Sex worker Stella Zine was marching down Piedmont Avenue in Atlanta to protest acts of violence committed against women by a man who claimed he was driven to do God’s work. The street, dotted with massage parlors and strip clubs, is known as Atlanta’s vice district.
“We just all said, we’re showing up. We’re going to the site where the hurt is,” Zine said. That was 24 years ago. Then, Zine was marching in support of the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta that had been bombed on February 21, 1997, by Eric Rudolph, an Army of God member who, a few months prior, had set off bombs at the Olympics, killing one and injuring 111. The bombs at the Otherside injured five people and exploded the owners’ children’s car seats. Zine organized the 1997 march with her group, the Lesbian Avengers, and she and the other avengers stomped down Piedmont breathing fire while alternately chanting, “Fire will not consume us! We’ll take it and make it our own!”
Now, on March 21, 2021, here Zine is again, wearing a harm reduction t-shirt and silver shoes, marching for another act of targeted violence that occurred in a building adjacent to the Otherside Lounge’s former location. (The owners closed the bar two years after the bombing after receiving a number of death threats. Its location has now become, ironically, a urology clinic.) She was there to protest the shooting that happened on March 16, 2021, when four Asian women working at Gold Spa were shot and killed by a 21-year-old gunman who had once been a customer: all of the victims were Korean immigrants. The murdered women included 51-year-old former elementary school teacher and single mother Hyun Jung Grant; 69-year-old grandmother Sun Cha Kim, and 74-year-old Soon Chung Park. Another Korean woman working at the Aromatherapy Spa across the street, a 63-year-old mother Yong Ae Yue, was also murdered. (Two more Asian workers and two clients were also killed at Young’s Spa in Acworth, GA.)
“There’s a lot of history on these two blocks. Christianity is being leveraged to make [these attacks seem] okay,” Zine, a co-founder of COYOTE Georgia, said. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time there’d been deadly violence at Gold Spa. In 2009, a security guard was shot to death outside Gold Spa.
I met Zine at Mama’s, a 24-hour Mexican restaurant on Piedmont Ave., just 528 feet from Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, the two massage parlors, where just five days previously the four Korean women were murdered by a man who seemed to have been targeting sex workers and women of color. Even though it is unclear whether the murdered women were sex workers, the shooter certainly seems to have perceived them that way, says Zine, and this perception led to their death. (But the spas are known for offering sexual services, according to massage customer discussion boards. Gold Spa had also been the subject of seven prostitution stings, from 2011 to 2013, where 10 women were arrested the New York Times reported).
“The majority of massage businesses in the United States are licensed businesses that provide professional, non-sexual massage. There may be some women in premises who do provide something extra, but the large majority of them actually don’t identify as sex workers,” said Esther Kao, an organizer with Red Canary Song, an Asian and migrant sex worker organization. “They do so to support themselves, due to factors like high rent which continue to hike up.”
Zine and about 14 other people were gathered around Mama’s tables on a crisp and sunny Sunday afternoon, preparing for a march and vigil. They were Black, white, and Asian, brought together by Jamila Aisha, the founder of WPN Power, a sex worker rights group based in Atlanta.
Soon after Aisha began planning the march, Kao got in touch with her. “They just needed to know how to talk about this [shooting], because [Georgia sex worker rights groups don’t have] direct outreach to the massage parlor workers there,” Kao said. “What we did is really help to differentiate between massage parlor work and sex work and making sure that they don’t conflate the two for the sake of the families who may feel a lot of shame around their daughters being perceived as sex workers.”
As I entered the outdoor seating area of Mama’s, there were bouquets of roses and bright yellow flowers perched on chairs beneath a chalk sign advertising tamales and mango margaritas. An Asian woman in an N95 mask was carefully tracing a heart with a thick black magic marker around the word “humanity” on her sign which read, “Reject Hate, Embrace Humanity, #Stopasianhate.” Aisha passed out tea candles.
Zine introduced me to LeRoy Lamar, a graduate of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, who stood in his newsboy hat and black hoodie. Lamar used to advocate for anti-trafficking groups, but is now CEO of Comprehensive Community Services, which advocates for marginalized groups. They met at an anti-trafficking event organized by Jimmy Carter. Zine was there “to challenge it and protest it,” she said, laughing.
Lamar told me he is frustrated about the narrative around the massage parlor shootings. “The story is these women were most likely being trafficked, were paying off debts and whatnot, but you have no idea whether that’s true or not, and that doesn’t even matter,” Lamar said. Kao agrees, noting that the number of women who are trafficked in massage parlors has been inflated, in part because there are “economic and legal incentives for them to self-identify as [trafficked]. And part of the work that we do is to divest from the nonprofit industrial complex, and to be able to really empower these women.” If they decline to identify as trafficked, they can be charged with prostitution, Kao said, and they won’t have access to victim services that help with obtaining housing, counseling, education, and job training. In Georgia, if a massage worker claims to be a victim of human trafficking, they will not be charged with prostitution (a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine). Saying they’ve been trafficked also allows the worker to gain access to a range of services including vocational training, health care, and housing services.
