Atlanta (AFP) -
US President Joe Biden visited Atlanta Friday on a mission to comfort Asian Americans plunged into grief and fear after attacks left six women of Asian descent dead and a nation alarmed by pandemic-era hate crimes.
The pre-scheduled trip to the southern metropolis was originally intended to focus on Biden's Covid-19 battle plan, and the president began with a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But this week's carnage around Georgia's largest city prompted Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, to add a meeting with Asian-Americans.
It was intended as 'an opportunity to hear about the impact on their community of Tuesday's heartbreaking senseless acts of violence as well as their perspectives on increased anti-Asian incidents,' White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Biden will deliver a speech at Emory University, and use the visit to 'offer his support for Asian Americans' and discuss 'his fierce commitment to combating xenophobia, intolerance and hate,' she said.
Three massage parlors around Atlanta were targeted Tuesday, and a 21-year-old man suspected of the killings arrested hours later.
Robert Aaron Long faces eight counts of murder and one charge of aggravated assault.
He has admitted carrying out the attacks, according to law enforcement, but claims he was not motivated by racial hatred.
Officers said Long told police he was grappling with a sexual addiction and that he wanted to 'eliminate' a temptation that put him in conflict with his strict religious beliefs.
Authorities have not confirmed the motive, but the killings were seen as laying bare the intersection of sexism and racism in the United States.
'Asian-American women have been stereotyped in ways that are racialized, gendered and sexualized,' said Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.
- 'Single mother' -
Authorities have publicly released details of the victims.
The four women killed in Atlanta itself -- at two neighboring spas -- were named Friday as Hyun J. Grant, 51, Soon C. Park, 74, Yong A. Yue, 63 and Suncha Kim, 69 according to the Fulton County medical examiner's office.
Grant, who worked at the Gold Spa, left behind two sons -- the eldest of whom, Randy Park, 23, set up a fundraising page which by Friday had attracted $1 million in donations.
'She was a single mother who dedicated her whole life to providing for my brother and I,' Park wrote. 'Losing her has put a new lens on my eyes on the amount of hate that exists in our world.'
The other four victims -- targeted at Young's Asian Massage in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth -- included Xiaojie Tan, the spa's 49-year-old owner described as 'the sweetest, kindest, most giving person' by a longtime customer, Greg Hynson, speaking to The New York Times.
The attack also claimed the lives of Delaina Yaun, 33 -- a mother of two who was at the spa for a couple's massage with her husband -- as well as two employees: 44-year-old Daoyou Feng and Paul Andre Michels, 54.
'It's heartbreaking,' said Andrew Yang, a Democratic former presidential hopeful who is running for mayor of New York.
Yang recalled growing up 'with this constant sense of invisibility, mockery, disdain,' and lacking a true sense of belonging because he looked Asian.
'But this has metastasized into something new and deadly and virulent and hateful,' he told a press conference Thursday.
Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House and other public buildings until Monday as a mark of respect for the Atlanta victims. The House of Representatives held a moment of silence.
- 'Screaming out for help' -
Also in Washington, an extraordinary House hearing Thursday heard testimony from four Asian-American congresswomen, one of whom said the community has been 'screaming out for help.'
Another, Democrat Grace Meng, warned that Republican rhetoric that paints Asians as responsible for the virus has put 'a bull's eye on the back of Asian-Americans.'
Vigils have been held in several US cities, and police in New York, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere stepped up patrols in areas with large Asian-American populations.
Georgia is home to nearly 500,000 people of Asian origin, or just over four percent of its population.
The start of Biden's Atlanta trip meanwhile experienced a hiccup outside Washington, when the president tripped and fell as he climbed the stairs to the entrance of Air Force One.
'It was very windy,' spokeswoman Jean-Pierre said. 'He's doing fine.'