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Mar. 21—ANDOVER — Sylvia Chen and Qing Zhu drove to Andover on Friday afternoon to stand in solidarity protesting hate crimes against Asian Americans.
The two Tufts students and Somerville residents joined a crowd gathering in Shawsheen Square in the wake of the Georgia murders of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at three massage parlors.
They said they felt a kinship with the other Asian women at the rally — along with those who were murdered — in their experiences of sexual and racial harassment.
"It's normal for guys to (approach and) ask weird questions like, 'are you free tonight?' without even knowing me and be very forward," said Chen, who is of Chinese descent.
"I don't know if it's sexism or racism," she added. "But it's not OK for me."
People across the country took to social media and local rallies like the one in Andover to voice their outrage that the suspect in the Georgia killings, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, has not been charged with hate crimes. Georgia police said Long told them the attack was not racially motivated and claimed he targeted massage parlors because of a sex addiction.
While Chen and Zhu were standing on the side of Route 28 in the square with more than 100 other people holding signs against racism, a man driving by in a black truck shouted out the window, "I love Asian women massages."
"It's not a compliment," said Zhu, who is Chinese.
Many of the people at the rally were white, however, the driver seemed to yell as he passed Chen, Zhu and Lisa Wong of Andover. They said they considered this deliberate.
"It was one of those things I really hoped wouldn't happen," said Wong, who is also Chinese. "But when you have a show of power like this and people feel targeted they react in the only way they know how — they will try to target you."
On Saturday another rally was held in Andover, drawing more than 400 people to a half-mile stretch along Main Street to safely distance, hold signs and show support.
"We knew we had to do something about it," said supporter John Zhuang. "There's no better reason to be here."
Zhuang added it's not just about what happened in Georgia spurring the rallies — it's a history of discrimination he said has also hit close to his own home.
Zhuang, who works as an engineering director, said several years ago his wife was affected by what he called a racial incident where she was told to "go back to your own country."
Getting a message out there during these challenging times is also key, Zhuang said.
"I just want people to be aware and support us," he said. "We are the same, dads and moms, and people of this country."
When addressing the crowd at Friday's rally, Wong encouraged people to report acts of hate because they are vastly underrepresented. She was one of many participants who spoke about their experiences to the crowd.
The Georgia murders came after a year of increased violence against Asian Americans that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in China.
Nearly 3,800 incidents — ranging from verbal harassment to murder — have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its partner groups, since March 2020. Nationally, Asian women reported hate crimes 2.3 times more than men.
Many of the encounters don't rise to the legal definition of a hate crime. Still, police in several major cities reported a sharp uptick in Asian-targeted hate crimes between 2019 and 2020, according to data collected by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. New York City went from three incidents to 27; Los Angeles from seven to 15; and Denver had three incidents in 2020 — the first reported there in six years.
In Massachusetts, there were 96 of those such incidents, according to Stop AAPI Hate. The group only started tracking data in March 2020.
Some at the rally attributed the rise in harassment and violence to former President Donald Trump, who in his capacity as the nation's leader used racial terms to characterize the COVID-19 crisis.
In Shawsheen Square people held signs reading, "racism is a virus" and "hate is a virus." Those messages were intended to contrast Trump's tweets referring to COVID-19 as "Chinese Virus."
Wong said the way to move forward is to show kindness and compassion.
"To be human is to be in a community, learning about one another and finding tolerance," she said.
Henry Wright, a sophomore at North Andover High School who is half white and half Korean, said the racist remarks he and others deal with can be very subtle and come in the form of humor. They're jokes about the shape of his eyes and the color of his skin, he said, and questions like, "Do you eat dogs? Do you eat bats?"
"What they say jokingly becomes acts of violence," he said.
His mother, Anna Choi, agreed, rebuffing people who have told her she was "'speaking English so good,' because I have no accent — which is frankly grammatically incorrect."
Laurie-Maude Chenard, who grew up and resides in Andover, had a strong personal goal in participating in Friday's rally.
"I'm here because I'm breaking my own silence and I want to speak out against the harassment I've faced," the 23-year-old said.
"Growing up in predominantly white spaces, there were a lot of moments and times I felt I didn't belong," she said. "Lots of the time it was micro-aggressions and people didn't realize we face racism. I'm here not only for myself but my Asian friends because people yelling racial slurs on the streets needs to stop."
State Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, who is the first Vietnamese American Massachusetts state representative, was at Shawsheen Square grieving with her constituents.
"I was angry and heartbroken," she said. "It has been a heart-heavy week and we need to know people are here for us."
Earlier this year Nguyen filed legislation with Attorney General Maura Healy and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, that would strengthen hate-crime statutes. In the wake of the murders, the legislation has picked up steam with multiple legislators signing onto it.
But strengthening the laws isn't enough, Nguyen said. She also proposed legislation focused on increasing school curriculum on the history of racism and surrounding issues.
"We can have a more inclusive lens to learn and appreciate each other as humans," she said concerning the importance of education. Also, she stressed the importance of people calling out racism as it occurs.
"Being a silent bystander isn't an option anymore," Nguyen said, echoing the sentiment from activists and politicians in Andover and across the country, including President Joe Biden earlier that day.
Anyone who experiences a hate crime should call Healy's hotline at 1-800-994-3228.
Reporter Julie Huss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.