ATLANTA (Reuters) – President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Georgia on Friday to meet with Asian-American community leaders after a deadly shooting rampage in the state, shifting the focus of a trip originally planned to promote the newly enacted $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
A 21-year-old man has been charged with murdering eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at three spas in and around Atlanta on Tuesday, rattling Asian Americans already grappling with a rise in hate crimes directed at them since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Biden and Harris will meet community leaders and state lawmakers from the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community to hear concerns about the killings and discuss a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, the White House said.
Investigators said the suspect, an Atlanta-area resident who is white, suggested that sexual frustration led him to commit violence. Political leaders and civil rights advocates have speculated the killings were motivated at least in part by rising anti-Asian sentiment.
Biden has also directed White House officials Cedric Richmond and Susan Rice to engage with the community, and supports recent legislation calling for an expanded Justice Department review of COVID-19-related hate crimes.
The president and vice president changed the focus of the trip after the recent events, feeling “it was important to change the trip a little bit and offer their support and condemn the violence,” a White House official said.
Biden called on U.S. lawmakers to quickly pass a COVID-19 hate crimes bill, saying while the motive was still unknown in this week’s shooting in Georgia, the nation faced an “ongoing crisis of gender-based and anti-Asian violence.”
“It’s time for Congress to codify and expand upon these actions — because every person in our nation deserves to live their lives with safety, dignity, and respect,” he said in a statement released as he headed to Georgia.
Biden stumbled as he climbed aboard Air Force One to head to Georgia. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters he was “doing 100 percent fine.” She suggested high winds at Joint Base Andrews near Washington may have been a factor.
Biden ordered the U.S. flag flown at half-staff at the White House to honor the victims of Tuesday’s shootings.
On Friday, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said acts of violence against the community were exacerbated by language used by the Trump administration.
Asian-American voters constitute one of the fastest growing racial and ethnic groups in the country and turned out in record numbers in the presidential battleground states in 2020, according to data from TargetSmart, a democratic political data firm.
In Georgia, Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters exceeded their total 2016 turnout by 58%, the firm said. These voters were key to carrying Biden to success in states where the race was close such as Georgia, the firm said.
The Democratic president kicked off the “Help is Here” campaign on Monday to promote his promise of “shots in arms and money in pockets,” after signing the COVID-19 relief bill into law last week, which includes $1,400 stimulus payments to most Americans. Biden has visited Pennsylvania and Harris has been to Nevada and Colorado to tout the benefits of the relief package.
Biden and Harris on Friday will also visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to receive an update on the pandemic.
They plan to meet as well with Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, whose get-out-the vote efforts are widely credited with helping Biden carry the state last November and Democrats win two U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia this year that gave them control of the chamber.
A bill passed by the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives this month would restrict ballot drop boxes, tighten absentee voting requirements and limit early voting on Sundays, curtailing traditional “Souls to the Polls” voter turnout programs in Black churches.
Republicans across the country are using former President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election to back state-level voting changes they say are needed to restore election integrity.
“Voting rights is something that is on the minds of everyone on that trip,” the White House official said.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Atlanta and Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)