A crowd of more than 100 people bowed their heads as Pinpin Sheng’s prayer echoed through a megaphone at Turlington Plaza Saturday, followed by a moment of silence held nationwide honoring the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings earlier this week.
“We mourn with the people who lost their families,” the 40-year-old Gainesville resident said in between eight chimes from Century Tower. “Lord, please give us love to love each other. We're all one family.”
Following the lead of United Chinese Americans, a nonprofit Chinese cultural and heritage organization that planned vigils across the nation Saturday, the Gainesville Chinese American community participated in four simultaneous rallies at street intersections and a subsequent vigil at Turlington Plaza.
Saturday’s demonstrations came after eight people, six of Asian American descent, were killed during three mass shootings at spas and massage parlors in Atlanta on Tuesday.
The shooter may have planned additional shootings in Florida, according to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
More than 3,795 accounts of unprovoked acts of anti-Asian violence occurred from March 19-Feb. 28, reported Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate, a national organization documenting self-reported crimes against Asian Americans. This is an increase of about 1,000 incidents since the last national report in February 2021.
For Asian American families all over the country, the fear of violence and racism that comes with being associated with the “Chinese Virus.” President Donald Trump used this term to reference COVID-19, showing how regardless of their ethnicity, hatred toward Asian Americans has become an everyday ordeal.
Rong Zhang, a 40-year-old UF computer science professor, was one of the main organizers for the gatherings Saturday. She said she is relieved the shooter was stopped before he had the chance to come to Florida.
Zhang said Gainesville’s Chinese community began organizing the vigil through the group messaging app WeChat as soon as it heard about the shootings.
By spreading awareness within the Gainesville community, Zhang said she hopes she can stand in solidarity with others who are in mourning and now fear for their lives.
At 6 p.m., protesters came together at four busy intersections: West University Avenue and Southwest 13th Street, Southwest 34th Street and Archer Road, Archer Road and Tower Road, and Northwest 34th Street and Northwest 23rd Street. Many were met with honking horns and Gainesville residents who rolled down their car windows to cheer in solidarity.
Shigang Chen, a 50-year-old UF computer science professor, stood at the corner of Southwest 34th Avenue and Archer Road and held a sign that read “Proud Asian Americans.” Chen said he wanted to speak out against rising anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic to make it clear that Gainesville and the UF community doesn’t tolerate such behavior.
As someone who has lived in the city since 2002, he said his experience as a Chinese American has been relatively neutral. Chen said he was surprised to see so much support from passersby.
“This is a great nation. We're here to make it better,” Chen said. “It's not perfect, but we're here to begin.”
Ching Zhou was appalled by the attacks in Atlanta. The 57-year-old Chinese American Gainesville resident said the protest was thrown together last minute Saturday afternoon, but the large turnout showed how passionate the community feels about combating anti-Asian racism.
“If I have a bad day, I guess that's now an excuse,” Zhou said, in reference to an Atlanta police officer’s rationale for the shootings. “It’s just not right.”
Danling Fu, a 60-year-old UF education professor, said Asian American issues have been largely ignored nationally for many years.
“No matter how many years you contribute to this nation, you will always be considered as a foreigner,” Fu said. “We immediately become the scapegoats. Scapegoats for war. Scapegoats for the financial crisis. And now, we are the scapegoats for the pandemic.”
Asian Americans are tired of being treated as if their voices don’t matter, she said.
“We've been invisible for too long,” she said. “Most of us are first generation immigrants. We come here for better education. For freedom, for democracy. We cannot stand for the racism against us.”
At the intersection of Southwest Archer Road and Southwest 34th Street, Han Yi, a 40-year-old city resident, said she is proud to be an Asian American woman who has worked hard to live in this country.
“We come here to pursue our dreams,” Yi said. “Not to become victims.”
By about 7:30 p.m., those who rallied on the street corners were accompanied by students, faculty and community members at Turlington Plaza to host a candlelight vigil.
At the center of the crowd stood Jiangeng Xue, a 45-year-old UF engineering professor. Xue said he appreciated President Fuchs’ statement that condemned anti-Asian violence; however, because the Atlanta shootings were not an isolated incident, he said he would like to see more done in Gainesville and at UF to address the issue on all fronts.
“It’s a very good first step,” Xue said. “But we need more action from the government and from our society to really eliminate discrimination.”
Pengfei Zhao, a 36-year-old UF assistant professor of education, was frustrated to see the media focus on the possibility that the victims could have been sex workers instead of the tragedy of their deaths.
There is a negative stigma attached to being a working-class Asian woman in the United States, Zhao said.
Zhao brought her 6-year-old daughter, Iris Yunzhi Wang, to the vigil to educate her about injustice against Asian Americans.
“My girl has to grow up in this society,” Zhao said. “She needs to be able to speak up about injustices, chase her dreams and not be judged while doing that.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Jiangeng Xue is a 45-year-old UF engineering professor. The Alligator initially reported otherwise.
Contact Jiselle Lee and Alan Halaly at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @jiselle_lee and @AlanHalaly.
Alan Halaly is a third-year journalism major and the Spring 2023 Editor-in-Chief of The Alligator. He's previously served as Engagement Managing Editor, Metro Editor and Photo Editor. Alan has also held internships with the Miami New Times and The Daily Beast, and spent his first two semesters in college on The Alligator’s Metro desk covering city and county affairs.
Jiselle Lee was The Alligator’s Summer 2023 Editor-In-Chief. She was previously a reporter with NextShark News and a reporting intern at The Bradenton Herald.