Atlanta: Opening Pandora’s Box
The criminalization and demonization of sex work has hurt and killed countless people–many at the hands of the police both directly and indirectly. Due to sexist racialized perceptions of Asian women, especially those engaged in vulnerable, low-wage work, Asian massage workers are harmed by the criminalization of sex work, regardless of whether they engage in it themselves.
–From Red Canary Song’s statement following the March 16 shootings in Atlanta
There are two Asian-Americas: one that is invisible, the other marginal.
–Claudine Ko in the NYT
Like many of you, I imagine, Deedspeakout closely followed the news in the days immediately following the shooting spree enacted at three Atlanta-area massage parlors (one in Cherokee County, two in Atlanta itself) on the afternoon of March 16, a Tuesday.
A brief review of the facts as known: The 21-year-old shooter, Robert Aaron Long, had purchased a 9 mm. handgun earlier on the same day; there is no waiting period between purchase and possession of a gun in Georgia (or in most other states). Around 3:38 pm, he entered Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth; he had sat outside in his car for about an hour before entering, and until 4:40 pm (survivor witness testimony), everything “seemed normal.” Long exited the spa at 4:50 (camera footage), so within a 10-minute period had killed two employees, both of Chinese descent (including the owner and a new employee) and shot three patrons, two of whom died at the hospital shortly after arrival. The husband of one of the patrons killed hid in another room during the shooting; he was initially considered a suspect (?) and was held, handcuffed, for four hours following the shooting.
Long then drove about 30 miles east to a strip mall in Atlanta, where he first entered the Gold Spa and shot three employees before crossing the street to the Aromatherapy Spa and killing the woman who opened the door to him thinking he was a customer. He left without entering the latter spa.
Long was quickly identified – although not quickly enough to prevent the second series of shootings – with the help of his parents (who had recognized his vehicle outside Young’s Asian Spa when they saw footage on television) and the GPS tracker in his car; he was apprehended about 150 miles south of Atlanta around 8.30 pm, apparently headed for Florida and more killing – perhaps at a company involved in pornography (production?).
As of this writing, Long has been charged with eight counts of murder and one of aggravated assault (of the survivor); he has not been charged under Georgia’s new law involving hate crimes, despite the fact that according to one surviving witness, when he entered the Gold Spa in Atlanta he called out “I’m going to kill all Asians.”
Initial reports seemed exceptionally sketchy, even for so-called “breaking news” stories. For example, it took two days for the names of the Atlanta victims to be published at all, and when they were, there were transliteration / spelling mistakes – the English-language press appeared unsure of the names of those who’d been killed. This, to us, suggested two things: first, connections between the English-language mainstream media in Atlanta and the Korean / Asian communities are not strong, despite the fact that there are several Korean-language and Korean-English (bilingual) publications in the city. Second, it suggested that one or more of the victims might be undocumented workers – there would therefore be only incomplete information available about them on record. It appears that both our initial hypotheses have been borne out by subsequent reporting.
Even today, two weeks after the killings, it’s not clear who the manager(s) were in Atlanta (in Cherokee County, the owner of Young’s Asian Massage parlor, Xiaojie Tan, and a relatively new employee, Daoyou Feng, were killed) and who the employees were; neither is it clear (to us, at least) which of the four Korean women killed in Atlanta were at the Gold Spa, and which at the Aromatherapy Spa – three were at the former, one at the latter, and we presume (since she had the keys) that the woman killed at the Aromatherapy spa was one of its managers.
It’s a complicated story not easily condensed into a 500-word reporting or Opinion piece – most of what I’ve read has addressed only a limited number of the many facets of this case:
“The hatred and violence toward Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander people is not new. There is a nexus of anti-Asian hatred, hatred of women, conflation of massage therapy and sex work, violence against perceived sex workers, disgusting racism. There are so many things wrong.” (emphasis added)
To the anti-Asian hatred (racism), misogyny, and massage therapy vs. sex work conflation noted above, we may add Christian fundamentalism (whose puritanical attitude towards human sexual desire and extra-marital relations hearkens back to its 17th century origins), Americans’ obsession with guns and gun culture generally – both of which often display a pronounced patriarchal bent, as well as the complexity of the ethnic and national origins of America’s Asian population, which is far from monolithic, with each ethnic/national group having its own pattern(s) of immigration, settlement, and occupation of professional niches within American society.
