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Rage and Retribution

The long history of terror tactics against Asian American women

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, the day after eight people were murdered at three Atlanta-area massage parlors, Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County sheriff’s office appeared to have made up his mind. Even though Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant had just cautioned that it was too early to establish a motive, Baker told gathered journalists that Robert Aaron Long, the alleged perpetrator of the grotesque crime, had “an issue with porn” and “was attempting to take out that temptation.” Long, he added, appeared to be “lashing out” and had told investigators that the killings had nothing to do with race despite the fact that six of the victims were Asian women.

With these short sentences, a member of Georgia law enforcement did what has become a practiced act in the age of white supremacist terrorism: he laid the foundations of a rationalization as to why murderous white men are in fact victims themselves. In keeping with this evolving tradition, in the very first official news conference about the killings, Long was presented as a misunderstood and mentally ill young man, battling his sex addiction, whose desperation to eliminate “temptation” had led him to kill. The message to Americans, over seventy-four million of whom voted for a man who unapologetically pinned the blame for the pandemic on Asians, was quite simply, move along, nothing to see here.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, here was a white man, who not unlike the slave-owners of Georgia past, felt entitled to have his sexual needs met by some of the most vulnerable women in American society. Just like crimes committed against Black enslaved women were not considered crimes at all, the killings of Asian women pushed to the margins of American society are explained away by the uncontrollable sexual needs of a single white man. “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex,” Oscar Wilde is often claimed to have written. “Sex is about power.” And power, to a gun-wielding seething man, must be used to repress and subjugate women and support the use of bloodshed as a tactic of broader societal intimidation. A subset of this angry men’s group calls themselves “incels,” who some experts have asserted are “part of a broader rise of domestic terrorism threats.”

Early legislation such as the Page Act targeted Chinese migrants, particularly sex workers, revealing how misogynist anxieties about the “wrong” sorts of women are embedded in immigration controls.

Yet law enforcement’s refusal to deploy the word “terror” and “terrorist” when the terrorized are not white—and the perpetrator is—is crucial in understanding this case. Two compelling reasons to do so are the history of Asian exclusion in the United States and of law enforcement in Georgia. The first centralized and specialized policing organizations in the South were slave patrols whose job was to round up and punish runaway slaves, and historians of the South have argued that these patrols should be considered “forerunners of modern American law enforcement.” This history can in turn be connected to the history of Asian exclusion in the United States. According to sex worker activists Juno Mac and Molly Smith, the very first federal immigration restrictions included the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Scott Act of 1888. All of this legislation targeted Chinese migrants, particularly sex workers in the case of the Page Act, revealing just how misogynist anxieties about the “wrong” sorts of women are deeply embedded in immigration controls. These ideas have not simply evaporated in our current immigration system; Asian women, particularly those working in massage parlors such as the ones in the Atlanta killing spree, are regular targets of law enforcement. Immigration laws ensure their powerlessness by using the threat of deportation to negate the rights that would make them safer, while local law enforcement, in their zealotry to enforce anti-prostitution laws, add to their sense of daily danger. Police raids have sometimes been fatal, as in the case of thirty-eight-year-old Yang Song, who died in New York in November of 2017 as police attempted to arrest her. 

The law enforcement construct for considering Asian women working in massage parlors is not terribly different from the one allegedly proffered up by Robert Aaron Long. Like law enforcement and ICE, Long seems to have wanted to rid American society of certain Asian women—as if they had pushed him into the deviance of sex addiction and consequent moral turmoil. Long did not have a badge, but his actions were motivated, as are those of law enforcement, by keeping America (and also himself) free of “vice.” Just like law enforcement, both ICE and other agencies, who brutally enforce laws with potently racist underpinnings, Long appears to believe that his crime has nothing at all to do with hate.

Current U.S. laws, federal and state, ensure that Asian women working in massage parlors are labeled immoral and worthy of poor treatment. In June of 2019, two massage parlors in Georgia were raided as part of a crackdown on human trafficking; three people were arrested and money and business ledgers were seized. “Human Trafficking has become a crisis in Metro Atlanta. Illegal massage therapy businesses are commonly linked with human trafficking,” a press release later noted, without revealing whether this was the case with the raided properties. In January of this year, Georgia police officials raided two more massage parlors as anti-prostitution sting operations, resulting in the arrests of three women who were then booked on prostitution charges.

The lurid killing that took place on Tuesday evening was a terrorist act that occurred in a society that accepts racist hatred and misogyny among random armed gunmen as well as among police forces. The Asian woman as target is created by an intersectional collusion of hatreds; a government whose immigration regulations are still tainted by their original intent of Asian exclusion, law enforcement officers who exert one kind of domination on their bodies, and then white supremacist terrorist killers who exert another. Some hate crimes are crimes because the ones perpetrating them bear racist or religious hatreds, others are hate crimes because both the perpetrators and those tasked with preventing the crimes agree that a certain class of person must be eliminated from American society.