'We Must Do Better': Heartbroken but Determined Asian Lawmakers on What Comes Next After Atlanta Shootings

Rep. Judy Chu says that she "knew this day would come": What she and other politicians want done to prevent more violence

Marilyn Strickland, Judy Chu, Ted Lieu
From left: Marilyn Strickland, Judy Chu, Ted Lieu. Photo: Dave Martin/AP/Shutterstock; Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty; Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

In the wake of the Atlanta-area spa shootings last week — which killed eight people, including six Asian women — Asian American lawmakers say leaders "must do better" when it comes to protecting people from hate crimes.

Police have not confirmed an official motive, though investigators have said the suspect seemed to have a sex addiction and the spas were "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate."

Nonetheless, experts say the details of the massacre don't allow race and gender to be easily separated, whatever the suspect tells police.

Amid the outpouring of grief for the victims, the shootings have also spurred a national conversation about rising anti-Asian racism and violence.

"The murderer had gone to three business, all of whom happened to be Asian businesses, and killed a number of people — the majority of whom were Asian," Rep. Ted Lieu tells PEOPLE, adding: "It's not clear that there's any external evidence that he was in fact a sex addict. Even if he was — if his sexual addiction is to Asian women, that would be racially motivated."

Lieu, a Democrat representing California's 33rd Congressional District, is among the lawmakers voicing support for legislative measures that can help protect Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, such as the Hate Crimes Commission Act, which calls for a 12-member bipartisan group that would investigate the rise in hate crimes.

Another bill, known as the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, would direct the Department of Justice to facilitate the expedited review of hate crimes motivated by someone's race as it relates to COVID-19.

President Joe Biden backs the measure, which he said in a recent statement would "expedite the federal government's response to the rise of hate crimes exacerbated during the pandemic, support state and local governments to improve hate crimes reporting, and ensure that hate crimes information is more accessible to Asian American communities."

"We must do better as leaders. We can't or nothing will change," Rep. Marilyn Strickland — among the first of three Korean-American women to come to Congress — says when asked about the steps available to lawmakers.

In the wake of the spa shootings, Strickland delivered a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in which she focused on three things that she said needed to be addressed legislatively to ensure incidents like the one in Atlanta didn't happen again: "Gun violence, violence against women and the meteoric rise in racially motivated violence."

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a troubling spate of violent and sometimes deadly attacks and discrimination against Asian Americans. Stop AAPI Hate estimated there had been nearly 3,800 anti-Asian bias incidents since March 2020.

Some observers have blamed former President Donald Trump — who referred to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "kung flu" — for fueling the racism.

"As leaders ... you have to be mindful of the language you use. The tone and tenure of words used by former presidents saying things like 'kung flu' — those are racist words," Strickland says.

March In Solidarity With Asian Community Held In Aftermath Atlanta Killings
Demonstrators take to the streets to show their support for Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities on Saturday in Atlanta. Megan Varner/Getty

Strickland says that Trump's words — and the failure of some lawmakers to denounce them — stoked the fire that may have already been below the surface. "It just felt like everything was just brewing in this giant cauldron of poison," she says.

Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the first Chinese-American woman to serve in Congress, says that her initial reaction to Trump's use of derogatory and racist anti-Asian phrases was one of pain.

"I felt like it was a stab wound each time he said it," Chu tells PEOPLE. "I felt that he was attacking the entire community, but I felt it personally."

Adding that she was "horrified and heartbroken" by the Atlanta shootings, Chu says that she "knew this day would come."

"Because the anti-Asian hate crimes were not being addressed by President Trump and, in fact, he doubled down on his usage of the terms 'China virus,' 'Wuhan virus' and 'kung flu,' even though the CDC and World Health Organization said one shouldn't use such terms because they create a stigma to people of that particular ethnicity," Chu says.

The representative says that the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus "issued statements, wrote letters, and held press conferences" to plead with Trump and other politicians that such language was dangerous — but it to no avail.

"President Trump not only increased his usage of those terms, he used them at every single rally and the rhetoric just increased over time," Chu says. "There was no one who was there at the top of leadership who was willing to stop it."

Lieu, who penned an op-ed last March arguing that Trump was "stoking xenophobic panic" with his anti-Asian rhetoric, says he worried about the impact the language would have on young children based on his personal experience.

"It's not just racism — it's also mockery. And you have a number of kids and children who are watching this," Lieu says. "When I grew up, people called me 'chink' and told me to go back to my country and [when I first heard Trump say 'kung flu'] I was just thinking, 'Oh great, now all of these children are going to hear this when they go back to school.' "

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Candles are lit at a Friday peace vigil in New York City to honor victims of attacks on Asians. Stephanie Keith/Getty

With a new administration now in office, and a new focus on anti-Asian violence and discrimination, Lieu and other lawmakers say they feel more confident than ever before that the myriad problems associated with hate crimes can begin to be addressed.

"I'm confident," Lieu says, drawing a comparison between hate crime bills and anti-gun violence measures. "With issues of gun safety, there is a sustained, large opposition at work — the NRA — that opposes gun safety legislation. With hate crimes legislation, there's no sustained opposition to it."

Still, Lieu adds, more needs to be done to educate the public (particular those who are ignorant to the discrimination facing others) before change can take root.

"There's also a larger educational issue [at play]: a lot of Americans are never taught about the history, or full history, of our country ... Especially when America feels threatened, oftentimes ethnic groups get scapegoated," he says.

To bring further attention to the issue, Chu is calling for a National Day to Speak Out on March 26, where she is asking both members of the AAPI community and their allies to take action.

"Whether it's on Twitter or a post on your Facebook, or a virtual event or an in-person event — anything to speak out on Asian hate," Chu says. "I would like to see an echo throughout this country … where people are really standing up to anti-Asian hate."

To learn more and to report crimes, go to: Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Stop the AAPI Hate, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, and Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council.

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