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Local vigils support Asian Americans in wake of Atlanta-area killings

From left, Cambridge residents Keira Lei, Grace Gong, Alan Ran and Song Feng, during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Cambridge City Hall on March 21, 2021.
From left, Cambridge residents Keira Lei, Grace Gong, Alan Ran and Song Feng, during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Cambridge City Hall on March 21, 2021.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

People gathered in Newton and Cambridge on Sunday to mourn six Asian American women killed in Atlanta-area massage spas last week and to denounce racism amid a rising tide of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Newton, a crowd of 300 or more gathered outside City Hall in the late afternoon to remember the Georgia victims. At the front of the crowd, a memorial bearing the names of the eight people who were killed lay surrounded by bouquets of flowers and a heart made of small candles.

Li Zhen, representing the Chinese American Association of Newton, which helped organize the multicultural gathering, said she hoped the event would represent a call to action.

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“I hope the community comes together and stands up and fights with us,” she said before the event. “Don’t ignore it. Don’t pretend you don’t see.”

A large crowd gathered during the Newton Asian Community Vigil outside Newton City Hall on March 21, 2021.
A large crowd gathered during the Newton Asian Community Vigil outside Newton City Hall on March 21, 2021.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Later, Zhen was emotional as she spoke about the shootings, saying the women who were killed were “humiliated, sexualized and blamed.” Shortly after the killings, Zhen said, she visited a massage parlor, where she spoke with one of the workers, another Asian woman.

“Think about it,” she said. “She could be one of [the victims]. I fear for her life now.”

Michele Lou, copresident of the association, began the event by asking the crowd to light candles in memory of the victims. One by one, she read the names of the dead from three Atlanta-area spas: Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Yaun, and Yong Ae Yue.

“I invite you all to open your heart, to take another’s hand, to lift another’s burden, or simply acknowledge another’s worth " she said before beginning a moment of silence.

While the suspect in the shootings, a white 21-year-old Georgia man, claims he was not motivated by racism, many Asian Americans see the killings as part of a pattern of increasing violence against people of Asian descent.

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Newton School Committee Member Anping Shen spoke during the Newton Asian Community Vigil outside Newton City Hall on March 21, 2021.
Newton School Committee Member Anping Shen spoke during the Newton Asian Community Vigil outside Newton City Hall on March 21, 2021.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

The Newton event drew elected leaders including US Representative Jake Auchincloss, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, and Mayor Ruthanne Fuller. Many in the crowd held signs inscribed with the words “Hate is a virus,” “We are not silent,” and “I am not your model minority.”

Fuller said fear of the coronavirus has “metastasized into a virulent form of hate” for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. In Newton, such hatred has been manifested in the form of bullying in school hallways and repeated “bombings” of Zoom sessions, she said.

“An act of racism toward one of us is an act of hate toward all of us,” she said.

Zhen said one of her daughters has experienced racism in Newton’s public schools. She learned about such events only recently, she said, because her daughter, like many pthers in the Asian community, felt silenced.

“This Asian American woman is fed up,” she said to applause. “This mother of two Asian American girls is angry today and cannot be shut up anymore.”

Keyi Huang, 7, held a “Stop Asian Hate” sign during the Newton Asian Community Vigil outside Newton City Hall on March 21, 2021.
Keyi Huang, 7, held a “Stop Asian Hate” sign during the Newton Asian Community Vigil outside Newton City Hall on March 21, 2021.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Ryan said hate crimes in the region have increased by nearly 100 percent in the past year. She and colleagues are working on legislation to update laws defining hate crimes, she said.

“We must come together to be clear every single day in every setting: We cannot and will not tolerate crimes of hate,” Ryan told the crowd.

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A recent analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino found that while major cities saw a 7 percent decrease in the overall number of reported hate crimes in 2020, the number of such crimes committed against Asian Americans surged nearly 150 percent.

In the Boston area, two older Asian Americans were attacked in separate incidents near North Quincy Station on the Red Line Feb. 18. The victims, a 69-year-old man and a 55-year-old woman, had their bags stolen. The man remained hospitalized with serious injuries nearly a month later, police said. A married couple from Quincy, Brian and Angelina Kenney, were later arrested.

On Sunday evening, more than 100 gathered in Cambridge for a vigil in front of the City Hall steps, many holding candles to honor the victims of the Georgia killings.

From left, Cambridge residents Keira Lei, Grace Gong, Alan Ran, and Song Feng, during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Cambridge City Hall on March 21, 2021.
From left, Cambridge residents Keira Lei, Grace Gong, Alan Ran, and Song Feng, during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Cambridge City Hall on March 21, 2021.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

“It’s been a tough week, and it’s been a tough year,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said as she helped set up the vigil. “All this is compounded by generations of hatred, and I think it’s really important that we as a city stand together and stand up for our AAPI community.”

Cambridge resident Tien-Tien Chan pulled the event together in about 24 hours. Chan said she was looking for “an outlet” after the trauma she felt following the reports from Atlanta. She looked for a protest or a vigil to attend but couldn’t find any scheduled in the city.

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She contacted Siddiqui, who encouraged Chan to organize a vigil.

“I’m grateful to have this space with the mayor to mourn,” Chan said. Tan Tran, 28, stood with his friends outside City Hall. Tran, who is from Atlanta but moved to Cambridge about five years ago for graduate school, was shaken by the violence in his home city.

“I felt a lot of fear,” he said. “It at least helps bring up this conversation, that for a long time — especially last year when the coronavirus was being called the ‘Kung-fu virus’ — that these are not just words but they turn into actions and have consequences.”


Abigail Feldman can be reached at abigail.feldman@globe.com. Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.