of women, conflation of massage therapy and sex work, violence against perceived sex workers, disgusting racism, and minimizing by the local white police and sheriffs. There are so many things wrong.

My heart is aching for these women, these sisters, mothers, daughters and wives. My heart is aching for my community, the Korean American community, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, the massage therapist community, the community of women whose lives are worth less and are more endangered every single day because of our gender. These women were also workers, like so many working class people, trying to earn a living in this dangerous time, performing a vital healing service. They are healthcare workers.

Let me say this to you now—being a woman in this sexist, violent time is an act of courage every day. Being an Asian person in America today is an act of courage. Being an immigrant in America is an act of courage. Being a person of color is an act of courage. Being a massage therapist or body worker is an act of courage today.

Massage therapy is a particular kind of undervalued labor, a treasured and ancient high skill; it is preventative and allopathic medicine. It is a form of medicine that helps millions of people. This work is looked down upon by the ignorant and because of the classism and racism and sexism that is endemic to American culture at this time. These women were front-line workers, wearing masks, trying to help people get out of pain. They did not deserve to die this way.

The attacks on Asian American people are part of a long history of racist violence, sometimes perpetrated by individual murderers, sometimes perpetrated by state violence like the Texas Rangers or the LAPD, sometimes even whole communities participated in the lynching and burning of Chinese fishing communities in the late 1800s, as in Santa Cruz and Monterey, California.

"This isn't just racism. It is also sexism. It is also classism. It is also anti-immigrant. It is also hatred of perceived sex workers. They were killed because of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women and all women of color."

This isn't just racism. It is also sexism. It is also classism. It is also anti-immigrant. It is also hatred of perceived sex workers. They were killed because of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women and all women of color. Many Asian immigrants come to the United States because of the U.S. imperialist wars in our home countries. Some, like the Hmong, have nowhere else to go but when they arrive they are reviled, bullied, beaten and killed. We cannot decry this killing spree without calling out the historical and political and economic backdrop that made this recent incident possible.

If you believe that this wasn't racism, imagine what the response would have been from the white, anti-Chinese-t-shirt-wearing-MAGA sheriff would have been had these six Asian women had been six white women? Two of the people were white, Delaina Yaun, 33, and her husband Paul Andre Michels, 54. I want to mention this because their lives were also lost because they were in the wrong place, just getting a relaxing couple's massage. They left behind two young children who will never be the same. I mourn all eight people. I pray for the Latino man, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, who was shot three times but will likely survive and is still in intensive care. His little daughter is home likely traumatized by the fear that her father is injured and suffering.

Clearly the targets were Asian women massage therapists because in the eyes of this deeply ignorant, hateful, troubled young white man, massage therapy is the same thing as sex work. Asian massage styles are conflated with sex work by a white male consciousness that cannot distinguish between these two things; by white men who fought in South Korea and Vietnam, and took away a belief that Asian women are all prostitutes, destitute and poor, that we can be maimed and killed with no repercussions. To them we are faceless and non-human.

The sheriffs and the local community clearly will not call this out because it is not an individual who perpetrated this heinous killing of innocents. The sheriffs have blood on their racism-minimizing hands. The former president of the United States has blood on his hands. Every single time a public official condones and encourages the Muslim travel ban, anti-semitism, racism, sexual violence against women, anti-immigrant sentiment, and hatred of Chinese and Asian people, they are contributing to the bullying, abuse, and killing. Shame.

"While I appreciate President Biden's message of condolence, I want to point out that his administration has just deported 33 Vietnamese people based on 20-year-old convictions." 

While I appreciate President Biden's message of condolence, I want to point out that his administration has just deported 33 Vietnamese people based on 20-year-old convictions. End the deportations now. Abolish ICE. Reunite the children and families that have been unjustly divided and caged. This issue is an issue of racist immigration policy, of the use of immigrants of color as scapegoats. Irish immigrants are not being targeted. Croatian immigrants are not being targeted. Russian immigrants are not being targeted. Asian and Latinx immigrants are being targeted with hatred and also blamed for the coronavirus pandemic. Ridiculous. Getting rid of Trump from the White House has not solved our racism and xenophobia problem. We need to wake up, America. We are allowing our demagogues to whip up the basest, cruelest kind of racial and sexist violence today, in 2021. We need to come together as human beings, learn our true history, and heal across borders, languages, race, gender, sexuality, physical abilities, and faiths.

