Sheriff’s spokesman replaced on shootings case; Biden orders flags to be flown at half-staff

The presidential proclamation comes amid an escalating controversy over local law enforcement’s comments about the shooting suspect’s possible motivation.

Sheriff’s spokesman replaced on shootings case; Biden orders flags to be flown at half-staff

A Georgia sheriff’s office captain was replaced on Thursday as a spokesman for the investigation into the killings at three separate Atlanta-area spas, amid criticism over his perceived callousness in addressing the public.

Cherokee County Communications Director Erika Neldner said in a statement that she would take over media inquiries related to the investigation of the Tuesday shootings, according to The Associated Press. Her statement didn’t offer additional details into the status of Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, who was widely panned on social media and by lawmakers for saying that the suspect had had “a really bad day” and that “this is what he did.”

Baker said the suspect, a 21-year-old white man, claimed that his actions were not racially motivated, remarks that drew backlash from onlookers, who said it was too early in the investigation for this to be shared publicly, especially when six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.

On Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray also said it didn’t seem that race motivated the killings, but pointed to the ongoing investigations for a final determination. The bureau, he said, is involved “in a support role.”

“While the motive remains still under investigation at the moment, it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated,” Wray told NPR. “But I really would defer to the state and local investigation on that for now.”

On Thursday, Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles R. Hampton Jr. told reporters: “Our investigation is looking at everything, so nothing is off the table for our investigation.”

President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered that the American flag be flown at half-staff at the White House and on all U.S. government grounds as a “mark of respect” for the victims of the attacks.

The White House also announced that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris would postpone a political event on their trip to Georgia on Friday evening — part of their tour to promote the new $1.9 trillion Covid relief and stimulus package — and would instead meet with Asian American leaders in Atlanta and visit the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The presidential proclamation and last-minute change of schedule came amid the escalating controversy over law enforcement’s public statements about the shooting suspect’s potential motivation, especially Baker’s assessment that the suspect had simply had a bad day.

Meanwhile, lawmakers within the Georgia Legislature and on Capitol Hill conveyed deepening frustration over the attacks, after a year of racial animus directed toward Asian Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday morning, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) concluded that the man suspected of killing eight people at the local businesses — including six people of Asian descent and seven women — was driven by “hate” to commit the acts of violence.

“We will hear, I guess, his explanation in the days ahead,” Warnock told MSNBC. “But we know hate when we see it. We’ll get into the nuances of it, but only hate drives you to take eight precious lives in the way that he did.”

The senator added that he was “more interested in hearing the stories of the victims” killed in the shootings at Young’s Asian Massage Parlor, Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa. “That’s really what we ought to be amplifying, their humanity,” he said.

Georgia law enforcement officials received widespread backlash Wednesday after conducting a news briefing in which they cited the suspect’s assertion that his crimes were not related to race. “It’s still early, but he does claim that it was not racially motivated,” Baker said.

Baker told reporters that the suspect suffered from “what he considers a sex addiction” and that the suspect viewed the spas as a “temptation” that he “wanted to eliminate.”

Critics denounced Baker’s remarks as wildly deferential to the alleged killer, failing to acknowledge the known facts of the case and discounting the well-documented rise in attacks on Asian Americans over the past several months that have coincided with the pandemic.

BuzzFeed News reported later Wednesday that Baker himself had shared racist images on Facebook last year, promoting T-shirts that called Covid-19 an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”

On Thursday, a group of Georgia’s Asian American and Pacific Islander legislators held a news conference in the state capitol, where state Rep. Bee Nguyen condemned the framing of the shooting victims as “a problem that needed to be eliminated.”

“We’ve seen this with other high-profile mass shootings in the past, where the perpetrator is centered in attempts to justify the atrocity, and we see that victims are relegated as a symptom of the perpetrator’s sickness,” said Nguyen, whose district encompasses Atlanta.

“I will continue to reject that premise,” she said. “I will continue to call out the truth, which is [that] this was a violent and brutal act targeting three Asian businesses, resulting in the death of [six] Asian women — one that is laced with xenophobia, misogyny, gender-based violence and lax gun laws in the state of Georgia.”

At the federal level, congressional lawmakers on a House Judiciary subcommittee convened a hearing Thursday on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the panel’s chair, said the Atlanta-area shootings “felt like the inevitable culmination” of a year marked by acts of hate toward Asian Americans.

But the discussion quickly devolved into partisan politics, as ranking member Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) argued that victims of cartels at the southern border and rioters during last summer’s social unrest also “deserve justice” — seemingly suggesting they were similarly subjected to “race-based violence.”

“My concern about this hearing is that it seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society, free speech, and away from the rule of law and taking out bad guys,” said Roy, whose remarks provoked an emotional response from Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.).

“Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want,” Meng said. “But you don’t have to do it by putting a bulls-eye on the backs of Asian Americans across this country — on our grandparents, on our kids.”

The House hearing on Thursday “was to address the hurt and pain of our community, and to find solutions,” she added. “And we will not let you take our voice away from us.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) also rebuked Roy, urging him “to please stop using racist terms like ‘kung flu,’ ‘the Wuhan virus’ or other ethnic identifiers” in referring to the coronavirus.

“I am not a virus, and when you say things like that, it hurts the Asian American community,” Lieu said. “Whatever political points you think you are scoring … you are harming Americans who happen to be of Asian descent.”

The shooting suspect was charged on Wednesday with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in Cherokee County, part of the Atlanta metro area where one of the spas is located. Additional charges are expected to follow related to the two shootings that occurred within the city.

“Whatever the motivation was for this guy, we know that many of the victims, [the] majority of the victims were Asian,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We also know that this is an issue that is happening across the country. It is unacceptable. It is hateful. And it has to stop.”

Appearing on Wednesday in the Oval Office, Biden said he had “been speaking about the brutality against Asian-Americans.” He characterized the trend as “troubling” and said he would “have more to say” about the Atlanta killings “when the investigation is completed.”
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White House press secretary Jen Psaki contented at her briefing Wednesday that there was “no question” that former President Donald Trump — who has repeatedly used terms such as the “China virus” to refer to the pandemic — had contributed to “perceptions of the Asian American community that are inaccurate, unfair [and] have elevated threats against Asian Americans.”

Nick Niedzwiadek and Benjamin Din contributed to this report.