Asian-American communities were on alert Thursday after a shooting rampage that left six women of Asian origin dead and stoked fears in a population already alarmed by a surge in hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Three massage parlors around Atlanta were targeted Tuesday, before a 21-year-old man suspected of the killings was arrested in southwest Georgia hours later.

Gold Spa, Atlanta
A man places flowers at the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the businesses targeted in Tuesday's violence Photo: AFP / Virginie Kippelen

"It's heartbreaking," said Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential hopeful who is running for mayor of New York.

"I've been Asian all my life, and I remember -- vividly -- growing up with this constant sense of invisibility, mockery, disdain, a sense that you cannot be American if you have an Asian face," Yang said.

Georgia shootings
Map of the US state of Georgia locating Hall County where a liquid nitrogen leak at a food-processing plant killed at least six people on Thursday. Photo: AFP / Laurence CHU

"But this has metastasized into something new and deadly and virulent and hateful," he told a press conference in New York alongside the Black civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

The White House announced that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who were already scheduled to be in Atlanta on Friday, would meet Asian-American leaders to "discuss the ongoing attacks and threats against the community."

Atlanta shootings
Julie Tran holds her phone during a candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, California Photo: AFP / Apu GOMES

Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, faces eight counts of murder and one charge of aggravated assault for Tuesday's attacks, in which six of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent.

He has admitted carrying out the attacks, according to law enforcement, but claims he was not motivated by racial hatred.

Asian Hate vigil
A vigil in response to the Atlanta spa shootings in the Chinatown area of Washington Photo: GETTY IMAGES / ALEX WONG

FBI Director Chris Wray reiterated in an interview with public radio station NPR on Thursday that the gunman's motive was yet to be fully understood, but the shootings nevertheless struck a chord in a country where hate crimes against Asian-Americans have been on the rise.

Chi-Chi Zhang, an Asian-American woman living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and whose family came to the US when she was seven, described discussing race and hate crimes with her two young daughters, aged two and four.

Kamala Harris
US Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the increasing level of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the US the day after eight people where killed in shootings near Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were of Asian descent, exacerbating concerns about a surge in violence targeting the community during the pandemic, though the suspect denies race was a motivation. Photo: DC POOL

"We started to talk about what our escape plan would be if we were to be attacked on the street," she said. "How is that a normal conversation to have with a two-year-old?"

Zhang said that for much of her life she had been taught to conform to the idea of a "model minority" but added that the concept of keeping one's head down was "the reason nobody pays attention to crimes against us."

In Washington, a House subcommittee discussed a worrying rise in anti-Asian sentiment, with chairman Steve Cohen describing Asians being subjected to "verbal harassment, being spat at, slapped in the face, lit on fire, slashed with a box cutter or shoved violently to the ground."

"For many Asian-Americans, Tuesday's shocking events felt like the inevitable culmination of a year in which there were nearly 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate," Representative Steve Cohen said.

White House
The White House lowered the US flag to half-staff to honor the victims of the shooting in Atlanta, Georgia Photo: AFP / JIM WATSON

They have grown "increasingly more violent over time as the Covid-19 pandemic worsened," Cohen, a Democratic lawmaker from Tennessee, said.

The surge, he said, had been fueled by references to the "China virus" -- a term often used by Donald Trump although Cohen did not cite the former president by name.

According to the sheriff's office, "Long told investigators that he blames the massage parlors for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex" and the shootings were not racially motivated.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Long's claims should be taken "with a grain of salt" while Sarah Park, of the Korean American Coalition-Metro Atlanta, said racism was clearly a factor.

Among those testifying before the House panel were four members of Congress of Asian origin.

"Asian-Americans must not be used as scapegoats in times of crisis -- lives are at stake," said Judy Chu, a Democrat from California. "It's critical that Congress takes bold action to address this pandemic of discrimination and hate."

The ranking Republican on the panel, Chip Roy of Texas, said the victims of the Atlanta shootings deserve justice but expressed concern about "policing" the right to voice criticism of China's communist leadership.

Roy's remarks drew an angry response from Meng, a Democrat from New York, who suggested Republican rhetoric on the pandemic had put "a bull's eye on the back of Asian-Americans."

Vigils were held in several US cities on Wednesday to mourn the victims of the shootings and condemn racially motivated violence.

Police in New York, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and other major cities stepped up patrols in areas with large Asian-American populations.

Biden said that while the motive has not yet been fully established "what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain."

"The recent attacks against the community are un-American," he tweeted. "They must stop."

Georgia is home to nearly 500,000 people of Asian origin, or just over four percent of its population, according to the Asian American Advocacy Fund.

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