ATLANTA - A diverse crowd gathered Saturday in a park across from the Georgia Capitol to demand justice for the victims of shootings at massage businesses days earlier and to denounce racism, xenophobia and misogyny.
The hundreds of people of all ages and varied racial and ethnic backgrounds who gathered in Liberty Plaza in Atlanta waved signs and cheered for speakers, including U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and Georgia state Representative Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House.
"I just wanted to drop by to say to my Asian sisters and brothers, 'We see you, and, more importantly, we are going to stand with you,' " Warnock said to loud cheers and against the backdrop of drivers in passing cars honking their horns in support. "We're all in this thing together."
Robert Aaron Long, 21, a white man, is accused of killing four people inside two Atlanta spas and four others at a massage business about 30 miles (50 kilometers) away in suburban Cherokee County. Six of the eight people killed on Tuesday were women of Asian descent. Another person also was shot but survived.
Investigators have said that Long confessed to the slayings but that he contended they weren't racially motivated. He said he had a sex addiction that caused him to lash out at what he saw as sources of temptation, according to authorities. Police have said they're still working to establish a motive, including looking into whether the attacks can be classified as hate crimes.
Georgia lawmakers last year passed a hate crimes law that allows additional penalties to be imposed for certain offenses when motivated by a victim's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability. A hate crime is not a stand-alone crime under the law, but it can be used to add time to a sentence once someone is convicted of another crime.
"No matter how you want to spin it, the facts remain the same: This was an attack on the Asian community," said Nguyen, who has been a frequent advocate for women and communities of color. She noted that the shooter targeted businesses operated by women of Asian descent.
"Let's join hands with our ally community and demand justice for not only these victims but for all victims of white supremacy," she said.
About 200 people gathered in a separate park in the heart of downtown Atlanta and marched together through the streets to join the larger rally, shouting slogans like "Stop Asian hate" and "We are what America looks like."
Frankie Laguna, 23, who grew up in Atlanta but now lives in Tennessee, was an organizer of that group and told the crowd she was the first person in her family born in the U.S. after her mother came here from Taiwan.
"I'm sick of being belittled and hypersexualized and hated for who I am, for something I can't change," she said as the group began marching toward the Capitol.
She also participated in protests last summer against racial injustice and police brutality.
"I'm tired of having to be out here every year to fight the same fight," she said.
Bernard Dong, 24, a student from China at Georgia Tech, said he'd come to the protest across from the Capitol to demand rights not just for Asians but for all minorities.
"Many times, Asian people are too silent, but times change," he said.
Dong said he was "angry and disgusted" about the shootings, and the violence that persists in 2021 against Asians, minorities and women.
Otis Wilson, 38, a photographer who's Black, said people need to pay attention to the discrimination those of Asian descent face.
"We went through this last year with the Black community, and we're not the only ones who go through this," he said.
Camden Hunt, 28, a Black woman, said she got involved in activism in her native Baltimore. She previously attended protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who suffered a broken neck in police custody in Baltimore in 2015, triggering riots and protests that year. She moved to Atlanta four years ago and got involved in community organizing, last summer pulling together an event to support Black women victimized by police violence.
Hunt came to the rally Saturday to "show Black and Asian solidarity." She said she was heartened by the diverse crowd: "I think it's amazing. I look out and I see people of all shades and ages and backgrounds."