Group gathers in Detroit to denounce hate against Asian Americans after Ga. slayings

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Olive Papasian is only 6 years old, but she took the stage on Sunday to denounce hate against Asian Americans at a gathering and vigil following the deadly shootings in Atlanta.

"Today we are here to say we should not (hate)," said Olive, who lives in Warren. "Asians (aren't) different from Americans. They are the same on the inside but they are different on the outside. That doesn't mean we should bully them."

The young girl spoke before hundreds of people who gathered at the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building in downtown Detroit to express outrage over the Atlanta-area shooting deaths of eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. 

Olive Papasian, 6, left, of Warren speaks next her brother Charlie, 10, as Asian Americans and other people gather for the 'Stop the Hate, Support Asian American and Immigrant Vigil' at the McNamara Federal Building in Detroit on Sunday.

The suspect in the shootings, Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old White man, considered the women inside the spas “sources of temptation,” police said, according to the Associated Press. 

The slayings led the group outside the federal building in Detroit also to speak out about discrimination faced by the community.

"Today we hold a safe space for the Asian American community and we are going to take up as much space as we possibly can," said Ceena Vang, one of two Detroit friends who founded Whenever We Are Needed to support the Asian and Black communities and dismantle racism.

"Today is our time to speak up for ourselves, and it has been long overdue. Today we are going to make history in Detroit."

Mai Xiong, newly elected Macomb County commissioner and the first Hmong elected in the state, said there is a shared feeling of anxiety among Asian Americans, many of whom have fled war and terror to come to America to then face discrimination in this country.

Macomb County commissioner Mai Xiong, right, speaks.

"But in 2021, Asian Americans across the country do not feel safe at all," said  Xiong. "Others might say the murders in Atlanta were not racially motivated, but do not overlook the pain and fear that permeates through the Asian American community." 

The gathering was touted as the first protest locally by Asian Americans, but organizers said it was not the last. Those in attendance carried signs that said "#StopAsianHate," "Love Our People How You Love Our Food" and "That Could've Been Me." They marched though downtown and then held a vigil for those killed in Atlanta. 

Investigators have said Long confessed to the slayings but said they weren’t racially motivated. Police have said they’re still working to establish a motive, including looking into whether the attacks can be classified as hate crimes.

Zora Bowens, co-founder of  Whenever We Are Needed, said the Atlanta-area shootings parallel the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting when a 21-year-old white supremacist killed nine African Americans.  

"The shooter was coddled and protected, just like now," said Bowens. "The news and the media downplayed the severity of the event until people rallied together, just like now."

Everyone needs to stand united together, she said.

"The strongest thing we can do is fight together," Bowens said. "They can't stop us when we are together. They can't divide us when we know we are supposed to be together." 

State Rep. Ranjeev Puri agreed, but said he was exhausted.

"I am so sick and so tired of having this conversation," said Puri, D-Canton Township. "Whether we are fighting for Black Lives Matter, whether we are fighting for children being separated at the border or whether we are standing up today and shouting about the spike in crimes against the Asian community, we need to be putting an end to systemic racism."

Many of the speakers stressed that change could happen by dismantling stereotypes and taking the time to understand one another.

Farmington Hills resident Somya Prakash said that while Asian Americans were brought up to stay silent, they cannot remain silent anymore. Prakash urged them to report racism or hate crimes.

She also said that words matter.

"It's called the coronavirus, and nothing else," Prakash said. "It's not coincidence that so many hate crimes are done toward Asian Americans."

Twitter: @kimberkoz