‘This is a wake up call’: Georgia’s Asian communities turn tragedy into political power

Its success – or failure – could have lasting repercussions both on the survival of the upcoming hate crime legislation in Congress and on the strength of the Democrats’ hold in the peach state.

So you are calling for mobilization yourself. Asian Americans, political leaders say, were once largely on the fringes of US politics. Her headlong immersion in the organization, which has been built for decades and achieved its greatest results in 2020, keeps Georgia at the center of the political universe.

“With the newfound political currency that Asian Americans have in Georgia, we are ready to spend it and get things done,” said Chris Chan, advisory chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Asian American Action Fund.

This desire to act was noticeable during a weekend protest near the Georgia State Capitol. The flags were at half the workforce on Saturday; Metal barricades surrounded the entire building and extended down the block.

Police “are trying to humanize the killer,” said Lucy Lee, a Sino-American Marietta resident among the more than 600 demonstrators.

“They are trying to stigmatize the victims and the Asian community,” said Lee, who wore a red, white and blue jacket and carried a massive American flag. “That’s the part that I really can’t tolerate anymore.”

Before the shooting on March 16, Lee was not politically active. That has now changed.

“I’m American. I’m not just here to make money and go back to Asia,” said Lee. “I’m here to stay.”

“You have to be involved”

Over the past year, a combination of grassroots organization and targeted advertising helped increase AAPI’s political participation ahead of the presidential and Senate runoffs. Groups like the Asian American Action Fund spent millions tailoring their messages to AAPI voters. Campaign mailers, as well as online and television advertising, have condemned Donald Trump’s abuse of the pandemic – and extolled the power of AAPI voters to make history in the 2020 election. The organizers knocked on doors in more than a dozen languages ​​and called cold-voted voters.

A year-long surge in anti-Asian violence due to Trump’s White House rhetoric also motivated Asian Americans to get involved, particularly in Georgia, experts say. Asian Americans in the state saw the largest increase in voter turnout of any group between 2016 and 2020 with one 91 percent more ballot papers. Quit polls showed that the majority of those votes were for Joe Biden.

If Democrats rely on the same gamebook of consistent liaison with AAPI voters, they are likely to maintain their momentum across the state in future elections. Georgia’s Asian-American leaders, mostly Democrats, want to keep the rapidly diversifying suburbs of Atlanta blue. Young Asian activists, older voters who again reluctant to get involved in politics, and black and Latin American communities have become part of this coalition. This coalition was featured at the weekend rally, where hundreds of black, Latin American and Asian leaders and community members gathered to commemorate the victims of the shooting.

“We have seen the Asian-American community translate into real political power with this economic power and demographic growth,” said MP Sam Park, Georgia’s first representative of the Korean-American state.

Gwinnett County, once a Republican stronghold and Georgia’s second most populous park, was elected a park in 2017. This made him the first Asian-American Democrat to be elected to the General Assembly. The influx of immigrants from nearly half a dozen Asian countries – Korea, China, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan – contributed to its success. Gwinnett County, which now comprises 11 percent of Asia, moved six points to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Biden tripled those wins in 2020, winning the district by 18 points.

Park and other Asian American leaders say they can draw a clear line between Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus last March and the surge in violence against members of their communities.

The Center for Hate and Extremism Research found a Almost 150 percent more reported anti-Asian hate crimes Proponents believe that many more crimes go unreported because victims are unwilling to speak up, sometimes out of the victims’ suspicion of the police or fear of retaliation. And until recently, much of the incidents occurred without much public attention. Women and elders are particularly at risk, proponents say. Of the eight victims killed on March 16, six were Chinese and Korean women between the ages of 51 and 74. (The other two victims were white and Latina.)

“For AAPIs who may not have been involved before, this is a wake up call to say, ‘You need to be involved,” said Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Chair of the Asia-Pacific-US Congress Caucus in Congress. With 21 members, the group is the largest in the history of the Congress.

“The fact that we have AAPI leaders at all is the result of increased political involvement by the AAPI. But we need more of it at every management level, ”said Chu.

