Kai Zen, a member of the New York State Assembly Asian Pacific American Task Force, had tears in her eyes Thursday night as she described the fate of the victims of the hate crime that took place in three Atlanta area massage parlors on March 16. “To be Asian, migrant, and sex worker is deadly in the United States today,” she said, her voice cracking.
Alongside 14 other speakers and performers, Zen spoke at a virtual vigil hosted by Red Canary Song, a New York-based collective of Asian and migrant sex workers, to remember the eight victims of the Atlanta hate crime. Six of the eight people killed in the attack in Atlanta were Asian; seven out of the eight killed were women. Vigils, events, and demonstrations drawing attention to the incident have sprung up all over the country.
“It’s really hard to wrap our minds around the kind of violence that just happened in Atlanta,” Zen added. “It’s so senseless. It’s so horrific.”
The organization called the event an opportunity “to hold a space of radical love and healing for our shared communities.” However, like so many vigils and events catered to remembrance over the past year, the grief, mourning, and shock felt by the Asian, migrant, and sex worker communities motivated speakers to make broader points about the treatment of Asian and migrant women, massage parlor workers, and sex workers.
“Let grief be a part of the movement building process, for which we allow hallowed space,” said host Yves Tong Nguyen from Red Canary Song, quoting Benji Hart, an author, educator, and artist. “And let it build within us the compassion, wisdom, and rage that propel us into new battles.”
The event opened with an emotional performance by Melanie Hsu, a pianist, on the piano playing melancholy music and singing. The vigil was virtual, and livestreamed on the organization’s Twitter and YouTube accounts, with options to listen to translations in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean. American Sign Language interpreters worked alongside speakers.
Participants were invited to light candles in their own homes in honor of the victims of Tuesday’s attacks, whose names were Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michaels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Fenh, Soon C. Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong A. Yue. The shootings took place in and around Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta, and at another massage parlor in Acworth, a city about 30 miles outside Atlanta. The perpetrator, Robert Long, 21, was arrested on the evening of March 16.
Each speaker took a different approach to addressing the atrocities that took place. Some shared narratives from massage parlor and sex workers from across the country, while others spoke about their conscious decision to not focus on the motives of Long, though expressed frustrations at the media’s hesitancy to identify Long as a white supremacist and a misogynist.
New York State Assembly Member Ron Kim — who has gone head to head with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as a result of Kim’s refusal help the governor “cover up” deaths in nursing homes across the state during the pandemic — spoke on the politics of addressing the livelihoods of sex workers.
“Many lawmakers, they didn’t want to deal with it,” said Kim, who admitted that passing policy regarding sex workers and massage parlor workers was an “uncomfortable space” for him.
“We knew that it existed in our communities and instead of understanding and figuring [it] out,” said Kim, “most policy makers will look the other way and rely on policing and any kind of short-term solutions.” Kim added that if sex work had been decriminalized and the rights of all workers, including sex workers, had been restored prior to the hate crime, “things would have been different.”
Emmy, who did not share her last name and spoke on behalf of Massage Workers in Seattle, Washington, where one of the largest police raids of massage parlors occurred in 2019, also noted that added police presence doesn’t help. “The more cops do not make us feel safer,” she said.
Although many speakers acknowledged that there was immense work to be done to protect the lives and livelihoods of Asian and migrant sex workers and massage parlor workers, speeches focused on grief, mourning, and the understandable inability to comprehend when such violence will end in the United States.
“How many vigils do we need to attend?” said Elene Lam with ButterflySW, an Asian and migrant sex workers network based in Toronto. “How many funerals we still need to attend?”