On Thursday night, Red Canary Song, a grassroots Chinese massage parlor worker coalition, mourned the deaths of the eight people who were killed in Tuesday’s Atlanta spa shootings, particularly the six Asian women. The vigil took place over Zoom, as many have during this past year, and began with a live performance: a woman named Melanie Hsu sang as she played gentle piano music.
When she ended, the vigil’s host, Yves Tong Nguyen, an organizer with Red Canary Song, read off the names of the victims who have been identified so far: Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Julie Park, and Hyun-jeong Park Grant.
“As we pay honor to the individual victims and send support to the survivors, it’s undeniable that this was an act of targeted violence against Asian women massage workers,” Nguyen said. “As Asian massage and sex workers we wish to hold a space of radical love and care for our shared communities and to remember to let grief be a part of our movement building process.”
Nguyen and the other mourners were rewriting a narrative that had been established by the shooter himself, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, and most of all by police, who took Long’s claim that his crimes were not racially motivated at face value. “We asked him that specifically and the answer was no,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said after the attacks. They were also adding much-needed nuance to the popular takeaways about why Long committed these horrific shootings—it was not merely related to a new surge in hate crimes amid the pandemic, but rather firmly situated in the long legacy of anti-Asian violence. And in this case it was also part of a long history of anti-sex work violence, which can affect Asian women in very particular ways: On Tuesday, Long said he targeted massage parlors and the women who worked in them because they represented a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.”
Advocates have said this comment reveals the ways in which Long and many others fetishize Asian women and unquestioningly believe that those who work in massage parlors must be sex workers. Organizers at Red Canary Song have said that it is harmful to ignore the obvious anti-sex work discrimination at play, and how it interacted with racism and sexism on Tuesday night. “Whether or not they were actually sex workers or self-identified under that label, we know that as massage workers, they were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working class people, and immigrants,” Red Canary Song wrote in a statement released Thursday morning, ahead of the vigil.
The vigil’s other speakers included New York State Assembly members Ron Kim and Yuh-line Niou, Tiffany Diane Tso, a leader at the Asian American Feminist Collective, and Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterfly, a Toronto-based group for Asian and migrant sex workers. Everyone described what they were wearing and what they looked like for accessibility before speaking, and ASL interpretation accompanied the entire vigil; simultaneous interpretation was also available for Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean speakers.
Many speakers’ eulogies included urgent calls for an end to the violence against the sex work and massage parlor communities, which are made into targets for racist and sexist violence in large part because of over-policing. Often the policing is the very source of the violence: In 2017, for example, a woman named Yang Song, a massage parlor worker in Queens, fell to her death when New York City police officers attempted to arrest her for sex work during a raid. As New Republic reporter Melissa Gira Grant pointed out, this over-policing may also prevent sex workers in the Atlanta area from gathering in person to mourn these most recent deaths.
“This is not a single incident. This incident reflects all the problems of our society, and all the problems that makes sex work and massage parlor work dangerous,” Lam, from Butterfly, said. “We need to ask, how many vigils do we need to attend? How many funerals do we need to attend? It’s something we don’t want to do but we have to do because society is not ready to fix this problem.
“Society knows how to fix the problem, but they continue to harm the community because of their moral agenda, their racist ideas,” she continued, referring to the calls to decriminalize sex work. “People are killed by sexism, racism, whorephobia, by the state, and by NGOs that claim to rescue sex workers.”
At the end of the vigil, Hsu returned to the piano: “And I will keep my light on for you” she sang.