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//A woman holds a #StopAsianHate sign at the Denver vigil honoring the Atlanta shootings victims infront of Coors Field on March 20. Photo by Ali Mai | alimai@msmayhem.com

Grief and anger delivered a unified message at a candlelight vigil for the victims of last week’s Atlanta massage parlor shooting. The vigil, which doubled as a protest against anti-Asian hate, brought together AAPI and allies last night in Denver. The message was clear—marginalized groups must come together to dismantle white supremacy.

When Cody Chang organized the vigil for the murdered victims at the three Asian-owned establishments, six of the eight being Asian women, he didn’t expect to see a diverse crowd gather by the hundreds. People trickled in around 6 p.m. in front of Coors Field, the same area where Denver’s Chinatown once stood before being destroyed in a violent and racist riot in 1880. Candles placed on circular planters continued flickering as people dispersed around 9 p.m.

Chang scheduled 11 speakers, mostly Asian women, who shared messages about the Asian experience. They related the rising assaults that AAPI face as well as the harassment the community receives from scapegoating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 4,000 anti-Asian hate incidents from verbal to physical attacks were recorded from March 2020 to February this year by Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks incidents. Women accounted for 68% of reports.

As a Korean woman, the Atlanta shootings hit close to home for Ashlee Lewis. She is the executive director of a Denver non-profit called The Initiative, which serves disabled abuse victims. Lewis recalled men shouting racist and misogynist comments at her from their cars. After rejecting sexual advances in the past she’s been called a “Chink bitch” and a “Vietnamese whore.”

Women and elders, including a 75-year-old woman in San Francisco who fought off her attacker last week, have been common victims of anti-Asian attacks. Lewis said that AAPI members who hold multiple identities, whether they are women, LGBTQ, elderly or disabled, can have a larger target placed on them.

“When a community is stigmatized then the likelihood of those community members experiencing abuse goes up,” Lewis said in a separate interview with Ms. Mayhem. “Within that community, there are more vulnerable community members like women, disabled, queer, elders that they would be targeting. We need to keep in mind as we talk about the safety of community members, that one individual can hold multiple identities that can make them even more vulnerable to predators.”

Lewis often thinks about her two daughters and their safety. Friends tell her to “be safe,” but that’s not the solution to eliminate anti-Asian assaults and harassment, she said.

As she looked over the crowd of faces from different ethnicities lit up by the candles they held, Lewis called for unity and solidarity. She told Ms. Mayhem that if different communities fighting for civil rights joined each other’s causes they would be stronger together.

“For us to all unite, that is the worst thing that could happen to white supremacy. And so for the safety of Asian Americans, we have to unite and we have to advocate for other communities’ safety,” she said.

Joie Ha, another speaker, is the Vice-Chair of the commission to replace the plaque acknowledging the mob that destroyed Denver’s Chinatown and lynched a man in 1880. The plaque sits at 20th and Blake Streets, across the street from where the vigil gathered and reads “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880,” a title with derogatory language that ignores who was victimized during the riot.

Ha said that this is an example of poorly recorded AAPI history and that, “Our history hasn’t been easy, but it’s often not explored. It’s often not known.” 

She said that the Atlanta shootings were heartbreaking but not surprising.

“I think Asian Americans have been facing a lot of these issues for quite some time,” Ha said in a separate interview. “But it took a shooting like this for it to finally be something that folks talk about. For people to realize that Asians are still minorities because it’s not like we’ve achieved any particular status that makes us no longer oppressed or marginalized.” 

During her speech, Ha spoke about her single mother, who is a refugee from Vietnam. Ha compared the bad days her mother experienced to what Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office told reporters about what the shooter’s motivation’s were for killing 8 people. Baker blamed the shooter’s actions on a bad day. 

Her mother dropped out of school to care for her family. Ha said that her father left her mother as soon as she was born.

“I’d call that a fucking bad day,” Ha said. “She didn’t shoot people. You know what she did? She worked every day, she made sure I had a good life. She put food on the table.”

Though AAPI communities across the U.S. took to the streets this weekend, law officials are still reluctant to say the shooter’s motive was race-related during the ongoing investigation. Deputy Chief of Atlanta Police Charles Hampton Jr. said on March 18 that his department’s investigation is separate from Cherokee County and acknowledges that the majority of victims were Asian women. Baker, who has since been removed as the sheriff’s office spokesperson for the case, said last week that the shooter suffered from a sexual addiction and targeted the three massage parlors to eliminate his trigger.

Pasha Eve is an organizer of the volunteer group Parasol Patrol, which uses colorful rainbow-colored umbrellas to shield children from signs and people using hateful speech from protestors at different events like Pride. The group volunteered to walk vigil attendees back to their cars. 

In her speech, Eve said that she’s been asked several times by the press if she believes the Atlanta shootings were racially motivated or “just another incel with a gun.” She said that it’s not a singular narrative and that race, misogyny and hate toward sex workers were all at play.

“Why does it have to be either or? It can be—and,” she said.

Eve spoke about Asian women being fetishized, stigmatized and abused. She has been both a sex worker by choice and as a survivor of human trafficking, noting that there’s a distinct difference between the two. But both are stigmatized, she said, remembering her Korean grandmother who her family believed was a comfort woman. Comfort women was a name given to the Asian women forced into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II.

“There was a great, great stigma attached to being a comfort woman. So many hid their shame. My grandmother had a scar over her heart where there was most likely a tattoo showing which brothel, which house she belonged to,” Eve said.

Eve asked the crowd to bow with her in honor of those killed in the Atlanta shootings: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant (maiden name Kim), Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. 

She stood back up, holding the skirt of her traditional Korean hanbok, and looked at the crowd. She choked up as she said that so many people coming together was one of the most beautiful sights she’s ever seen. Scanning her  forefinger across the group, she claimed everyone as her own family.

Chang wrapped up the vigil by echoing the theme of unity present throughout the night..

“I want you to really take in what the speakers spoke about, how punching down shit will never fucking work,” he said. “Because nothing’s gonna get solved until everything gets solved. Your problems are my problem, and my problems are your problem.”

Below is a selection of photos from the vigil taken by Ali Mai. For information on the Denver’s Asian American Pacific Islander Commission visit their website.   

//Cody Chang, organizer of the vigil to honor the Atlanta shootings victims in front of Coors Field speaks about anti-Asian violence and hate. 

// Joie Ha, a speaker at the Denver vigil honoring the Atlanta shootings victims, kneels down while she listens to other speeches on March 20. Photo by Ali Mai | alimai@msmayhem.com

// A 13-year-old boy holding a “Fight Against Racism” sign at the Denver vigil honoring the Atlanta shootings victims in front of Coors Field.

// Attendees of the Denver vigil on March 20 honoring the Atlanta shootings victims and protesting anti-Asian hate held candles for the lives lost.