If one chooses to focus on the killer (which, as far as we can judge, the AAPI community is not doing), then one will accordingly focus on his membership in the Crabapple Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia and his service as a youth pastor there. Churches like Crabapple preach abstinence before/outside of marriage, youthful sexual “purity,” and see young males’ need for sexual outlets as a sin – a cardinal sin. Long claims to suffer from a “sexual addiction,” and had been treated at an evangelical residential addiction facility, HopeQuest, located not far from the first spa Long attacked in Ecworth. Chris Lynn Hedges, who has published a book on the Christian right, wrote a piece last week detailing the links between Christian extremism and sexual prurience, noting that for these sects, “evil” is very real, but it is externalized: the “enemy” lies not within ourselves, but rather is identifiable in the “Other” – seen as a “temptation” to be eradicated. If one eliminates the Other, one eliminates temptation.
“The killings in Atlanta were not an anomaly by a deranged gunman. The hatred for people of other ethnicities and faiths, the hatred for women of color, who are condemned by the Christian right as temptresses in league with Satan, was fertilized in the rampant misogyny, hyper-masculinity and racism that lie at the center of the belief system of the Christian right, as well as define the core beliefs of American imperialism.”
“Believers are told that Satanic forces, promoting a liberal creed of ‘secular humanism,’ lure people to self-destruction through drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography and massage brothels.”
We should probably anticipate that when the case comes to trial, the defense will focus at least partly on Long’s years of unsuccessfully battling his inner “demons” of sexual desire – we now know that he had previously patronized two of the spas where he wrought havoc on March 16. The prosecution, in turn, will counter that “sexual addiction” is not recognized as a bona fide mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5. Multiple mental health experts will probably be called to testify for both prosecution and defense.
Long had purchased the 9mm. handgun he used in the shootings at Big Woods Goods (a firearms store) in Holly Springs that same morning. In other mass shootings, this would have been a key issue, but the NRA is in bankruptcy proceedings and wasn’t able to do much more than post – what else – the 2nd Amendment in response. Should there be a mandatory wait time between purchase and pick-up of a firearm? Should there be a background check of the purchaser? Should we even be selling assault weapons of the AK/AR type, whether automatic or semi-automatic, to civilians? (Long purchased a handgun, but assault rifles account for 40% of deaths and 69% of injuries in mass shootings over the past 20 years). Is it the complexity of this shooting’s other issues which has relegated any mention of “gun control” to a few editorials? (To his credit, President Biden spoke out on this issue in February, and again following the shooting.)
Asian American writers have to date focused on the racism/sexism apparent in Long’s targeting of Asian-owned massage parlors and spas. Will there be any distinction made between the two women killed at Young’s Asian Massage, who were of Chinese descent, and the four women of Korean descent killed in Atlanta’s “red light district”? Probably not; most Americans don’t easily distinguish between the various ethnic/national groups of Asian Americans and immigrants, but certainly there is a difference for those involved. To many, those of Asian descent are automatically assigned to whatever national group the perpetrator has learned to vilify. Consider the example of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American draughtsman in Detroit out celebrating his upcoming marriage one night in June 1982; Chin was beaten to death by a disgruntled Chrysler worker and his laid-off stepson, who mistook him for Japanese and hated him for Japan’s rising dominance in the automotive industry. Such mistakes in identification are common, and it’s not at all clear whether the shooter himself was able to distinguish the ethnic heritage of the women he killed. (An irony we have not seen noted in any of the coverage of the Atlanta shootings: Long was driving a Korean car – a Hyundai Tucson.)
While the current anti-Asian-American fervor has recently been directly against Chinese-Americans due to the former President’s use of the phrases “Wuhan virus” and “Kung Flu” in referring to COVID-19, half the victims here were of Korean descent, and most of the responses we’ve read have focused on the four women (ages: 51, 63, 69, 74) Long killed in Atlanta. This may be due to the numerical predominance of the Korean community in Atlanta (approximately 50,000 people of Korean descent) vis-à-vis the much smaller community of Chinese descent (2000 census: 13,500); alternatively, it may be due to the specific history of Atlanta’s Asian populations, with greater focus on the group which has most recently arrived, and which therefore is less fully assimilated and accepted by the predominant local culture(s).
