When Tiffany Tan spoke on the steps of Peace and Justice Plaza Sunday, she thought of her mother and grandmother.
Tan’s mother, 54-year-old Chapel Hill resident Winnie Tong, was in the crowd, listening as her daughter spoke of solidarity with the Asian American community.
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“It really warms my heart seeing everyone united,” Tan said.
Dozens of community members gathered on the plaza to remember and honor the victims of the recent shootings at Atlanta-area spas. They held signs that read “Stop Asian hate” and “Asian is not a virus, racism is.”
Six of the eight victims in the March 16 Atlanta-area shootings were women of Asian descent. The suspect is a white man.
Anti-Asian attacks and discrimination have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic, fueled by political figures like former president Donald Trump, who used terms like “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu” to describe COVID-19.
Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative that tracks and responds to anti-Asian incidents, counted nearly 3,800 incidents between March 2020 and February 2021.
In the wake of these incidents over the past year, and now the Atlanta shootings, Asian American community members across North Carolina have been gathering to grieve, honor the victims and support one another.
Tan’s mother told her about Sunday’s gathering the night before. The UNC-Greensboro first year immediately knew she wanted to be there.
“Especially as an Asian American, it really pains me that if my grandma walked down the street, she might be pushed over,” Tan said. “I just really feel for these people, so I wanted to come out and speak up for them.”
‘We will never let this happen’
Grief. Frustration. Heartbreak.
That’s what Ricky Leung, senior director of programs for North Carolina Asian Americans Together, said he felt upon realizing how targeted the Atlanta shootings were, particularly toward Asian women.
But Leung also knew there was work to do.
“The day after, it was just all hands on deck for our organization to see what we can do for our community,” he said.
The night after the Atlanta shootings, March 17, NCAAT and UNC’s Asian American Center co-hosted a virtual vigil. The event amassed nearly 300 attendees.
“It showed us it was really needed,” Leung said.
Chapel Hill Town Council member Hongbin Gu attended the gathering, which was organized by NCAAT and the North Carolina Chinese American Friendship Association, on Sunday.
“This is what community is supposed to be,” she said. “I’m just very proud of our Town of Chapel Hill, the Town of Carrboro, Orange County, everyone just coming together and trying to take a clear stance and send the message that this is not tolerable in our community.”
As a town council member, Gu has heard many accounts of anti-Asian discrimination from within the community. Asian American nurses have told her that their services have been rejected by patients and their families. Asian American children have told her that they’re shunned by other kids on the playground, even though they wear masks.
When Gu’s own daughter was at the airport in early 2020, someone told her, “Don’t bring the virus to us.”
“I think all of these things that happened just accumulated over the past year,” Gu said. “It’s just really devastating.”
What has brought Gu hope is the support she’s seen from local community members and social justice organizations following the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
This unity, Gu said, is crucial to moving forward and preventing further violence against Asian Americans.
“We will never let this happen, and if it happens, we’re all in this together,” she said.
Waves of Anti-Asian violence
Though violence against Asian Americans has risen throughout the pandemic, community members emphasize that anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are not new.
At the March 17 virtual vigil, Heidi Kim, director of UNC’s Asian American Center, said she’s lived through several waves of anti-Asian violence.
“When there are that many waves, what it means is that it’s always there,” Kim said. “It just enters into the public consciousness a little bit more at certain times than at others.”
In 2018, Chinese restaurant owner Hong Zheng was shot and killed outside his home in Durham.
In 2015, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salka and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were shot and killed in Chapel Hill by a white man. The shooter was not charged with a hate crime.
Hate crime legislation was insufficient in the past, and now, in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, state lawmakers are once again working to improve hate crime legislation.
At the vigil, N.C. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D–Wake), said he plans to reintroduce the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. First introduced in 2019, the legislation would expand North Carolina’s hate crimes law to include ethnicity, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. It would also increase the penalty for a hate crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.
In tandem with the push for legislative change, Asian American community members hope to continue providing spaces for solidarity and healing.
Leung said the resiliency of the Asian American community has been clear in the organizing that happened day after day in the week following the Atlanta shootings and throughout the pandemic, particularly over the last month.
“That resiliency makes me feel like what we’re doing is on the right track,” Leung said.
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