ATLANTA - President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are wrapping up a visit to Atlanta on Friday addressing two major crises in America: the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating violence against Asian Americans.
Biden and Harris originally were coming to Georgia to rally support for their newly-passed COVID relief bill, but the shocking shootings at three metro Atlanta spas changed their plans.
Instead of a political rally celebrating the $1.9 trillion bill, Biden and Harris met with Asian American state legislators and other community leaders at Emory University to talk about racist rhetoric and actions against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
"For the last year we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans," said Harris, "people with the biggest pulpits, spreading this kind of hate."
"We’ve always known words have consequences," Biden said. "It is the ‘coronavirus.’ Full stop."
Biden spoke to five members of the Georgia Legislature, Asian community leaders, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in a frank roundtable discussion with stories of violence that the president admitted "it was heart-wrenching to listen to" but necessary to hear.
"It's all hurtful—and it's not new. Racism is real in America, and it has always been," Vice President Kamala Harris remarked following the discussion. "Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too. The president and I will not be silent. We will not stand by. We will always speak out against violence, hate crimes, and discrimination, wherever and whenever it occurs."
Biden called on Congress to "swiftly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act" — expediting the federal government’s response to recent violent acts against the Asian community in the United States.
"There are simply some core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans--one of them is standing together against hate," the president said.
But the president admitted change must come from the people first.
"For all the good that laws can do, we must change our hearts. Hate can have no safe harbor in America. It must stop. It's on all of us together to make us stop," Biden said.
While the shooter has confessed to the shootings at two Atlanta and one Cherokee County spas, he told law enforcement officials he was motivated by a sexual addiction and felt motivated to eliminate the temptations.
"Whatever the killer's motive, these facts are clear: Six of the eight people killed Tuesday night were of Asian descent. Seven were women. The shootings took place in businesses owned by Asian Americans. The shootings took place as violent hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans has risen dramatically over the last year and more," the vice president remarked.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its partner advocacy groups, nearly 3,800 incidents of racist attacks have been since March 2020.
"Whatever the motivation, we know this: Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying, waking up each morning the past year feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are at stake," the president said.
Responding after the shootings, Biden ordered flags at the White House and on public grounds to be flown at half-mast to honor the eight victims, saying on Twitter that The recent attacks against the community are un-American.
"I know they feel there's a black hole in their chests...I assure you, the ones you lost will always be with you and the day will come their memory will bring a smile to your lips rather than a tear to your eye," Biden said.
Prior to the roundtable, the president and vice president visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's main campus in Atlanta to give an update on the distribution of the multiple COVID-19 vaccines across the country and give the staff there a pep talk.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you... There's an entire generation coming up that is learning from what you have done. I don't just mean learning about how to deal with a virus, learning about it makes a difference from telling the truth, to follow the science," the president told CDC staff.
Biden had previously set a goal of administering 100 million doses of vaccine in his first 100 days. Friday, 59 days into his presidency, the president said that the United States will hit that goal. He promised to unveil a new vaccination target next week, as the U.S. is on pace to have enough of the three currently authorized vaccines to cover the entire adult population just 10 weeks from now."We owe you a gigantic debt of gratitude and we will for a long, long, long time," Biden said, adding that under his administration "science is back" driving policy to combat the virus.
The president also met with Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams. The meeting will come as Republicans in the Georgia state General Assembly push several proposals to make it harder to vote in the state. The Biden administration is planning a push in the coming weeks to defend access to the ballot that has come under threat in several states.
After her narrow defeat for governor in 2018, Abrams has been credited with laying the organizational groundwork that helped Democrats capture the state’s two Senate seats and to wrest the state away from then-President Donald Trump last fall.
The turnabout leaves Abrams, who is Black, as perhaps the nation’s most popular and influential Democrat not in elected office. It gives the 47-year-old voting rights advocate considerable momentum for whatever comes next — most likely a rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022.
Biden praised the record turnout during the last presidential election despite the on-going pandemic and touted it as something that "should be celebrated, not attacked." He complimented Georgia's standing up to the challenges of the state's election results.
"If anyone ever doubted that voting matters, Georgia just proved it did. If anyone ever wondered whether one vote can make a difference, Georgia just proved it does," the president said.
Download the FOX 5 Atlanta app for breaking news and weather alerts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.