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Asian Americans are reeling from California’s back-to-back mass shootings

“It’s been really hard to process all of this.”

People hold candles as they pay tribute to the victims of a mass shooting at a candlelight vigil in front of City Hall in Monterey Park, California, on January 24, 2023.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Two recent mass shootings have Asian American communities in California — and the rest of the country — reeling.

The shootings, both of which included Asian American victims and perpetrators, have been shocking and devastating for a community that’s still grappling with the violence many of its members experienced during the pandemic.

“These two particular tragedies have been jarring and triggering for a lot of Asian Americans,” says James Zarsadiaz, a professor at the University of San Francisco who’s written extensively on the history of the San Gabriel Valley including Monterey Park, where one of the shootings took place. “It’s been really hard to process all of this … because for [many] Asian Americans, these last few years, it has been back-to-back tragedy.”

The shootings happened within days of one another this past week. In Monterey Park, California — a suburb near Los Angeles — a 72-year-old Asian American man killed 11 people, all of whom are of Asian descent, at a local dance studio on Saturday; he also wounded nine others. Police have yet to identify a motive for the shooting, though they’re reportedly looking into personal connections that the shooter had with patrons of the studio.

In Half Moon Bay — a beach town south of San Francisco — a 66-year-old Asian American man killed 7 people, including Chinese and Latino farm workers on Monday. The suspect worked alongside some of the victims on a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay and previously worked at a second farm that employed other victims. Police are reviewing the attack as a potential incident of “workplace violence,” though the investigation is still ongoing. In both cases, more information about the victims as well as the suspects’ motives are still being released.

Both shootings occurred as the Lunar New Year holiday, a time that’s typically a joyous opportunity for celebration with friends and family, was just getting underway. Community activists note that the shootings have only compounded past traumas, tapping into existing fears about anti-Asian violence and raising concerns about gun control and mental health. These shootings follow anti-Asian attacks that surged in recent years as Asian Americans were scapegoated for the spread of the coronavirus. Between March 2020 and March 2022, the Stop AAPI Hate advocacy group has received reports of nearly 11,000 anti-Asian incidents including physical violence, verbal abuse, and property damage.

“I feel like it’s just been an onslaught of violence, like one after another. We have just experienced a set of storms,” says Chrissy Lau, a history professor at California State University Monterey Bay, who specializes in Asian American studies.

The California shootings have been a terrible “set of storms”

The shootings have added to the pain and anxiety that Asian Americans have experienced in the last few years, activists say.

“Really, it is, you know, stacking it on top of each other,” says Manjusha Kulkarni, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, an organization dedicated to tracking anti-Asian violence and harassment. “Each incident becomes another one where the community is reeling.”

For some, the initial news of the Monterey Park shooting prompted fears of another racist attack on Asian Americans similar to violence that increased during the pandemic. In the last few years, there’s been an uptick of hate crimes against Asian Americans, blaming the group for the pandemic. And as politicians have leaned into more incendiary anti-China rhetoric, experts have worried that such statements could inflame xenophobic sentiment and actions as well.

“There is still that feeling of being targeted, and being fearful, when we hear about a shooting like this,” Connie Chung Joe, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, told the Associated Press.

Exacerbating this fear were previous anti-Asian attacks including the 2020 stabbing of an Asian family in a Midland, Texas, Sam’s Club parking lot and a 2021 mass shooting in multiple Atlanta-area spas that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent. As more information has been announced, however, the revelation that the suspects in both recent shootings are older Asian American men has prompted its own sadness and reflection. Given the limited information on the motives of these attacks, many in the Asian American community are still trying to wrap their heads around both the causes behind them, and some of the similarities between the shooters.

“It’s from my people and against my people, so it’s very sad,” says Min Zhou, a sociology and Asian American studies professor at UCLA.

“He chose to do harm on his fellow Asian Americans, so I think that’s kind of like that additional level of hurt,” adds Kulkarni, of the Monterey Park shooter.

The shootings have shaken people’s sense of safety in both places. Historically, Monterey Park has been a “vibrant Asian American enclave,” says Kulkarni, and “one of the first suburbs in the United States to have an Asian majority,” according to Zarsadiaz. Since the 1970s, Monterey Park has established itself as a “suburban Chinatown” and become a central, middle-class hub of Asian American restaurants, strip malls, and gathering places.

