“What happened was racially motivated, and don’t let anyone else tell you that it’s not always about race.”

Hundreds of demonstrators in Madison and Milwaukee showed up for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community Thursday evening for a march and vigil opposing anti-Asian racism and violence in the wake of this week’s killings of six Asian American women and two other people in a Georgia shooting spree.

About 200 people from all walks of life marched in Madison for an event hosted by UW-Madison’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Coalition, while about 150 came to a prayer vigil in Milwaukee hosted by the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin. The messages were clear: Racism and violence against the AAPI community should have no place in Wisconsin or the rest of the nation.

“It was such a tragic event, but I’m glad we have the community here to support us,” said Zongcheng Moua, a Milwaukee resident of more than 25 years who braved the day’s 50 mph winds to attend the vigil.

Fueled by former President Donald Trump’s racist and inflammatory rhetoric about the coronavirus, there have been almost 3,800 reported instances of violence and hate-based incidents toward Asian Americans since the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States, according to a newly released report from the organization Stop AAPI Hate. 

Tuesday’s shootings are being widely viewed as yet another sign of rising levels of hateful and racist incidents, but local law enforcement in Georgia has said there was no indication of the shootings being racially motivated and instead said the shooter claimed he had a “sexual addiction” he was trying to stop. The local sheriff’s department spokesman, who said the shooter simply had “a really bad day,” was also discovered to have promoted a T-shirt on Facebook that contained racist language related to the pandemic.

“What happened was racially motivated, and don’t let anyone else tell you that it’s not always about race,” said state Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) at the Milwaukee vigil.

Jessica Boling, co-chair of the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin, told UpNorthNews in an interview before the vigil that it was important for the community to come together to call attention to the ongoing threat of racism against people of Asian descent. She said the community is frequently perceived to be “a little bit invisible,” so racist incidents can go “under the radar.”

In a statement, the AAPI Coalition called for community leaders to develop preventive measures that address racist threats and violence; for everyone to publicly condemn racist language, including language that links COVID-19 to the Asian community; for victims of racist incidents to report when they are victimized; for the media to improve coverage of violence against Asian Americans; and for people to urge their elected officials to support a bill introduced by Hong and Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) that condemns violence and hate against Asian communities.

“It’s really disappointing to me that this is what it takes for people to recognize it,” Boling said in reference to the shootings. “So I hope that people will continue to work and understand this kind of racism in the US and fight against it actively.”

In her speech before the Madison march, Brenda Yang said that racism, “is not something new to Asians,” and downplaying the race of the victims is yet another way that Asian Americans’ history and trauma is ignored.

“Words like, ‘it was not a racial attack,’ only continues to undermine our existence and the narrative that we are perpetual foreigners,” said Yang, who was brought to the US as a young child from Laos with her parents to escape the aftermath of the Vietnam War. “I tell you, I’m not a foreigner here.”

Anna Yang and Mahlaya Jung, who attended the Madison protest, said the debate over whether race was a motivation for the shooter was “disheartening” and made the incident even more painful.

‘It goes to show how little [Atlanta police] cared about the community and would rather save the shooters’ image than really care about getting the true story out,” Jung said. 

When Anita Anongdeth, who attended the Madison march, heard about the shooting, she immediately thought about her aunts who work in nail salons. She’s angry that the obvious conversation, about the combined race and gender of the victims, is being ignored. 

“When you’re dealing with Asian women, when you’re dealing with a man that’s going to three different salons and targeting these people as a source of temptation, what you’re not talking about is the objectification and the fetishization of Asian women,” Anongdeth said. 

Danica Sikazan’s, who attended the march in Madison, mother came to the United States from the Philippines. Because Sikazan’s father is white, people don’t always identify her as Asian, but she’s seen her mother experience racism, such as when people assume she doesn’t speak English, even though the Philippines is one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world.

“We came here the way that [white people’s] ancestors came here,” Sikazan said. “We came here looking for a better life and we wanted to build this country up to be as amazing as it can be. And we are a part of it, no matter what.”