The police overseeing the investigation into the Atlanta spree killings that targeted Asian women working at massage parlors seem to be working overtime to avoid reaching the conclusion that the murders were a far-right hate crime. But anymore, that’s how the American policing system seems to operate: deliberately blind to any ideological components of transparent right-wing violence.
Despite Asian women comprising six of the eight victims, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office seemed to be making one excuse after the other for the 25-year-old white perpetrator—but warning that it couldn’t call the mass killings a hate crime. Then it emerged that the sheriff’s official, Capt. Jay Baker, making all the excuses himself was prone to indulging in anti-Asian bigotry in the form of a Facebook post promoting a T-shirt describing COVID-19 as an “Imported Virus From Chy-Na.”
“He was pretty much fed up, and kind of at [the] end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did,” Baker had told reporters. No wonder Congressman Ted Lieu wants the FBI to take over the investigation—even though the federal agency has its own history of turning a blind eye to the presence of far-right terrorism.
The suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long of Woodstock, Georgia, faces eight counts of murder in all three shootings—four of them related to shootings at two spas in Atlanta, and the other four related to a Cherokee County spa shooting.
In fact, there is evidence that Long acted on the basis of hatred both of Asians and of women generally, beyond the toll on the victims. According to a Korean newspaper, translated by Jeong Park, one of the spa workers reported that Long, while in the middle of murdering people, had announced: “I’ll kill all the Asians.”
Another report from the Korean press said that Atlanta police were warning owners of Korean stores to exercise caution because “there’s a shooter who says he wants to kill Asians.”
Secondarily, even minus the clear racial bias, Long’s purported explanation for targeting of female sex workers—"These locations, he sees them as an outlet for him, something that he shouldn't be doing. He was attempting to take out that temptation," Baker said—is de facto evidence of a gender bias against women, which is one of the categories of motive under federal and Georgia’s state hate-crimes laws.
Unsurprisingly, the Asian-American community—which has been trying to cope with a sharp increase in brutal hate crimes in recent months—was outraged by the attempt to downplay the hateful elements of the murders.
“It’s taken six Asian American women dying in one day to get people to pay attention to this,” Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) told the Guardian. “Record keeping of hate crimes against Asian Americans is so low because they are not even willing to accept that we are discriminated against and harassed because of our race.”
Others spoke up as well. “We know hate when we see it,” Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock said on MSNBC. “We’ll get into the nuances of it, but only hate drives you to take eight precious lives in the way that he did.”
”Racially motivated violence should be called out for exactly what it is and we must stop making excuses and rebranding it as economic anxiety or sexual addiction,” Rep. Marilyn Strickland said on the House floor on Wednesday. “As a woman who is Black and Korean I am acutely aware of how it feels to be erased or ignored.”
The FBI’s hate-crime statistics for 2019 show only 4.4% of all racially motivated hate crimes were directed at Asians, compared to 48.5% fueled by anti-Black bigotry and 14.1% by anti-Hispanic bias. However, hate-crime statistics have long been undermined by the reality that they are severely underreported: a federal study by the National Crime released in February found that more than 40% of hate crimes are never reported to authorities.
A significant factor in this is that local police departments are not required to report hate-crime numbers. So, even as the numbers of bias-motivated crimes in the U.S. rose to the highest level in more than a decade—with some 7,314 incidents reported, an increase of about 3 percent in an already elevated plateau that began after Trump’s election—police participation in the FBI’s statistic-gathering plummeted to an all-time low.
The FBI reports that 86 percent of participating agencies failed to report a single hate crime in 2019, including about 70 cities with populations over 100,000. Only about 14 percent—just over 2,000 out of 15,000 participating agencies—reported any hate crimes at all.
The problem is exacerbated by an increasingly partisan conservativism in police cultures, manifested by the open hostility of many officers to civil-rights groups such as Black Lives Matter critical of their treatment of black arrestees, as well as their continuing use of disproportionate force to handle such protests. This has created increasing tensions in communities such as Portland, Oregon, where police have lost credibility for their ongoing failures to take hate crimes seriously, as well as to treat leftist protesters with increasing brutality.
The same right-wing swing in police culture also has produced the cozy relationship of law-enforcement officers with far-right extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. That relationship helped create the conditions that led to those groups’ major participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Police have also developed a pattern of erasing or ignoring evidence of likely ideological or bigoted motives from their investigations of domestic terrorism and hate crimes:
- Both local and federal investigations of the 2017 massacre of 58 concertgoers at a Las Vegas country-music festival by a gunman named Stephen Paddock concluded that he had no political motive—even though there was abundant evidence that Paddock was a right-wing extremist who told one witness he intended to “wake up the nation” to the threat of federal gun control with his act.
- When two white men in Glynn County, Georgia, shot and killed a black man named Ahmaud Arbery jogging through their neighborhood, local police and the county prosecutor at first advised that no charges be filed and handed the case off to another county. But when video of the killing—clearly showing the two men gunning down Arbery for no clear reason—the case was given to a grand jury and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case. It shortly emerged that police had actually encouraged and coached the killers to behave as they did.
- The FBI’s investigation of the Christmas Day bombing of downtown Nashville that nearly destroyed a city block recently concluded that it was actually a spectacular suicide, fueled by the bomber’s paranoia and his adoption of a number of conspiracy theories—even though all of those theories were fundamentally ideological in nature, reflecting the man’s embrace of far-right political beliefs. "Warner specifically chose the location and timing of the bombing so that it would be impactful, while still minimizing the likelihood of causing undue injury," the FBI said.