ATLANTA (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris gave remarks in Georgia Friday to offer support to the Asian American community following a string of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent.
The presidential trip was planned before the shooting, as part of a victory lap aimed at selling the benefits of the recently-passed coronavirus relief package. But Biden and Harris changed the focus of the trip after the attack, feeling “it was important to change the trip a little bit and offer their support and condemn the violence,” a White House official said.
Harris said whatever the motive for the shootings, they took place amid a rise in hate crimes and acts of discrimination against Asian-Americans. Harris said 3,800 incidents ranging from remarks to physical assaults have been reported in the past year, including two of three reported by women.
“We were reminded, yet again, that the crises we face are many, that the foes we face are many,” Harris said. “Ultimately, this is about who we are as a nation. This is about how we treat people with dignity and respect.”
Biden and Harris met with Asian American state legislators and other community leaders about racist rhetoric and actions against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Harris is the first person of South Asian descent to hold national office.
As part of those talks, Biden said he heard from experts about how “hate and violence often hide in plain sight” but he said that has to change because “silence is complicity.”
“Too many Asian-Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying, waking up each morning over the past year feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are at stake,” Biden said.
Earlier Friday, Biden called on U.S. lawmakers to quickly pass a COVID-19 hate crimes bill, saying while the motive was still unknown in this week’s shooting in Georgia, the nation faced an “ongoing crisis of gender-based and anti-Asian violence.”
“It’s time for Congress to codify and expand upon these actions — because every person in our nation deserves to live their lives with safety, dignity, and respect,” he said in a statement released as he headed to Georgia.
Biden ordered the U.S. flag flown at half-staff at the White House to honor the victims of Tuesday’s shootings.
The president has also directed White House officials Cedric Richmond and Susan Rice to engage with the community, and supports recent legislation calling for an expanded Justice Department review of COVID-19-related hate crimes.
The White House confirmed the president also will meet with Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.
Biden stumbled as he climbed aboard Air Force One to head to Georgia. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters he was “doing 100 percent fine.” She suggested high winds at Joint Base Andrews near Washington may have been a factor.
Robert Aaron Long has been charged with eight counts of murder for killing four people at two different day spas in Atlanta — Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa — and four other victims at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in Cherokee County Tuesday.
Authorities said Long, who’s white, told police his act wasn’t racially motivated and that he potentially had a “sex addiction.”
“Nothing is off the table for our investigation,” Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton said at a news conference in response to a question about whether police were looking at the killings as possible hate crimes.
The incidents of hate crimes against Asian Americans rose by 149% in 2020 in 16 major cities compared with 2019, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its partner advocacy groups, since March 2020.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen said, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House and a frequent advocate for women and communities of color.
In his first primetime address to the nation as president last Thursday — five days before the Atlanta killings — Biden called attacks on Asian Americans “un-American.” Biden ordered the flag be flown at half-staff at the White House to honor the victims of Tuesday’s rampage.
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the U.S., and the deadliest since the August 2019 Dayton killing that took the lives of nine people, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.