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Atlanta residents respond to spa shootings with calls to end racial violence

"We are supposed to be united, but it feels more and more like we are divided,” Jesus Estrella, 21, said.
Image: Malik Peay stands in protest outside of Gold Spa in Atlanta, a day after three massage parlors were targeted by a shooter that left eight people dead, six of them Asian women.
“Every life matters. Asian lives matter. Black lives matter, and even white lives matter,” said Malik Peay, seen here outside Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday, a day after three spas were targeted by a shooter that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent.Arvin Temkar / for NBC News

ATLANTA — Nothing would deter Kat Bagger from standing up and trying to unify Atlantans based on the principles for which her city is known.

That was how she responded to the shootings at three Georgia spas that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent.

“This is incredibly upsetting, the Asian community is a cornerstone of Atlanta, and this just blows my mind that we’re seeing the amount of violence toward Asian people,” said Bagger, 23, who is Black and hoisted a “Stop Asian Hate” sign Wednesday in front of Gold Spa, one of the shooting sites. “Atlanta is a civil rights city. This is what we do, we protect the people.”

"This is what we do, we protect the people," said Kat Bagger, left, outside of Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday. Mourners left flowers, signs and candles outside of the spa to honor the victims.Arvin Temkar / for NBC News

Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, is charged with eight counts of murder in connection with the Tuesday evening shootings. He blamed his actions on sex addiction and denied to police that race was a motivation.

Four people were killed at two spas in Atlanta, Gold Star and Aromatherapy Spa. The other four were fatally shot at Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County, about 30 miles away.

An assortment of flowers covered the ground in front of the three spas late Wednesday as people periodically showed up to vent and protest despite rain.

“Black lives matter, black lives matter,” shouted Atlanta resident Malik Peay, briefly stalling two lanes of oncoming traffic on Piedmont Road, where the two Atlanta spas are located, in protest.

“Every life matters. Asian lives matter. Black lives matter, and even white lives matter,” said Peay, 40, who is Black, after allowing the dozens of backed-up vehicles to pass.

“He (the alleged shooter) definitely didn’t love these people, and if he did, that’s not the type of love that anyone needs in their lives," he continued. "This is heinous and it’s close to being a terrorist crime.”

Bagger also doesn’t buy Long's sex addiction narrative.

“It was fully racially motivated,” Bagger said, pointing out there are several sex shops and strip clubs nearby, but three Asian businesses were targeted. “I need the Asians to know that the Black community stands behind them.”

As it steadily rained and the day's moderate temperatures dropped, stragglers came and went outside the two spas across the street from each other in Atlanta.

A memorial of flowers, signs and candles at Gold Spa in Atlanta.Arvin Temkar / for NBC News

At the behest of her friends, Ana Cheng, 26, dropped off several flowers outside Gold Star.

“Anyone who says that it’s not racially motivated is being ignorant,” said Cheng, who was accompanied by one of her friends.

Anna Benbrook, 34, who lives about a half-mile from the Atlanta spas, said social media and an accelerated news cycle have made it possible to experience such tragedies in real time.

“We can see what’s happening in our community right as it happens,” she said.

Jesus Estrella, 21, who is Asian American and Latino, was the lone demonstrator Wednesday evening outside Young's Asian Massage, where the first shooting took place.

“Since the pandemic started, there’s been a lot of hate and resentment toward our Asian American brothers and sisters," Estrella said. "When I woke up this morning and (heard) about the heinous crime, I had to come here and spread the message that we cannot keep on with this hate.

“We are the United States of America. We are supposed to be united, but it feels more and more like we are divided.”

The store is sandwiched between a boutique and a smoke shop inside the Cherokee Village plaza.

Tanner Adams, 33, works at Smoke South.

“I didn’t know them (the victims) personally, but they always took the trash out for me,” he said. “It’s tragic. To take someone’s life over your own issues is a terrible thing.”

Members of the Lavette family join hands and leave flowers at a memorial outside of Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday.Arvin Temkar / for NBC News

Rita Barron, who works at Gabby's Boutique, said she saw the victims periodically and traded friendly gestures.

For about five minutes before heading home for the night, she folded her hands into her pocket and stared at the stuffed animals, cards, notes and signs left for the victims.

“I feel bad for everybody. It’s not fair when somebody comes and shoots people,” Barron, 47, of Kennesaw, said. “We are kinda nervous.”