A Georgia sheriff’s captain tried to convince the public Wednesday morning that a man charged with fatally shooting several people of Asian descent the night before was not motivated by race. However, a year ago, the captain promoted merchandise that demonized the Asian community over the coronavirus.
Capt. Jay Baker, a spokesperson for the Cherokee County sheriff’s office, said at a news conference that 21-year-old suspect Robert Aaron Long told investigators that his Tuesday night shooting rampage at three Asian-run spas that left eight dead ― including six women of Asian descent ― had not been fueled by anti-Asian racism.
“Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” the officer said of Long, who is now charged with murder and assault. Baker then said that Long was “fed up” and at the “end of his rope” when he went on a killing spree before trying to flee to Florida. Long also told law enforcement that he was struggling with sex addiction and targeted the spas to “take out that temptation,” according to Baker.
Baker’s sympathetic words about the man who reportedly has admitted to killing the eight people at three Asian-run businesses sparked an online backlash against the officer, including screenshots of Baker supporting the sale of anti-Asian merchandise on social media.
HuffPost independently verified that Baker used his Facebook account on March 30 to promote T-shirts from a company called Deadline Apparel. The officer shared a post by the company advertising a new T-shirt design that reads “Covid 19” in the style of the Corona beer logo, with “Imported virus from Chy-na” under it. Baker wrote in his post, “Place your order while they last,” with a smiling emoji.
A separate April 2 post saying Baker bought the shirt has since been deleted, but screenshots of it were still circulating.
In addition to the Corona-style COVID-19 T-shirt, Deadline Apparel is selling a T-shirt that shows a bat spreading its wings with “Eat less bats” spelled across it. In the background is an open white takeout box with a pair of red chopsticks inside, with “No thank you” spelled across the box’s front flap.
HuffPost took screenshots of the two T-shirts on the company’s website, which was online and running until Wednesday evening, when the screenshots of Baker’s promoting posts began circulating on social media.
Baker did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the photos and on whether he believes his promotion of such merchandise helped fuel the past year’s rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. The officer’s questionable excuse for Long on top of the photos also come as New York and Seattle announce an increased police presence in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities as a response to the Atlanta shootings.
On Thursday, after publication of this story, the Cherokee County sheriff’s office released a statement responding to the backlash toward Baker. The statement excused the officer ― with phrasing similar to how Baker spoke of Long ― for his insensitive comments at the news conference.
“In as much as his words were taken or construed as insensitive or inappropriate, they were not intended to disrespect any of the victims, the gravity of this tragedy, or express empathy or sympathy for the suspect,” Sheriff Frank Reynolds said in the statement.
“Captain Baker had a difficult task before him, and this was one of the hardest in his twenty-eight years in law enforcement,” Reynolds continued. “I have known and served with Captain Baker for many years. His personal ties to the Asian community and his unwavering support and commitment to the citizens of Cherokee County are well known to many.”
The statement did not detail what Baker’s personal ties to the Asian community were, nor did it address the captain’s history of promoting anti-Asian merchandise.
There have been nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents over the past year against Asian American and Pacific Islander people, according to a new report by the watchdog group Stop AAPI Hate. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 150% in 2020 in the country’s largest cities.
The pandemic’s grip on the world has also led to growing explicit hatred toward the AAPI community simply because the virus originated in China. The hatred was fueled by then-President Donald Trump and his allies, who incited violence by telling Americans to blame China for the pandemic and calling the disease racist names like the “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu.”
Though there has been a spike in hate incidents since March 2020, anti-Asian racism has a long, often invisible history that involves hypersexualization of Asian women rooted in colonial perceptions of Asia. Such hypersexualization and fetishization leads to harassment and sexualized violence against women of Asian descent, who, according to Stop AAPI Hate, have reported 2.3 times more incidents of violence than their male counterparts.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.