Law enforcement authorities in cities across the US were on alert on Wednesday amid fears that a series of fatal shootings in Atlanta that killed eight had largely targeted victims because they were Asian Americans.
Six of those killed at three massage parlors in the Georgia city on Tuesday were women of Asian descent, leading to fears of a racial motive.
Suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, was taken into custody after a police manhunt.
On Wednesday morning, Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, praised the police for their “quick work” and that “a crime against any community is a crime against us all”.
She said she has been in close contact with the White House and Atlanta police as they “investigate the suspect who is responsible for this senseless violence in our city”.
“My prayers are with the families and friends of the victims whose lives were cut short by these shootings,” the mayor said.
Lance Bottoms added: “Yesterday was a tragic day across our state. Whether it’s senseless violence that we see play out in our streets or whether it’s targeted violence like we saw yesterday against any community is a crime against us all.”
The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum said they are “appalled and devastated” by the killings. Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the group’s executive director, added: “We mourn with the families of these victims. We are horrified and continue to be concerned for the safety of our community members across the country as violence toward Asian Americans has escalated.”
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said in a statement on Wednesday morning that Joe Biden had been briefed overnight on the “horrific shootings” and that White House officials had been in contact with the Atlanta mayor’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who was in Seoul meeting South Korea’s foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong, said he was “horrified” by the violence, which is understood to have killed four people of Korean ethnicity, and said it “has no place in America or anywhere”.
He offered his “deepest condolences” to family and friends of the victims and to “everyone in the Korean community who is shaken and deeply disturbed by this incident”.
Atlanta police said they had increased patrols in the area of the killings and that officers were dispatched to check similar nearby businesses.
The shootings – all believed to have been carried out by a single gunman – began at about 5pm, when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in a strip mall near a rural area in Acworth, Cherokee county, about 30 miles north of Atlanta.
The next shooting took place at 5.50pm when police in the Buckhead neighbourhood of Atlanta, responding to a call of a robbery, found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at Gold Spa.
While they were at that scene, they learned of a call reporting shots fired at another spa across the street, Aromatherapy Spa, and found a woman who appeared to have been shot dead inside.
The suspect’s car was caught on camera in the Acworth shooting and the suspect was taken into custody in Crisp county.
Lance Bottoms said the authorities think the suspect may have been in the process of trying to flee to Florida when he was apprehended, and may have been planning further attacks in that state.
In New York City, the police department’s counter-terrorism bureau said it was monitoring the shooting in Georgia and would deploy additional officers to Asian communities across the city “out of an abundance of caution”.
Seattle officials said they were increasing outreach to Asian Americans and community organisations across the city and police presence with police patrols and community service officers.
Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, and chief of police, Adrian Diaz, labelled the killings in Atlanta an “act of hate”.
“We grieve with Atlanta and for the victims and their families. We also stand together with our Asian American community against the rise of hate crimes towards Asian Americans, especially targeting Chinese Americans,” they said in a joint statement.
They added: “In Seattle and across our nation, our Asian American neighbours, places of worship, and businesses have been deliberately targeted by racism, xenophobia and acts of violence related to misconceptions of Covid-19.”
It follows a spike in attacks against Asian Americans nationwide since the coronavirus pandemic, which spread after initial infections in China.
The US advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate received 3,795 complaints last year and said there were at least 503 anti-Asian hate incidents reported between 1 January and 28 February this year alone.
Stop AAPI Hate said the shootings in Atlanta were “an unspeakable tragedy – for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the Asian American community, which has been reeling from high levels of racist attacks over the course of the past year.”
The organisation added: “This latest attack will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure.”
However, investigators also believe Long may have a sexual addiction and frequented the types of businesses he allegedly targeted, which the authorities described as massage parlours.
“During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated,” the Cherokee county sheriff, Frank Reynolds, said.
“We asked him that specifically and the answer was no.”
Such developments may not to do much to diminish fears, however. The California congresswoman Judy Chu said Asian Americans have “been facing a relentless increase in attacks and harassment over the past year” and urged people on Twitter to “condemn this violence, and help us #StopAsianHate”.
Los Angeles and San Francisco, in particular, have large Asian American neighborhoods and populations.
Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive of the civil rights campaign group the NAACP condemned the shootings “in the strongest possible terms”.
Last week, on the first anniversary of the Covid-19 shutdown, Joe Biden condemned the rise in attacks.
The president added: “It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop.”