Four more Asian Americans are now joining as Representatives and Senators Park at the Georgia State House. They represent the various Asian communities in Georgia. A central principle of their public relations work is the desire to suppress the idea that Asian Americans are an “exemplary minority”. One whom the leaders call a myth paints them as monolithic, universally successful and without political freedom of choice. The inspiration for more Asian Americans to get involved has led to more nuances in politics affecting them.

“A lot of conventional wisdom, or what people have said or heard to me, is that Asians don’t turn out to be. There aren’t that many of them, “said Michelle Au, a 2020 senator elected.” People tend to have these unfair stereotypes about this electorate and the power of their votes. “

The Senate District of Au has the highest percentage of Asian Americans in GeorgiaAccording to the census data, nearly a quarter of their voters identify as Asian, more than double the Georgia average and four times the US average. She is convinced that these demographics played a role in Georgia’s newly minted blue status.

“You could argue that very plausibly [Asian Americans] were the profit margin in the state of Georgia, “Au said. “Because we turned out to be.”

This newfound sense of political agency gives Georgian AAPI leaders an increased level of responsibility for enforcing hate crime laws while more members of their community become politically involved. Last June, following the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who was last killed by white guards, Georgian lawmakers passed a law punishing hate crimes. However, the March 16 shootings will test the limits of this law, which does not apply to standalone crimes and can only be used as an additional fee.

Robert Aaron Long has been charged with eight homicide cases for the shooting in Fulton and Cherokee counties. Investigators in both counties have not yet classified the shooting as a hate crime. Cherokee County’s law enforcement agencies instead cited his alleged sexual addiction as a motive.

Their reluctance has frustrated many leaders inside and outside the AAPI community, who helped promote the passage of the hate crimes law last summer.

“I’m tired of hearing what happened to this sick and misguided person. I don’t care if he had a bad day or not, ”said Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock in his remarks during Saturday’s rally.

“You will only invite more robbers”

Still, not all Asian Americans in Georgia view the massacre as inherently political. The Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta, the area’s most established community group that represents more than 50,000 Korean Americans, was slow to recognize that the shooting was a hate crime.

Their silence caused friction among members of the Atlanta Korean-American community. Lawyers familiar with discussions say the association initially did not want to label the shooting as a hate crime until investigators did so. Waiting too long could have led to more tension.

“You will only invite more robbers if you leave a room with a broken window unattended,” said Brian Kim, organizer and religious leader of Gwinnett County in the Korean-American community. Kim said he and others in the area have taken the lead in organizing hate crime events while the Korean American Association stepped back.

There is also some degree of internal conflict over the political engagement of Asian Americans. Many who have been in the US for generations are pretty conservative. Before the Democrats increased their reach for Asian Americans and ran more for office, a greater proportion of them voted for Republicans, according to Asian Americans who have lived in Georgia for decades. The state’s Republicans have yet to launch a sustainable public relations campaign for the electoral bloc before next year’s elections.

Meanwhile, AAPI Democrats say they plan to use this demographic’s voting rights beyond next year’s Senate and gubernatorial elections.

“We have to keep everything warm,” said Chan. Political organizers in Asia and America must “maintain our political strength and momentum, and then we will advance through 2022,” he said.

Au and Park were among the Asian leaders who met with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday. During the meeting, they suggested a number of measures to curb the spread of anti-Asian violence, including using better data to track and report the number of hate crimes occurring.

Sheikh Rahman, a US Senator from Bangladesh, also met with Biden and Harris last week. He said the president had tears in his eyes as he listened to community lawyers and political leaders discuss the racist violence they have faced over the years.

“You understood what was going on,” said Rahman. “This was a dark meeting.”

The day after that meeting, Lee spoke at the rally in the shadow of the Georgia State Capitol that she had never spoken on issues affecting the Asian-American community, despite having lived in the United States for more than 30 years. However, she said the shootings left her no choice, particularly when Cherokee County officials refused to label the shootings a hate crime. In their view, the massacre marks the culmination of a series of hate crimes against Asians in the country over the past year.

“I want to be part of this country,” said Lee. “That’s why I have the feeling that, as a loyal American like everyone else, I want to make this country even better, even though it is already the largest country in the world.”

Catherine Kim and Eugene Daniels contributed to this report.

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