A vigil for the victims of recent mass murders at metro Atlanta spas drew about 40 people to Dunwoody’s Brook Run Park March 23 to condemn racism in general and hate crimes against Asian Americans in particular. Speakers ranging from high-school students to the mayor told personal stories of racism, criticized police descriptions of the killings, and called for political action.

“Not only did COVID-19 bring disease, but racism as well,” said Madeline Douglas, a Dunwoody High School sophomore, describing a national rise of hate incidents and discrimination against Asian Americans scapegoated by former President Trump and others for the pandemic after the first cases of the disease were reported in China. Douglas described her experiences in learning the reality of racism when classmates discovered her mother is Asian.

Attendees of the March 23 vigil at Brook Run Park in Dunwoody assist each other in lighting candles for the victims of the spa killings. (Joshua Crowder)

The vigil, which included a candle-lighting, was organized by Long Tran, a Dunwoody resident who owns the Peachy Corners Cafe in Peachtree Corners. Tran said in an interview that he is working with various Asian American advocacy organizations on rallies and protests related to the spa killings, including one held March 20 at the State Capitol. He said that his customers include students from the neighboring cities of Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Roswell who were unable to travel to such events, so he decided to organize the informal, local vigil and publicize it on Facebook discussion groups.

“I own a coffee shop close to here and I get a lot of families [as customers], and I saw a lot of pain this past week,” Tran told the vigil attendees. “What I can best describe as being lost, not knowing what to do, what to say, where to go.”

Vigil organizer Long Tran, a Dunwoody resident and coffee shop owner, greets attendees. (Joshua Crowder)

The vigil marked one week after the March 16 shootings at spas in Acworth and Atlanta, where a total of eight people died and one was wounded. Authorities say six of those killed were Asian women, and the others were a White woman and a White man. The victim who survived is a Hispanic man. The sole suspect is a 21-year-old White man named Robert Aaron Long, who remains jailed.

Officials from the Atlanta Police Department and the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) claim that Long immediately confessed to the killings and denied they were motivated by racism, but rather by a desire to kill people he blamed for his own “sexual addiction.” Authorities say they continue to investigate and have not ruled out any motives, and Long has not been charged with hate crimes. 

Vigil attendees listen to the speakers at Brook Run Park’s amphitheater. (Joshua Crowder)

Many advocacy organizations and elected officials have said the killings should be considered  hate crimes due to the race of the majority of victims and of the suspect, and as a way of highlighting the rise in anti-Asian bias and attacks. Fueling the controversy were comments by a CCSO captain at a March 17 press conference, who paraphrased Long’s alleged confession as having a “bad day” and who later was revealed to have promoted T-shirts with a joke logo that scapegoated China for the coronavirus.

At the Dunwoody vigil, speaker Sabrina Rahim, who is Asian American and Muslim, said that when crimes happen to Asian Americans, “they are minimized. Have you guys noticed that? They are blamed on mental illness and not hate. They are blamed on sexual addiction, not hate.  They’re blamed on having a bad day or being at the end of one’s rope. 

Sabrina Rahim speaks at the vigil. (Joshua Crowder)

“We can’t let that be the prevailing rhetoric,” Rahim continued. “We can’t let that be the narrative. Let’s take it back. These killings were motivated by Asian hate and dehumanization.”

Tran said he has been involved in political responses to some of the pandemic’s acts of anti-Asian bigotry, including a small protest at the Atlanta Chinatown mall in Chamblee and signs posted along I-285 ramps in Dunwoody reading, “Boycott China.” He said he has had customers abruptly leave his cafe immediately after walking in, possibly once they see he is Asian, though he can’t be sure.

Dunwoody resident Pat Rudolph told vigil attendees how the recent bigotry affected his family. He said he met his wife in China, where he promised her father to give her a “better life” in America. During the pandemic, Rudolph said, their daughter, a Chicago resident, was “accosted at the grocery store and yelled at by a stranger for bringing the virus to America.” He said that “besides being angry, my first thought was, ‘I failed them. I lied to her father. This is not the country I wanted to bring them to.’”

“The best thing we can do is marginalize people who show hatred. We have to call them out,” said Rudolph. 

Dunwoody resident Pat Rudolph describes his family’s experience with pandemic-era bigotry. (Joshua Crowder)

Learning about local racism

Two student speakers said they were led to believe that racism no longer exists in America, but learned differently through experiences in local schools.

Bri Harris, a Dunwoody High sophomore who is White, said the end-of-racism rhetoric caused her to not process what she saw with her own eyes. “So growing up, when I would hear my friends pull their eyes back and make voices and noises to mimic different races and Asian American and Black people, I thought nothing of it, because I thought racism could no longer exist in this century,” she said. The pandemic gave her time to reflect on such issues, she said, “and really realize how disgusting people have been acting and how much I have been able to stand by and just accept it and [continue] saying nothing of it.”

