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Student-led Asian American Pacific Islander organizations hold candlelight vigil for victims of Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings

Organization leaders call out AU administration failure to address incidents of AAPI hate

Maddy Park choked back tears, her voice mixed with sadness and anger, as she spoke passionately about her grandmother during a student-led candlelight vigil for the victims of the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings Feb. 1.

The senior in the School of Public Affairs and the advocacy and outreach coordinator of the Korean Student Association spoke about how her grandmother explored Manhattan, New York in her adulthood and now avoids doing so, fearing for her well-being. 

“It pains me to see how limited my independent grandma has become due to a lack of safety and immense fear our community is suffering from,” Park said. 

Park’s voice then swelled. 

“Our communities do not feel safe, our elders do not feel safe, we do not feel safe, but we deserve to feel safe,” Park said.

The event, hosted by Project Pengyou and the Korean and Hindu Student Associations, was a space for the American University community to gather, process and heal as well as remember the victims of gun violence from the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings. 

On Jan. 21, a gunman opened fire at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California, killing 11 and injuring nine. Two days later, another mass shooting occurred in Half Moon Bay, California, which left seven dead and one critically injured. The victims of the shootings were of Asian and Latino descent and occurred during Lunar New Year, a holiday celebrated by many Asian cultures. 

The vigil at the Woods Brown Amphitheater started with the event organizers –– Park from AU’s Korean Student Association, Vera Tsang from AU Project Pengyou and Divya Chhotani from the Hindu Students Association –– introducing themselves, followed by a two-minute moment of silence to honor the victims. After the organizers spoke, they opened the floor to any of the nearly 100 attendees who wished to share. 

The Asian American Student Union posted a statement on Instagram following the California shootings. 

“These tragedies, among many others, have made it clear that Asian American and Pacific Islander struggles in the U.S. have been ignored for far too long –– that our collective pain, generational trauma, our grief, our humanity, has been set aside and brushed under the rug by the insidious fabric of institutional racism,” the post read. “It is not radical to claim the right to live in safety and peace. It is not radical to want a better life for family and kin, to immigrate and reside in this country, or to continue to enjoy a rich culture filled with affinity and community. It is not radical to be visible and it is not radical to want to be alive.” 

AASU executive board members called for the University administration to stand up and speak out with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. 

Chyna Brodie, Student Government president and a senior in SPA, emphasized the sentiment of cross-community solidarity as hate crimes continue to occur, such as the recent killing of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who was beaten to death by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee. 

“It’s beyond important to have cross-community solidarity at American University because our community is multi-dimensional and it encompasses a lot of different communities,” she told The Eagle. “At the end of the day, you can say you support a lot of different communities, but if you’re not showing up for them, then it really doesn’t matter.”

While the vigil provided a space for AU students to heal, some of the event coordinators said organizing the vigil caused them an immense emotional burden.

Chhotani, a junior in the College and Arts and Sciences, said putting together the vigil “took away” from the fact that the event organizers were students and that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community was grieving. 

“It’s very stressful that it’s on the AAPI community at the school to take initiative when it shouldn’t even have to be us, and other communities on this campus should be stepping up just as much as we would step up for them in times of need,” she said.

Park said she, Chhotani and Tsang planned the vigil because there wasn’t a space in D.C. for the AU community to process what happened. 

The University sent an announcement to students from California regarding the shootings on Jan. 23, but did not send out campus-wide communication.

On Jan. 25, President Sylvia Burwell sent out an email about the work AU is doing against “hate and bias incidents in society,” specifically antisemitism. Burwell wrote that AU’s investigation on the swastika graffiti found in Anderson Hall last September was closing. The email did not mention anything regarding the California shootings. 

Elizabeth Deal, the assistant vice president for community and internal communication, wrote in an email to The Eagle that the shootings were “tragic.” She stated that “the Office of Campus Life reached out to AU students who come from the surrounding communities to offer support and resources.” 

Regarding the administration’s response to the shooting, Deal wrote that there are multiple factors the University considered before sending out campus-wide communications. 

The University considers questions like “whether the incident occurred on our campus or in the broader D.C. community, if it involves higher education matters or took place on another college campus, or did it directly affect large segments of the AU community, among other areas,” Deal wrote.

While Park acknowledged that other minority communities should be elevated and uplifted, she was shocked that something wasn’t “circulating around what had happened over Lunar New Years.” Because of this, Park said she felt unrepresented and unheard by the administration.

Tsang is the director of education, culture and advocacy for Project Pengyou and deputy of advocacy and outreach for the Korean Student Association. She represented Project Pengyou at the vigil. 

Tsang added the University ignoring Asian American and Pacific Islander issues was “distasteful” on Burwell’s part and that the AU administration had done “an awful job at addressing anything related to AAPI hate.” 

Tsang also mentioned how the University “didn’t do anything” in response to the attack in Aug. 2021 on Sean Lai, a gay and Chinese Georgetown University alumnus, by an AU graduate student in the Kogod School of Business. The AU student was expelled two months later. 

Park said the University released a statement regarding the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, but it took more than three days to do so while the Asian American and Pacific Islander community was “severely upset and distraught and disheartened.”

Chhotani also drew attention to how the University has historically responded to anti-Asian threats. Chhotani said the 2021 farmers’ protests caused violence to escalate among different ethnic groups and Hindu communities in the United States. In 2022, Chhotani said there was a “drastic rise of crimes against the Indian community” and no response from the University acknowledging that Indians belong in the Asian American Pacific Islander community. 

Kelly Ma, a sophomore in the School of Communication and president of AASU, was among the 10 speakers at the vigil. In her speech, Ma said she felt “dejected,” but not surprised about the administration’s silence. Ma echoed Park, Tsang and Chhotani’s points and criticized the University for putting the burden on leaders of student organizations to address instances of hate.

“Although we may all feel a sense of hopelessness, anger and sadness, I hope that we can raise our voices in unity to protect our community that we have,” Ma said. “And I hope that we can do justice for the lives that were lost in violence.”

Tsang spoke about being prideful of her Chinese heritage and culture in her speech and because of her deep love for her customs and identity, it was especially difficult to see the recent rise in anti-Asian violence. Tsang said that Lunar New Year, a holiday celebrated in Chinese culture, was “filled with mourning instead of celebration.” Tsang also called out anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding the shooting, the term “Asian-on-Asian crime” and also honored recent hate crime victims of East Asian descent. 

“Everything that’s been happening, all these attacks, these shootings, these deaths, they break my heart,” Tsang said. “To see people like me, people like my friends, like my family get attacked. It breaks my heart.”

Chhotani’s speech, which she called “Being Brown is My Superpower,” detailed her struggles with her racial identity as a child. Chhotani said that as she got older, she slowly began to love and appreciate her identity as an Indian woman. 

“Little me would never imagine how powerful being brown actually is,” she said. In her speech, Chhotani honored murder victims of Indian descent in the United States and demanded justice for them.

Both Tsang and Chhotani ended their speeches by asking the AU community to advocate and stand with the Asian American Pacific Islander community.

Meera Swaminathan, a junior in CAS who spoke at the event, said she was infuriated that the University administration had not made an official statement or helped plan the vigil. 

“But, I think the organizers did a beautiful job,” Swaminathan said. “I’m glad that we have students that care so much to make up for the administration’s lack of support.”

Students struggling with their mental health and the California shootings can reach out to these services on and off campus for additional support:

This article was edited by Zoe Bell, Jordan Young and Nina Heller. Copyediting by Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Stella Guzik, and Luna Jinks.

mcederlund@theeagleonline.com and ahatting@theeagleonline.com 


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