PORTLAND, Maine — Maine leaders have stood together this week to condemn the rise of anti-Asian American sentiment after a 21-year-old white man in Atlanta allegedly went on a shooting spree, killing eight people — six of them Asian women.
Those who recognized racist antagonism behind the killings found no comfort from Georgia police who were investigating the case. Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said that the suspect “gave no indicators” that the crimes were racially motivated.
In Maine, community leaders are speaking out against rising hate directed at people of Asian descent.
Ophelia Hu Kinney, a United Methodist faith leader, saw “a rush to fill what seemed to be silence from allies and a lot of other Asian people,” on social media after the deadly attack. But she’s hoping that the reckoning can slow down.
“We just need some time to process what is happening,” she said.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Hu Kinney saw a lot of “shattered innocence” from people processing the horror online.
“A common response from well-intentioned people was that folks could not believe that something like this could have happened,” Hu Kinney said. “I think one of the pitfalls of sharing that is that it could be taken very literally — as in, you cannot believe that something like this could happen.”
But for Hu Kinney, a worship coordinator at Portland’s Hope.Gate.Way church, the reality is much different.
“Anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. has been around as long as the U.S. has been a nation, and longer than that,” said Hu Kinney, who has also been subjected to racist attacks in Maine.
Conversations like the ones happening after Atlanta aren’t possible for her to opt out of, like many Americans, but she recognizes that events can impel other people to learn more.
There have been 3,800 reported anti-Asian incidents nationwide in the past year according to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks violence, discrimination and harassment directed at Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. The majority of those have targeted women.
Stop AAPI Hate partly attributes the rise to prejudice and misinformation stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, after elected officials — including many in the Trump administration — have used Asian people as a scapegoat for the virus and spread misinformation for political gain. But those attacks have persisted after the election, with more than 500 such incidents taking place so far in 2021.
Zabrina Richards, a board member of the Chinese American Friendship Association of Maine, stressed the importance of Mainers talking about events like the Atlanta killings as a way of understanding how sinophobia — racism against Asian people — has become increasingly troubling during the pandemic.
“Everyone must talk about what has been happening to the Asian Pacific Islander American communities,” Richards said. “These incidents have left many of us shaken, scared and fearful for our loved ones’ lives and ourselves.”
Richards, a Chinese American adoptee and a senior at the New School in Kennebunk, is one of several youth leaders speaking about the Asian American youth experience in Maine at a March 31 panel discussion organized by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine titled “Racism is a Virus.”
“On behalf of the people of Maine, I express our deepest condolences to the families and friends who are mourning the loss of their loved ones, and we share in the pain of Asian Americans as they seek to heal and feel safe in the wake of this horrific attack,” said Mills, who ordered the flag lowered for a week under direction from President Joe Biden.
To Richards, the incident could serve as a flashpoint for learning how the Asian American experience folds into the fight against white supremacy.
“Our experiences have often been dismissed due to our perceived experiences. From being portrayed as the ‘model minority’ in mainstream media, it hides the fact that many Asian Pacific Islander Americans don’t live this life,” Richards said. “When you see the data disaggregated, you see that some Asian Pacific Islander Americans live in poverty, don’t finish high school and are not living life in luxury. Thus, this has led to many Asian Pacific Islander Americans feeling dismissed when we do tell our stories and experiences of hate, violence and racism.”
Richards drew a connection between the deadly Atlanta attacks and a racist altercation in a Portland parking lot earlier this week that prompted residents to reckon more deeply with the violence in Atlanta. On Monday, police reported that a man, 47-year-old Troy Sprague, committed a racially motivated attack on an Asian woman.
The woman told police that she and her children were sitting in her vehicle when Sprague, who is white, made eye contact with her and started yelling at her to “go back to where she came from.” As the victim attempted to move her vehicle to create distance between her and the suspect, Sprague kicked her driver side mirror, snapping it from its bracket and piercing a large hole in the frame.
The man, who local providers say has been treated for mental health issues and has battled chronic homelessness, was charged with criminal mischief and fled as police attempted to serve him a summons, according to Portland Police Department spokesperson David Singer.
Police say it’s an open investigation.
Mayor Kate Snyder and members of the Portland City Council joined heads of Asian American community groups in denouncing the incident.
“As an Asian American, I am deeply saddened by the murders in Atlanta, Georgia, and my heart goes out to the victims of those families,” said Councilor Tae Chong, calling the local incident “unsettling” and praising police for their work.
“Our community is only as good as how safe everyone feels. Hate has no place in our community where we all call Portland home,” Chong said.
Julia Brown, a policy director with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said the country’s long history of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia is reflected in immigration laws.
“The first major U.S. law restricting immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). This law not only banned people from immigrating from China for 10 years, but it also prohibited Chinese individuals already in the U.S. from becoming naturalized citizens and restricted the ability of Chinese nationals to leave and come back to the U.S.,” Brown said.
The country’s immigration laws directly affect people in Asian American and Pacific Islanders communities, Brown said, often sending them back to countries where they fled dangerous situations. More than a million undocumented people in the U.S. are of Asian descent, with tens of thousands eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA.
“The unconscionable act of deporting refugees to a country they do not know and where they may have no living family members is still happening,” Brown said.
Earlier this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 33 Vietnamese immigrants and refugees from Texas, all of whom had been living in the U.S. since before 1995, according to the U.S. Vietnamese community organization VietRise.
As terrible as incidents like what happened in Atlanta can be, the process of collective grieving can motivate people to learn more about cultural blind spots. To Hu Kinney, this can be an opportunity for people to learn about Asian American histories that don’t get taught in our schools.
“I think there’s an assumption that more western or white-focused history is a default history,” she said. “There are so many equally important components of American history that complicate our relationships with patriotism, belonging, racial power dynamics and more.”
As starting points, she recommends the book “The Making of Asian America,” by the historian Erika Lee, and “Minor Feelings” by the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong. The latter, published in 2020, is an approachable read, Hu Kinney said.
“It’s about East Asian belonging and this kind of interesting place that a lot of Asian Americans inhabit of hyper visibility and simultaneous invisibility,” Hu Kinney said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Cathy Park Hong’s first name.