Asian Americans grapple with senseless acts of violence following back-to-back shootings in California

A man in a black coat and tan pants kneels in front of a gate with dozens of yellow flowers in front
Monterey Park mayor Henry Lo kneels at a makeshift memorial outside the scene of a deadly mass shooting at a ballroom dance studio on January 23, 2023 in Monterey Park, California.Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • Asian Americans saw two back-to-back mass shootings in their communities.

  • On Saturday, 11 people in Monterey Park were killed; 7 more died in Half Moon Bay on Monday.

  • Fear of violence among Asian people has been higher since the pandemic, advocates told Insider.

When May Lee asked her University of Southern California students about their initial reaction to Saturday's tragic shooting in Monterey Park, she said the first thought on everyone's mind was the fear that a hate crime occurred.

These anxieties have been compounded in recent years due to increased violence against the AAPI community as a result of racist rhetoric about the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee, who teaches about Asian Americans in the media, told Insider.

"It is a collective fear that all of us have gone through and continue to go through," Lee said. "And even though this shooting was not your typical racially charged hate crime, it still was an act of violence. And so that's going to trigger any kind of fear and anxiety."

At least 11 people were killed and nine others were injured after a mass shooting took place a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles on Saturday night during Lunar New Year celebrations. The city of Monterey Park, where the shooting occurred, is more than 65% Asian. All of the victims, patrons of Star Ballroom Dance Studio, were of Asian descent.

Just two days later, a second gunman opened fire at two separate locations in Half Moon Bay, killing seven people. While the identities of the victims have not yet been confirmed, authorities have said they were of Asian and Hispanic descent.

 

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The suspects in both shootings were later revealed to be Asian men, diminishing fears that the attacks were hate crimes, but advocates say the violence adds to the dread that Asian Americans have experienced the past several years.

"The race of the attacker did not change how deeply Asian Americans have felt about being under threat, or experiencing a lack of safety," Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and the executive director of the AAPI Equity Alliance, told Insider. "We know that this is not a hate crime in the traditional sense, but it does feel that these community members were targeted and that race played a role."

Despite this, media outlets and pundits have brought up the race of the Monterey Bay shooter to dismiss fears of violence that the Asian American community faces, Insider's Yoonji Han wrote.

"Even if it's not hate related, we're still feeling such sensitivity and fear in the context of what's happened," Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, told Insider. "That's hard."

'Anti-Asian hate doesn't always come from the outside'

The Monterey Park shooting occurring during the Lunar New Year, which Lee described as the "biggest holiday" for Asians around the world, added another layer of pain to the tragedy.

For the city, this two-day festival was particularly noteworthy — it was the first time the festival was held since the pandemic.

"It's significant because it is supposed to be about a new year of renewal, fresh start, and especially the Year the Water Rabbit is all about peace and calm and tranquility," Lee said. "And so, of course, people are going to be rattled by the new year starting this way, in the most violent way with loss of life."

For many Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans, Monterrey Park is a place in the greater Los Angeles region to gather and find community, which Joe said made the violence feel like an attack on "our community and our culture." The city was once dubbed America's first Chinatown and became the first Asian-majority city in the US in the 1980s.

"The fact that this has happened in such a large community like Monterey Park that is two-thirds Asian American — this is the San Gabriel Valley region, which is the home of the largest API community in the country —  that it happens on one of the most important holidays for our community, it's kind of like the equivalent of somebody cutting down a Christmas Day Parade," Joe said.

Kulkarni and Joe both pointed to last year's Laguna Woods, California shooting as another example of how anti-Asian sentiment can still exist even when the perpetrators of the violence are also Asian.

'If a virus can paint us like a threat, what will the visible picture of an Asian gunman do?'

Before the Monterey Park community had time to identify its victims, the Half Moon Bay shooting occurred on Monday and Asian American communities were once again forced into an unwanted spotlight when the 67-year-old suspected gunman opened fire upon his fellow farm workers.

The suspected shooter in the Monterey Park shooting was 72 years old. According to statistics from the RAND Corporation, a government-funded think tank, between 1976 and 2018, 82% of all mass shooters in the US were under the age of 45. According to the Institute for Predictive Analytics in Criminal Justice, a research initiative of Texas A&M University, the average age of 179 mass shootings analyzed between 1966 and 2021 is 34.

The unexpected violence, perpetrated by community elders, has been of particular concern among Asian American communities reacting to the news.

"What is happening to our Asian uncles?" Chinese American author Nicole Ng Zhao posted on Twitter. Her writings, exploring Asian American assimilation and relationships, have been featured in Witness Magazine and Roxane Gay's The Audacity. "Thinking about immigrant rage, masculinity, isolation, lack of social infrastructure and community, and America's hyperviolent culture. please check in on your Asian dads, grandpas, uncles and show them love."

Preacher Richard Lee, who hosts the popular faith-based interview podcast "The Pursuit with Richard Lee," predicted the shootings would likely result in increased anti-Asian violence and social isolation among a community that has already historically faced discriminatory "othering" in the United States.

"For the last 3 years, we've watched our Asian elderly be the victims of anti-Asian violence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been pushed, stomped beaten and murdered," Lee posted on Twitter. "The core of the anti-Asian violence was centered on seeing Asians as a threat. If an invisible, microscopic virus can paint us as a threat, what will the visible prominent picture of an Asian gunman do?"

The violence is already affecting the well-being of the community

Kulkarni and Joe said that, right now, their organizations are focused on connecting community members to the services they need, whether that be mental health resources or victim advocacy. Kulkarni told Insider the AAPI Equity Coalition's resource sheet received several hundred views within hours of being published after the Monterey Park shooting.

Joe said that the violence also personally affected her family and her organization, which was supposed to have a booth at the Monterey Park Festival on Sunday.

"I know a lot of people are choosing not to go out and celebrate Lunar New Year in a public way that they had planned, including my own family," Joe said. "We were going to be at that Monterey Park festival and my organization was supposed to have a booth and, had it not been canceled, I would have still not brought my family to that festival."

Kulkarni told Insider that, after years of increased hate against Asians, the fear and pain is compounded by acts of violence like these shootings, making the impact on the community even more palpable.

"That caused community members to feel unsafe and to feel like they were under threat," Kulkarni told Insider. "And unfortunately, this tragedy confirmed that, in fact, they were still under threat."

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