‘The hate has to stop’: Philly mourns at Chinatown vigil for Atlanta spa shooting victims

With an undercurrent of solidarity, speakers talked about colonialism, the criminalization of sex work, policing and immigration policy.

Max Marin / Billy Penn

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Standing before a candlelit crowd, Mel Lee choked up as she talked about her daughter facing threats of violence as an Asian woman.

What happened in Atlanta could happen anywhere, she said — even here in Chinatown.

“We know this is not a separate attack, but something that follows a long history of violence against Asian Americans,” Lee said.

More than 100 people gathered in Center City to mourn the loss of eight people killed in the Atlanta spa shootings, including six women of Asian American descent. Vigil-goers held signs with messages like “white supremacy is the real virus” and “stop femicide,” as community leaders spoke over the din of traffic on the Vine Street Expressway.

Atlanta police have not said outright that Tuesday’s mass murder was racially motivated. But many of Philly’s Asian community leaders shared a strong sentiment to treat it as such.

Beyond fear, Wednesday’s vigil brought out feelings of anger and blame. The crowd cheered as speakers drew on a constellation of issues: white supremacy, colonialism, the criminalization of sex work, concerns about policing and immigration policy, inequities revealed by the pandemic. One activist noted that massage workers at spas like those in Atlanta do not qualify for vaccines right now in Philadelphia.

“I feel pissed off and I feel numb,” said Sarun Chan of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia. “I don’t know how many of you have been raised in Philly, but racism is not new here in the city.”

Max Marin / Billy Penn

Councilmember Helen Gym drew ties between the uptick in violence against Asians and the former President Trump’s rhetoric about China. “What happened yesterday is also the result of the anti-Asian slurs, rhetoric, mockery and harassment that has come from the former president’s mouth,” Gym said.

New data from the group Stop AAPI Hate found nearly 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian racism over the last year, with about 70% of those incidents targeting women. Pennsylvania ranked fifth among states for most complaints received, with 97 since March 2020, when the researchers began collecting data. And these only account for reported incidents — local advocates say the vast majority of verbal or violent threats never reach a police report.

Max Marin / Billy Penn

In downtown Philadelphia last year, an Asian American woman and her daughter reported being attacked and called racist slurs. John Chin, director of the Chinatown Community Development Corporation, talked about a recent survey of 400 Asian residents who received coronavirus vaccines. Of those, Chin said one in five experienced some form of racist remark or attack in the last year.

“This hate has to stop,” Chin said.

Amid the anger, fear, and grief, the nearly two-hour vigil at 10th and Race had a strong undercurrent of solidarity. Dozens of other community and religious groups showed up to hold candles in support of the city’s Asian community, joining in singalongs and prayers.

“We need to understand that we’re louder together,” said Chan, of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia. “We can be funny together, we can cry together, and no matter where we end up — at the end of this pandemic hopefully — we’re still here together.”

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