“I go to dim sum in Monterey Park, I play volleyball in Monterey Park, I do my food shopping in Monterey Park,” says Lau, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, where the suburb is located.

“Monterey Park, you know, holds a lot of cultural value for a lot of Asian Americans, because, again, it reflects where a lot of us live, or at least a lot of us grew up,” says Zarsadiaz.

The violence in a historically safe space for Asian Americans has inspired both immense grief and solidarity. “That fear is always there when you have such a devastating incident and experience,” says Zhou, who said her son’s in-laws frequented the dance studio where the shootings occurred.

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office has released the names of the victims in the Monterey Park shooting, and they include Xiujuan Yu, 57; Hongying Jian, 62; Lilian Li, 63; Mymy Nhan, 65; Muoi Dai Ung, 67; Diana Man Ling Tom, 70; Wen-Tau Yu, 64; Valentino Marcos Alvero, 68; Ming Wei Ma, 72; Yu-Lun Kao, 72; and Chia Ling Yau, 76. Many were older Asian Americans who frequented the studio and enjoyed ballroom dancing.

In Half Moon Bay, the shooter targeted farm workers on two mushroom farms including both Chinese and Latino laborers, fueling fears among a community that’s already vulnerable.

Currently, there are 2,500 to 3,000 farm workers who work in and around Half Moon Bay, a beachside town in Northern California, according to the Los Angeles Times. These include migrant workers and longer-term residents, people of Asian and Latino descent and some immigrants who are undocumented. Historically, Asian Americans, including Chinese, Japanese, and FilIpino workers, have comprised a substantial portion of California’s agricultural workforce, although their numbers have declined since 1965, when US policy resulted in the influx of more Asian immigrants in other professions.

Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jimenez has said that some farm workers are afraid to go back to work following this horrific attack, which took place where many workers lived and was witnessed by children returning from school.

“It’s important to humanize who these farm workers are: They are mothers and fathers and uncles,” Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, executive director of ALAS, a Half Moon Bay nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for Latino workers, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Farm workers have long faced challenging working conditions in the state, including low wages, overcrowded housing, and workplace exploitation. Now, added to those concerns is the fear of fatal violence at work.

Information about the victims in Half Moon Bay is not yet fully available, though six of the seven victims’ names have been released by the San Mateo County coroner’s office. They are Zhi Shen Liu, 73; Qi Zhong Cheng, 66; Marciano Jimenez Martinez, 50; Ye Tao Bing, 43; Ai Xiang Zhang, 74; and Jing Zhi Lu, 64.

The shootings have prompted calls for policy change

An outpouring of support for the victims and calls for policy changes have followed the shootings. Members of both the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay communities are responding with mutual aid and financial support for the victims and their families.

“For us, the focus is on what we can do for the victims, the survivors, their families, and community members,” says Kulkarni. The LA Times has compiled a list of fundraising campaigns to help victims of the Monterey Park shooting, and the San Jose Mercury News has also compiled a list to help victims of the Half Moon Bay shooting.

Beyond the help that’s focused on victims, experts and organizers are also urging stricter gun laws, more mental health resources for aging people, and greater scrutiny of domestic violence within the Asian American community. In both cases, the shooters were older Asian American men, and in the case of the Half Moon Bay attack, the shooter had previously received a temporary restraining order for violence against a roommate.

The similar age profiles of both shooters have led to calls for more investment in mental health and economic resources for Asian American elders, a group that often faces gaps in such services due to stigma, a lack of cultural fluency among physicians, and language barriers.

“I think the general consensus is that a lot of Asian Americans, particularly older Asian Americans, do not have the language or tools ... to address mental health issues,” says Zarsadiaz.

Advocates and lawmakers have also ramped up the push for more robust gun control measures in the wake of the two shootings, including supporting a federal assault weapons ban that’s been held up in Congress. In the past, Asian Americans have strongly supported robust gun control measures — with 77 percent backing them in a 2022 AAPI Data survey — advocacy that’s poised to continue in the wake of these tragedies.

“This is a big issue of gun violence,” says Zhou. “And violence is not just unique to a particular group, so that needs to be addressed across the board.”

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