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Georgia Lawmakers Are Discussing How Far Their New Hate Crime Bill Extends

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden and Vice President Harris are headed to Georgia tomorrow, a trip that was in the works before this week's horrific events. The plan was to hold a rally to promote Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Instead, he and Harris will meet with Asian American community leaders and offer support after Tuesday's deadly shootings.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed by a white man at three spas across metro Atlanta. The man has been charged with their murders. Lawmakers in Georgia held a press conference today denouncing the attacks, and they call for more action to stop anti-Asian violence. Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting joins us now to discuss the latest.

Welcome.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So can you just tell us a little more about what these lawmakers had to say today?

FOWLER: Well, Georgia has five Asian American lawmakers. And they held a press conference wanting people to acknowledge the rise in attacks on Asian Americans and said the coronavirus pandemic has worsened anti-Asian discrimination. Democrat Marvin Lim, a Filipino American representative, said now is the time to focus on the victims and their families but that people also should not forget the bigger picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARVIN LIM: I also urge our country, though, in the midst of a year of racial reckoning, to ensure that the narratives and needs of Asian Americans like ourselves continue to be a part of the conversations we're having and long after this tragedy.

FOWLER: Lim says, in addition to racism and misogyny, the shooting should also spark conversations about mental health for the affected communities, violence against women and the struggles of working-class immigrants.

CHANG: OK. I understand that these lawmakers also brought up Georgia's relatively new hate crimes law. Can you just explain for us how this law might affect the prosecution of this suspect in custody right now?

FOWLER: Well, in 2020, Georgia was 1 of 4 states that didn't have a hate crimes law, but after outcry over the Ahmaud Arbery case, lawmakers finally passed one. Arbery was the Black jogger who was confronted and gunned down by several white men.

CHANG: Right.

FOWLER: This new law adds additional penalties if a jury finds a crime was committed against someone because of their race or gender, among other things. In this case, 6 of the 8 victims are women of Asian descent who worked at Asian spas, so lawmakers and others have suggested it could be added to the charges of murder and aggravated assault. But today, Representative Bee Nguyen said having such a law is just a first step towards finding justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEE NGUYEN: But I will say this. Hate crimes laws are not preventative. They are used in the aftermath as a prosecutorial tool. A hate crimes law does not prevent hate killings. That is why we have to address the xenophobia, the systemic racism. That is why we have to call out the usage of xenophobic language.

FOWLER: At this time, no decision has been made yet about filing that hate crimes charge.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, Stephen - authorities say this 21-year-old white man who's in custody now has confessed to the crime. But they say that the suspect told them his actions were not racially motivated, that what happened was more about, quote, a "temptation" for him that he wanted to eliminate. So given that that is how authorities are presenting all of this, how does that complicate the ability to add a hate crimes charge right now?

FOWLER: Well, it's important to note a few things. One, there's still a lot we don't know about this man accused of committing these shootings, his motivations or any connections that he has. But some of the lawmakers and people I've talked to say even if these shootings don't get classified as a racially targeted offense, other parts could still apply. Seven of the eight victims are women. And early reports indicate that it was something related to sex addiction, that he claimed that he was, quote, "eliminating temptation," so potentially targeting these women based on their gender. Like Representative Lim said earlier, there are a lot of factors that have been brought to the fore with these shootings. And even if they don't press hate crimes charges, there's still a lot of things in the Asian American community like sadness and fear that still need to be addressed.

CHANG: That is Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler.

Thank you, Stephen.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.