As Haihong Li biked last fall on a trail near the New Hampshire border, another cyclist shouted at her from behind: “Move out!”
She said she quickly realized those words had nothing to do with making room on the trail and everything to do with the way she looks.
“I was furious,” Li said Saturday.
Li, who is the principal at the Wellesley Chinese Language School, told the story to runners and supporters near the starting line of the historic Boston Marathon in Hopkinton for a rally and run to denounce the violence and discrimination against Asian people that has been surging since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Organizers dispatched relay runners in the eight communities on the 26.2-mile course between Hopkinton and Boston to spread their message, and concluded the event with a rally on Boston Common.
The fight against anti-Asian racism intensified after a gunman killed eight people at Atlanta-area spas on March 16, including six women of Asian descent. Investigators have said the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, who is white, confessed to the killings.
He claimed to have a sex addiction, authorities said, and targeted what he saw as sources of temptation. The police account of Long’s claims generated backlash, though investigators have said they’re still working to establish a motive, including looking into whether or not the attacks can be classified as hate crimes.
A sheriff’s deputy for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia drew criticism for saying Long had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.”
On Boston Common, the crowd booed when Newton School Committee member Anping Shen recalled the deputy’s remarks.
Shen said Asian immigrants in the United States have a long history of working under perilous conditions, including Chinese laborers who died by the hundreds while building the transcontinental railroad during the 19th century.
“They thought, Chinese people built the Great Wall, let’s bring some Chinese laborers to do the job. And millions of Chinese laborers came here,” said Shen. “They worked damn hard. They worked in the most dangerous places.”
In Hopkinton, demonstrators held a moment of silence in honor of the Atlanta-area victims. Violinist Pamela Fengperformed “Méditation” from the opera “Thaïs” by composer Jules Massenet.
“I and every other Asian American, and person of color have faced racism for just being different, and this is costing us our lives,” said Xiaofan Zhang, an organizer who lives in Boston’s West End neighborhood.
The national coalition Stop AAPI Hate received 96 reports from Massachusetts of anti-Asian hate and discrimination between March 19, 2020 and Feb. 28, according to data released earlier this month. Nationwide, the group received 3,795 reports of anti-Asian incidents during the same period, it said.
Many blame the latest wave of anti-Asian bias on Donald Trump, and the xenophobic rhetoric he used to link COVID-19 to China.
Locally, there have been a series of events to show support for the Asian community, including a rally earlier this month on Boston Common, a virtual town hall held Thursday about anti-Asian racism, and vigils in Lowell and Brookline honoring the victims of the Atlanta-area attacks. Similar demonstrations have been held nationally, including a large rally Saturday in Los Angeles.
On Saturday, the storied marathon route provided a powerful backdrop for the demonstrators’ mission, evoking the long history of racism that Asians have experienced in the United States and the resilient campaign against it.
Jing Zhang, who spoke in Hopkinton on behalf of the BEN Running Club, explained the meaning of the Chinese characters in the organization’s logo.
Its three stacked oxen, she said, symbolize “strength and unity.”
“We may not be able to sprint in record speed, but we can really run long. We can endure,” Zhang said.
She encouraged demonstrators to look at the event as the beginning of a “long race against hate, biases, discrimination, and violence against humanity.”
“Together, we can do this. We can walk. We can run. And we can lead,” Zhang said. “While we’re doing this, we spread hope, love, unity, and strength.”
Thomas Grilk, chief executive of the Boston Athletic Association, the organizer of the Boston Marathon, wore a shirt from a 2019 marathon in Lanzhou, China, and told the gathering in Hopkinton that he spent several years living in Asia.
“We at the Boston Athletic Association are humbled. We are honored that you choose this place and this course to come together against hatred and in favor of respect among peoples everywhere,” said Grilk.
The runners, some of whom carried American flags, departed from the Hopkinton Town Common before 11 a.m. followed by a group of motorcyclists who were supporting them. Many of the runners and spectators wore a sticker showing a running figure with a peace sign T-shirt, the hashtag #StopAsianHate, and the words, “unity, equality, diversity.”
On Boston Common, Representative Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat from Newton, addressed the rally.
“We must all resolve, and I resolve, to do better about speaking out, when you hear words of hatred, whether they come from the chief executive, or whether they come from around your own kitchen table,” he said.
Midway through the rally, a group of organizers shouted, “Stop being quiet!”
Demonstrators responded, “No more!”
Eileen Zhang, 42, of Quincy, brought her children and cousins to the Boston Common rally.
“We are one America, we are not foreigners, so we want to make sure our voices are heard,” she said.