After the finishing touches had been put on the “Stop Asian Hate” signs, Aisha stood on a black metal mesh chair, red umbrella dangling from her wrist, as salsa music played in the background, almost drowning her out. “On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, because of hatred, stigma, privilege, and discrimination, eight individuals tragically lost their lives. This solidarity and vigil, first and foremost, is about honoring them,” she said. “Young Ae Yue, Sun Cha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Hyan Jung Grant, Daoyou Feng, Xiojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels.”
Aisha finished her speech, stepped down from the chair and opened her cherry red umbrella, a symbol of sex worker rights, and held up a “Stop the Violence” sign in her right hand, and “We Will Defend Each Other, We Will Stand In Solidarity” in her left.
She declared that the march was beginning and began striding down Piedmont, past a Wendy’s, as cars honked in appreciation. We crossed the street to Aromatherapy Spa, the marchers’ bodies framed by the greenery and skyline of the ritzy neighborhood of Buckhead to our north, in a scene reminiscent of the Abbey Road album cover. Over a dozen fresh bouquets of flowers were already laid on the concrete in front of the parlor. Aisha placed her sign in front of the building and put five tea candles in front of it, as an older Asian couple carrying a “Stop Asian Hate” sign looked on. Her sign joined others, some plastered to the windows, one by a 7-year-old who’d drawn a smiley face against a blue and green background and scrawled “No place for hate!!!”
Aisha and Zine walked silently to Gold Spa, the marchers trailing behind them, where around 40 mourners and journalists were already gathered. As the marchers placed candles and flowers at the site, I began talking to others who were holding their own vigils.
I met Sabrina Park, a young woman born in South Korea, who had come to Gold Spa with a group of Atlanta-based Korean churches. When Park first learned of the shooting, she thought, the victims “could be my parents. She came to the vigil “to be with my community, to show support.” Her friend Jun Hui, pointed to a group of formally dressed older Korean mourners. “Our parents’ generation, which is who you see here, just texted each other and were like, ‘we’re going to gather here to pray and worship here together,’” Hui said. “There’s a lot of debate over whether [the shooting was caused by] sexual addiction or racism, and I think for our community it just hurts to lose a fellow countryman.”
One young Chinese man, who asked that I not use his name and carried a sign listing the murdered woman’s names, looked at the dozens of bouquets and signs with slogans like “A Bad Day Is Not An Excuse.” He had driven two hours from Columbus, GA to join the sex worker march. “I don’t think the Asian-American voice is as strong as other cultures’ voices,” he said. “I’ve experienced both subtle and overt violence and racism,” he continued. “It took me a long time to be proud of being Asian because I just wanted to fit in with everyone else. So I adopted a white accent.” Some of his friends’ parents were massage workers, but they never admitted they worked there. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I work with the school or work at the factory.’” One of the murdered women had instructed her children similarly. The New York Times reported that Hyun Jung Grant told her children to say that she worked at a makeup store.
Joining the mourners and marchers was democratic state senator Nikki Merritt, who’d given a speech earlier that afternoon. “If you come for one minority woman, you came for all of them,” Merritt said. “This was a hate crime against women. And it was specifically targeted against Asian women. And that should not be ignored. And we need to speak out. Growing up here and having a family that faced historical suppression, the impacts of systemic racism, white supremacy, I take this very personally, and it’s so important that I come out and stand in solidarity with other minorities.”
Merritt believes that policing of massage parlors may need to change. “I don’t condemn anyone for how they make their living. So I don’t think we should be over-policing these places for no reason,” she said, in reference to the frequent massage parlor stings in Georgia. These stings sometimes happen multiple times a year in the state and frequently target Asian-run parlors. Workers are arrested for prostitution. (Most recently In January 2021, a Suwanee, GA parlor was raided). In September 2009, the iconic Atlanta gay bar The Eagle was raided by 20 to 30 police officers in SWAT gear, who ordered patrons on the ground, where they “were forced to lay in spilled beer and broken glass” and subjected to anti-gay slurs, according to a lawsuit filed by Lambda legal.
While Kao, Zine, and Aisha agree that parlors are over-policed, they believe that the solution is not reform, but decriminalization of sex work. Merritt also thinks the gun laws need to change. “Someone’s having a bad day [and they] got a gun in less than 24 hours. If we had strengthened our gun laws, he would have at least had some time maybe to cool off,” Merritt said.
After I finished talking to Merritt, I looked for Zine and the others, but they were gone. Zine later DM’d me on Facebook. “That vigil was really powerful. It’s like such a good way to channel pain grief and anger... it’s such a horrific and tragic situation... but [sex workers] organizing and mobilizing turns the horror into hope.”
Hallie Lieberman is a historian, journalist, and instructor at Georgia Tech. She is the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, and is working on a new book on the history of gigolos.