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Biden, Harris To Visit Atlanta After Shooting Kills 8, Including 6 Asian Women

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A presidential visit that was framed as a celebration has completely changed in tone. President Biden and Vice President Harris both visit Georgia today. They meant to promote the passage of the COVID relief bill. And they meant to do that in a state that happens to be a vital background - battleground in upcoming elections. Now the visit is different, different because a man traveled across the Atlanta area this week killing eight people at businesses run by people of Asian descent. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler joins us now from Atlanta. Stephen, good morning.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What do you expect from this visit?

FOWLER: Well, it's going to be much more muted in appearance. The president and vice president are going to meet with advocates, organizers and state lawmakers from the Asian American community, like State Senator Michelle Au who said Thursday that violence against this community has been going on for a long time.

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MICHELLE AU: Misogyny and violence against women is not new. The epidemic of gun violence and gun injury is not new. What can be new is how we deal with it in this moment. And I want to implore our community and our fellow legislators to not let this moment go by.

FOWLER: Biden and Harris, who is the first Black and Asian American vice president, have taken on the roles of healers and consolers throughout the pandemic since taking office. And now they're addressing another coronavirus-related issue that has bubbled up. Advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate said there were nearly 3,800 reported instances of anti-Asian discrimination or attacks last year. And before he meets with these community leaders, the president is going to go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to check in on the coronavirus response.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about hate crimes. You mentioned 3,800 reported instances of anti-Asian discrimination last year. Would these shootings in the Atlanta area classify as a hate crime under Georgia law?

FOWLER: Well, Steve, last year, Georgia did pass a hate crimes law that would add enhanced penalties if somebody is found guilty of committing a crime against someone because of things like their race, gender or sexual orientation. As of now, it's early in the investigation. And the alleged gunman has only been charged with murder and aggravated assault. But hate crimes charges are possible. According to law enforcement officials, the suspect confessed to the shootings and said it wasn't racially motivated. But members of the Asian American community here, including state representative Bee Nguyen of Atlanta, said they don't believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEE NGUYEN: And so when we think about taking the word of the perpetrator themselves, how many of them are going to admit that it was a racially motivated killing? That is why the hate crimes law did pass last session. It was a top priority because in Georgia, we have seen brutality and violence against Black people, against Asian people. And it's not a new thing.

FOWLER: Nguyen said it's impossible to ignore the facts. Three Asian spas were targeted. Six of the eight victims were of Asian descent. But, Steve, even if prosecutors don't agree the 21-year-old committed a crime because of their race, other claims he allegedly made could trigger the law under gender-based violence.

INSKEEP: There's been so much focus on the way that law enforcement officials have talked about this case. They have at press conferences tried to characterize what the suspect himself claimed about the day he was having - a really bad day was the quote - or his motives. Who are the officials at the center of that controversy?

FOWLER: Well, there are two different jurisdictions involved, the Atlanta Police Department and the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office. Many people took offense at the way the Cherokee County officials talked about the alleged gunman. Deputies suggested that he had lashed out and was fed up and at the end of his rope and blamed sex addiction for his actions. Members of the Asian American community believe that that plays into negative stereotypes about Asian Americans. And it's victim-blaming the women who worked at these spas. And that deputy who did make those comments about having a bad day, he's been removed as spokesman from the case.

INSKEEP: Oh, because he's had some other issues with his social media posts, if I'm not mistaken.

FOWLER: That's correct.

INSKEEP: Stephen, thanks for the update.

FOWLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.