Douglas, whose father is White and whose mother is from Cambodia, said she, too, once believed racism was over. “It’s important to note I look more Caucasian than Asian,” she said. But in middle school, she said, classmates began making racist comments based on her mother. “I never thought to speak up, afraid that I would lose friends or come off as rude,” Douglas said.

Madeline Douglas, a sophomore at Dunwoody High School, speaks to the vigil attendees about her experiences with a racism in school and her family’s diversity. (Joshua Crowder)

Douglas said her family is diverse in many ways, with other members who are Jewish and from such countries as China, England and Vietnam. Some are Protestant Christians, some are Buddhists; some are Republicans, some are Democrats.

“My mom bought the largest dinner table possible for our house so we can enjoy large family meals. We all have a voice at the table,” Douglas said. “We laugh and enjoy each other’s company and diversity. We may disagree, but there is never a place for prejudice and racism, [and] less of all, hate.” 

“[While] my family’s far from perfect, the kindness shown around our dinner table could go a long way in today’s society,” said Douglas.

Lit candles are held by attendees to remember the victims of the spa shootings. (Joshua Crowder)

Political reactions

In the wake of last year’s historic Black Lives Matter protests, such dinner-table-style discussions became a popular method for civic discussions about race and racism. In the neighboring cities of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs, such discussions spawned official government commissions on racial justice, inclusion and diversity that began work this year. Despite early talk from some officials, similar processes have not materialized in Dunwoody. However, two of the key figures in last year’s talk spoke at the vigil: Mayor Lynn Deutsch and Lydia Singleton-Wells, an activist who organized local Black Lives Matter protests.

Singleton-Wells delivered an opening prayer, calling on God to “give us strength to be an example of what unity and diversity and love should look like” and to “use this to bring us together so we can move forward stronger.”

Deutsch said she has some personal understanding of bigotry. “I was a Jewish child in the Deep South, and there was always an awareness that I was different, but I hoped that by now we would be past the point where difference matters,” she said.

Mayor Lynn Deutsch speaks during the vigil. (Joshua Crowder)

But as a policy-maker, she said, she struggles with how to “change people’s hearts and sometimes their minds.” She called for people to act as “upstanders,” a term for those who stand up to bullies and bigots popularized by the group Facing History and Ourselves. “What is it going to take to be the community of people who stick up for each other?” she asked.

Echoing Douglas’s comments, Deutsch said that “finding a dinner table” is an answer, but the difficulty is shunning those who are racist while welcoming those whose minds could be changed. “How we get to the place where everyone wants to sit at the same table, or most people want to sit at the same table, I think is the biggest question that this country faces in terms of racial hate and just hate in general,” she said.

Jill Vogin, a local activist known for knitting politically themed sweaters, said that voting rights activism is one key answer. She noted the recent elections where Trump lost Georgia and local cities, and where Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, and Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is Black, won U.S. Senate seats. 

“I believe we are never going to get rid of the hate in this country as long as there are people who are profiting from it politically,” said Vogin. “And the only way we’re gonna change is like we saw in Georgia this time, which is to vote those people out, to show that those voices do not mean political success and power.”

Among those attending the vigil were Lydia Singleton-Wells, center left, who organized Black Lives Matter protest events in the city last year, and political activist Jill Vogin, center right, in a sweater reading “No Place for Hate.” (Joshua Crowder)

Another national context for the spa killings is America’s trend of mass shootings, which has resumed after a lull during last year’s pandemic shutdowns and sparked talk of gun control from President Biden. The day before the Dunwoody vigil, 10 people were killed in a mass shooting at a Colorado grocery store. The suspect in that case, according to media reports, is a 21-year-old man with a history of violence and paranoia who had complained of religious and racial bigotry against him due to being Muslim, and allegedly told a classmate he would use hate-crime accusations as a cover for fighting someone.

At the Dunwoody vigil, Tran referred to the Colorado shooting, saying he was concerned about a possible “backlash” of bigotry against Muslims. 

In the interview, Tran referred to other recent infamous mass shootings: the 2015 killings at an African American church in South Carolina and a 2018 massacre at a Pennsylvania synagogue, where the suspects were charged with hate crimes, and the 2016 mass murder at a gay and Latino nightclub in Florida, which was initially called a hate crime but eventually described by authorities as an opportunistic terrorist attack in tribute to ISIL.

Tran said that a solution to such killings must come from “addressing the core issues” of hatred and violence “rather than just focusing on each community each time it happens.”

Photos and contributed reporting by Joshua Crowder

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.