These are just a few of the people I want to remember and honor:

  • Yik Oi Huang "Huang Popo," an 89-year-old grandmother, died one year after she was brutally beaten and left unconscious in the park, January 7, 2019. She suffered a broken neck, skull, arms and lost teeth. Courageously living on for a year with these injuries, she finally succumbed to death with her loving family around her. Her murderer was 19 years old. Visitation Valley, San Francisco, California. Rest in power Huang Popo.
  • Vicha Rapanaktandee, an 84-year-old Thai grandfather, died after being brutally pushed to the ground by a 28-year-old man, February 16, 2021. Anza Vista, San Francisco, California. Rest in power Grandfather Vicha Rapanaktandee.
  • Pak Ho, a 75-year-old man sustained brain damage and died after a robbery March 12, 2021. Oakland, California. Rest in power Grandfather Pak Ho.
  • Yun Geum I, a 26-year-old South Korean sex worker was raped, beaten, a bottle was stuffed into her vagina and an umbrella shoved into her anus. This was October 28, 1992; I was living in South Korea at the time. The murderer was an active duty U.S. serviceman. Due to huge widespread protests, he was imprisoned for 15 years in a South Korean, rather than a U.S. military prison. The U.S. government compensated the family $72,000. This murderer was released on parole in 2006 and deported to the U.S. Gyeonggi, South Korea. There are currently 28,500 U.S. servicemen still on active duty in South Korea. End the U.S. neocolonial occupation of South Korea. Rest in power Yun Geum I.

And now, Atlanta. Say these names with me: Daoyou Feng. Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez. Hyun Jung Grant. Suncha Kim. Paul Andre Michels. Soon Park. Xiaojie Tan. Yong Yue.

What are the next steps?

  • Defund and deconstruct: I am not advocating increasing policing. Police violence and the prison industrial complex and ICE detentions have been brutal and fatal in our communities. Often, as in this case, the police and sheriffs are complicit in the anti-Asian sentiment and violence. I stand with the defund campaigns across the country. We need to root out the racism in our police forces and radically shift to community policing and community building. We need classrooms and jobs, not police brutality and prisons.
  • Solidarity protests and vigils: Our communities need to unite together and heal one another. I am asking that all allies from all our sister and brother communities step up and speak out against anti-Asian violence. I am calling on my Native American, Black, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish ,and white sisters and brothers to step up and speak out.
  • Mandatory ethnic studies, from kindergarten to college: We need to radically change the history that all our children learn about the history of this nation. Ethnic Studies are American Studies. Class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion are all interlocking oppressions.
  • End racist immigration policies, imperialist wars, and violence against women.

We must all love one another. We must stand up and speak out as allies not just today but every day, for sex workers, for immigrants, disabled people, for transgendered folks, for Black, Brown, Native and Indigenous, Muslim, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Jewish people. I still believe in the goodness of the American people and the people of the world. I believe we can unite across borders. I believe that we can see beyond our differences and notice when someone is being bullied on the street or online. Reach out to your neighbors and let them know they are safe.

These hate crime murders did not happen in isolation. They happened because good people did not rise up to take back our country from right-wing extremists and demagogues. We did not take back our country from the neoliberals who will continue to side with the multinational corporations and slow-walk us into an ecological dystopia and planetary grave. Now is the time to right these wrongs and chart a courageous and compassionate path together.

Dr. Haemin Cho

Dr. Haemin Cho

Dr. Haemin Cho (she/her/hers) is Co-Chair of Progressive Democrats of America, San Francisco Chapter. She works in private practice as a doctor of Chinese and Korean acupuncture, acupressure and herbal medicine at Body Dao Acupuncture in San Francisco. Dr. Cho teaches tuina (Chinese medical massage) at the American College of Chinese Traditional Medicine (ACTCM) at CIIS. She also teaches chakra healing, emotional balancing, meditation, Korean acupressure, Qi Gong, and Taijichuan in her private practice. She immigrated to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea with her parents and sister in 1971 and currently divides her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. An active member of a number of political organizations in San Francisco, Dr. Cho was a union organizer and student organizer at UC Santa Cruz, where she studied American Studies and Women Studies with an emphasis in Ethnic Studies. In 2019, she was appointed to be a member of the CA Assembly District Election Meeting (CADEM) and became a Bernie Sanders Delegate.

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