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Members of the Penn community gather around candles on Mar. 17 in honor of the victims of the fatal shootings that targeted three Atlanta spas on Tuesday night. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Penn students joined more than 100 Philadelphians in Chinatown on Wednesday evening to honor the victims of the fatal shootings that targeted Asian Americans in three Atlanta spas on March 16.

The attack, in which a 21-year-old man shot and killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, comes amid a nationwide surge in attacks on Asian Americans since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation a year ago. According to a national report from STOP AAPI HATE, 3,795 incidents of hate crimes were received by the center from the period of March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021.

Most mourners at the candlelight vigil were members of the local Asian American community, including several students and alumni from Drexel University, and Temple University. As community leaders addressed the crowd with brief speeches, some mourners lit candles and sang prayers led by local pastors, while others tearfully watched in silence. 

The vigil took place at the corner of 10th and Vine streets and was hosted by numerous AAPI organizations in Philadelphia, including Asian Americans United, VietLead, APALA Philly, and the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance. City Councilmember and 1993 College graduate Helen Gym and Pennsylvania State Senator Sharif Street, a 1999 Penn Law School graduate, were among those who attended the vigil.

In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Gym spoke of the need for support groups among Asian Americans in Philadelphia to help those grieve and to instill a sense of belonging within the community.

"People are definitely hurting — they're grieving. Many of them are in shock, and a lot of them are in fear,” Gym said. “What we need to do right now is to bring a sense of visibility, solidarity, and purposeful unity around violence against women and Asian Americans."

During her speech at the vigil, Gym denounced the anti-Asian rhetoric used by former President Donald Trump that has been recently echoed by congressional members and public figures.

College junior Claire Nguyen, who attended the vigil, emphasized the detrimental effects of xenophobic anti-Asian rhetoric on the Vietnamese community, as they lifted a candle and grieved with community members on Wednesday night. 

Since January 2019, Nguyen has been working with VietLead as a college organizer in efforts to help stop the deportation of Vietnamese refugees.

References to the deportations of Vietnamese refugees in several of the vigil speeches brought tears to Nguyen's eyes, as she remembered her heart-wrenching experience of helping stop the deportation of a 49-year-old refugee she has been working with since October, 2020.

"I have a family member in a similar situation to those community members who were deported, and it's like, I don't know if he's next," Nguyen said. "It's all the same forces of xenophobia, from the shooter to the literal United States government." 

Nguyen agreed with Gym that the Atlanta shootings were not an isolated incident and said that, while the news horrified her, she was left unsurprised.

"To me, it was another manifestation of white supremacist violence that happens in the United States on every level," Nguyen said. "Even though the [Atlanta] shooter did it interpersonally, a lot of the violence against working-class immigrant women and Asian sex workers comes from the history of U.S. imperialism in Asia that's ongoing." 

She added that it felt comforting to be "so raw" with others at the vigil, especially amid the pandemic. 

Likewise, College senior Merry Gu, who was also present at the vigil, felt great comfort in finding solidarity with the other attendees and in realizing that there is a huge community of Asians, Asian Americans, and non-Asians who care about the recent increase in hate crimes towards Asian Americans. 

She said she hopes this outpour of emotion regarding the Atlanta shootings will motivate others to become involved in the work that grassroots organizations have been doing to protect Asian communities.

Specifically at Penn, Gu believes the University should do more to protect the Asian American student and faculty community beyond sending statements denouncing the anti-Asian violence in Atlanta. On Wednesday afternoon, President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli said to the Penn community in an email that they would continue to provide a supportive environment for Asian and Asian American students, faculty, and staff. 

"The Asian community has been asking for a lot of things for a long time to support us, whether it's better investment in the ethnic studies programs or safe spaces for the Asian community in the college houses," Gu said.

Institutions across the Ivy League, including Penn, have struggled to keep structured Asian American student programs. Penn and Cornell University are the only two Ivy League universities that currently offer minors in Asian American Studies.  

In order for members of Penn's Asian American community to feel welcomed and valued on campus, Gym said she believes it is important for University administration to invest in educational resources, such as providing funding for the Asian American Studies Program and safe spaces for the community. 

In April 2020, Penn launched a Task Force on Support to Asian and Asian American Students and Scholars to create a space for members of Penn's Asian community to educate themselves, let their voices be heard, and heal from discrimination amid the pandemic. 

Gu and Nguyen both said, however, that they do not think the task force provides adequate protection against violence for Penn’s Asian American community, as they disagree with the presence of members of the Division of Public Safety on the task force.

The vigil closed with a prayer from a local pastor singing, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest," as mourners lifted wax melted candles to honor victims after a moment of silence. Community members then placed signs, roses, and candles in a circle near the microphone used for speeches, before people began to depart at about 8:30 p.m. 

After taking a photo of all the candles together with Gu by her side, Nguyen left the vigil with other Penn students in attendance. 

"I hope that no one minimizes the rage that people are experiencing right now," Nguyen said.