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Asian Americans were already worn down by a year of pandemic-fueled racist attacks when a White gunman was charged with killing eight people, most of them Asian women, at three Atlanta-area massage parlors.

Hundreds of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders turned to social media to air their anger, sadness, fear and hopelessness. The hashtag #StopAsianHate was a top trending topic on Twitter hours after the shootings that happened Tuesday evening.

“I think the reason why people are feeling so hopeless is because Asian Americans have been ringing the bell on this issue for so long. … We’ve been raising the red flag,” said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of the Atlanta-based Asian American Advocacy Fund, which does political and advocacy work across Georgia.

After dropping off flowers Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Young’s Asian Massage Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Ga. Asian Americans, already worn down by a year of racist attacks fueled by the pandemic, are reeling but trying to find a path forward in the wake of the horrific shootings at three Atlanta-area massage businesses that left eight people dead, most of them Asian women. (Curtis Compton /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Many were also outraged that the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was not immediately charged with hate crimes. Authorities said Long told police the attack was not racially motivated, and he claimed that he targeted the spas because of a “sex addiction.” Six of the seven slain women were identified as Asian.

Law enforcement needs “some training understanding what a hate crime is. This man identified targets owned by Asians,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. The gunman “was very clearly going after a targeted group of people.”

Being Asian American herself, Huang said the shootings felt personal. She is worried that not classifying the attack as a hate crime will “absolutely discourage others from coming forward and seeking help.”

She also cringed at the comments of a sheriff’s captain who said of the gunman, “It was a really bad day for him.”

The remark “appeared to be trying to explain and justify” the suspect’s actions. “Hopefully it was a misstatement,” Huang said.

Mahmood said Asian American business owners in the Atlanta area were already fearful because of incidents like graffiti and break-ins. The shootings will raise that worry to new heights.

“A lot of Asian American business owners in the beauty parlor industry and food service — these are often the most visible front-line faces in the community,” Mahmood said.

Her organization is partnering with other groups such as the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice to offer resources in multiple languages, including mental health assistance, self-defense training and bystander training.

Meanwhile, from Phoenix to Philadelphia, Asian American organizations nationwide organized events aimed at showing unity.

Asian Americans United, the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance and several other partner groups held a vigil Wednesday afternoon in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood.

“After the month and year we had, we knew our folks needed the time to come together safely just to grieve and heal and mourn and speak to what’s happening,” said Mohan Seshadri, Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance co-executive director.

As much despair as Asian Americans feel, Seshadri said, the shootings also mark a flashpoint.