Working-class women of both Chinese and Korean descent have long been identified with professions which focus on “care of the body”: in addition to massage parlors, these women tend to be employed in nail and hair salons, as well as in restaurants (kitchen work) and the garment industry, where the labor is hard and unrelenting and the pay low (assuming they’re documented or citizens; if they’re not, the pay may be almost non-existent, with workers forced to depend largely on tips), and where there is little to no need to know English. (Speaking from the viewpoint of an ELL teacher, the fact that some women are in the U.S. 20,30 or more years without having been provided English language learning opportunities through some community organization, their church, or volunteers says a lot.)
Within these professions, there are class distinctions known to insiders: distinctions between owner-operators (small businesswomen) and employees, between citizens and non-citizens, between those who perform strictly massage-related service and those who perform sex work. Given their ages, it seems unlikely that the four women of Korean descent were performing sex work – more likely, those in their sixties and seventies were masseuses and/or cleaners. Undocumented workers may actually live on the premises and have little or no access to the world outside the spa.
While massage parlors and spas are associated in Americans’ popular imagination with sex work, not all establishments offer the latter service, and not all women in any given establishment provide it. But such subtleties are often lost in the aftermath of tragedy. The Atlanta shootings are thus entangled in America’s profoundly problematic relationship with the sex industry itself, something neither mainstream media, Korean-language media, nor the employees/owners themselves feel comfortable highlighting. One point on which local authorities – government officials, law enforcement – and the massage parlor employees/owners/community disagree, however, is on “what to do” in the wake of the shootings and the rise in anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. (in the past year alone, there were 3,800 documented cases of hate crimes against Asian Americans).
Red Canary Song, a non-profit mutual aid organization created in the wake of the 2017 suicide of Yang Song, a massage parlor worker, in Flushing, NY, argues for decriminalization of sex work among other measures such as affordable housing, access to public services, labor rights, and protection for undocumented workers – measures sought by advocates for the poorest and most vulnerable among us generally, but of special significance for workers in a niche profession which is particularly vulnerable to both neglect and exploitation by law enforcement. The organization’s position: “Anti-trafficking NGO’s that claim to speak for migrants in sex trades promote increased policing and immigration control, which harms rather than helps migrant sex workers.” Surely the group’s most important – and potentially life-saving – point is decriminalization, but this has scarcely been mentioned in mainstream coverage surrounding the Atlanta shootings, perhaps because the idea is so foreign to a country historically steeped in sexual repression and the simultaneous acceptance of the equally-historically based stereotypes of Asian women as “available” to American Caucasian males:
“Asian massage styles are conflated with sex work by a white male consciousness that cannot distinguish between these two things; by white men who fought in South Korea and Vietnam, and took away a belief that Asian women are all prostitutes, destitute and poor, that we can be maimed and killed with no repercussions. To them we are faceless and non-human.”
Returning to Chris Hedges:
“White supremacy, which dehumanizes the other at home and abroad, is also fueled by the fantasy that there are superior human beings who are white and lesser human beings who are not. Long did not need the Christian fascism of his church to justify to himself the killings; the racial hierarchies within American society had already dehumanized his victims.”
A perfect Pandora’s Box of evils was unwittingly thrown open by the Atlanta shootings. One’s answer(s) to the question of “What Now?” will depend on one’s own background, circumstances, and biases. We can’t undo our national history; we can’t bring back the lives that have been lost, or undo the injustices perpetrated in cycles, over and over again. Can America learn from its own – and others’ – history? Or will it suffice for us to demonstrate for a week or two, issue calls for change in our attitudes towards Asian Americans, and then rush on to the next crisis?
Selection of further reading:
On the history of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S.:
Chris Hedges in conversation with May Jeong, author of the piece above:
On decriminalization and mutual aid (vs. enhanced policing):
The Christian sex addiction industry:
(Especially good for understanding how each city/area’s Asian population has its own unique history; here, focus on Blacks and Asians [Chinese-Americans] in San Francisco)
Asian leaders on “Where Next?”: