The Anti Asian Violence That Came Before The Atlanta Shooting : Code Switch Asian American organizers and influencers have been trying to sound the alarm over a dramatic spike in reports of anti-Asian racism over the last year, and have been frustrated by the lack of media and public attention paid to their worries. Then came last week, when a deadly shooting spree in Georgia realized many of their worst fears and thrust the issue into the national spotlight.
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Screams And Silence

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Screams And Silence

Screams And Silence

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI (HOST): Times are strange...

GENE DEMBY (HOST): You are incredibly gifted at understatements, Shereen.

MERAJI: ...And hard (laughter) and lonely. And to be quite honest, we really miss you.

DEMBY: Yeah, we miss being a community with y'all. It sucks. This last year has been really hard.

MERAJI: So we're going to try something a little different. We are going to try to do a live show.

DEMBY: A virtual live show, Shereen. That's important.

MERAJI: Of course. You're right, a virtual live show 'cause, yes, this is still a strange, hard time, for obvious reasons. But we're hoping it's going to be almost as fun as the real deal 'cause we're going to have special guests. We are going to have a live artistic performance. We're going to be answering listener questions about race and racism. And most importantly, we will be doing it with you right there in the audience, in your living room, sipping on some whiskey or whatever your drink of choice is. Or, you know, it could be tea. It doesn't have to be alcoholic.

DEMBY: Yep. It's BYOB in a sense in that you are bringing your own beverage. And just to be clear, it's on Zoom. It'll be a Zoom audience. But for real, we are very, very excited to share space with y'all again. It's been way too long. So please, please come kick it with us. We miss y'all.

MERAJI: The virtual live show is on April 15 at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific. And big, big thanks to NPR member station WHYY in Philadelphia for presenting this event.

DEMBY: Philly - woot, woot.

MERAJI: Yes. You can get your tickets at whyy.org/codeswitch. And we hope to see you there.

DEMBY: All right, y'all, on to the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Just a heads-up, y'all, this episode contains strong language and descriptions of racialized violence.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH...

MERAJI: From NPR. And the voice you're about to hear belongs to Tiffany Do. She goes by TiDo.

TIFFANY DO (ACTIVIST): If we take a look at our collective history, we know that hate - hate is nothing new. Don't get me wrong. These attacks are tragic. Hate crime incidents against Asian Americans are increasing exponentially, but it is not unprecedented. It's not.

MERAJI: TiDo got up to speak at a rally in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo on Saturday, March 13, and we're going to hear more from her a little bit later. She gave that speech just a few days before the shooting spree in the Atlanta area where a gunman went to three different businesses and killed eight people - Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng. Six of the people who died were women of Asian descent, and the man arrested for the attack is white.

DEMBY: In just this past year, lots of organizations have pointed to an uptick in reports of violence, of harassment directed at Asians and Asian Americans. And not coincidentally, this was coming at a time when the then-president of the United States started using language linking the coronavirus to China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DONALD TRUMP (45TH US PRES): We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy, the China virus.

I can name Kung Flu. I can name 19 different versions of names.

MERAJI: Lawmakers brought up this rhetoric at a congressional hearing that took place two days after the Georgia attack but was scheduled long before. It was the first hearing of its kind in more than 30 years to discuss anti-Asian hate. And Democratic lawmakers were angry that their Republican colleagues kept repeating Trump's racist language.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

GRACE MENG (D-NY, REP): Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don't have to do it by putting a bull's-eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids.

TED LIEU (D-CA, REP): I am not a virus. Whatever political point you think you're scoring by using ethnic identifiers in describing this virus, you're harming Americans who happen to be of Asian descent. So please stop doing that.

MERAJI: Those were the voices of Democratic Congressperson Grace Meng from Queens and Congressperson Ted Lieu from here in Los Angeles. He's also a Democrat. But like TiDo pointed out, this racism, it didn't start with Trump. You know, around this same time last year, we did an episode about how anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have long been camouflaged in the United States as a concern for public health. And then we did an episode about a year prior looking at all the ways anti-Asian racism shaped U.S. immigration policy.

DEMBY: You know, Shereen, we've gotten a lot of emails, you know, about how we should've been covering this more, right?

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: Many Asian Americans have said their fears have largely been ignored by the mainstream media and, in turn, you know, by the general public. And they've expressed frustration that it took, you know, the kind of shootings like we saw in Atlanta last week for many outlets to even acknowledge that this anti-Asian violence was on the rise. As it turns out, our colleague, Alyssa Jeong Perry, had been doing a deep dive into all this stuff before last week happened. And she's here with us today to help, you know, give us a sense of the landscape. What's good, Alyssa?

ALYSSA JEONG PERRY (BYLINE): Hey, guys, what's up?

MERAJI: So, AJP, even before the shooting happened, we knew that reports of abuse and harassment of Asian Americans was on the rise.

PERRY: That's right. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University documented 145% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes that were collected by police in major cities between 2019 and last year, so during the pandemic. And a brand-new report coincidentally came out on the morning of the shooting from the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate. They counted 3,800 reports of anti-Asian incidents since March 2020. And these are self-reported incidents by Asian Americans. Around 70% of them were acts of verbal abuse and harassment. We're talking things like slurs, derogatory names, phrases like go back to your country. You're the reason for coronavirus. And another thing I wanted to note is that the majority of people who have been attacked are of East Asian or Southeast Asian descent.

DEMBY: So you said 70% of these incidents were verbal abuse, but that means a lot of them went far beyond that, beyond insults and threats, right?

PERRY: Yeah. There have been some high-profile instances of physical violence. In the beginning of February, a 91-year-old Asian man got shoved to the ground while he was walking around Chinatown up in the Bay in Oakland. And then around the same time, right across the bridge, an 84-year-old Thai man was taking his morning walk in San Francisco and not in the Chinatown neighborhood when seemingly out of nowhere, someone comes charging and attacks him.

That man ended up dying from his injuries. His name was Vichar Ratanapakde. Videos of these attacks were circulating all over social media, and it seemed like a lot of Asian Americans were suddenly on high alert or even higher alert since we've kind of been on high alert for more than a year now.

DEMBY: You know, AJP, one thing I'm wondering, just listening to what you're saying, is that this uptick is about reporting on attacks. And it could be that part of the story is that these kind of encounters, you know, are normal. These kind of racist attacks on Asian American people are normal. But because we're living through the age of Trump and the pandemic, there was new language and new ways to talk about it and identify it. And so many people felt more inclined to report them in the first place.

PERRY: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people have been talking a lot about these incidents, which have been making this problem a lot more visible. I've been seeing the hashtag #StopAAPIHate all over social media.

MERAJI: And it's not just social media. There have been rallies and protests trying to get even more focused attention on this issue.

PERRY: That's right. On March 13, I went to a rally called Love Our Communities in Los Angeles' neighborhood, Little Tokyo.

DO: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm TiDo.

PERRY: It was organized by a few Asian American activist groups. When I got there, it looked like there was about 1,000 people gathered in this courtyard. There's attendees holding signs, some like love us like you love our food, stop anti-Asian hate. There was also this big stage that faced all of the audience, and that's where TiDo was. TiDo is a small, petite woman. But when you hear her, she definitely commands an audience.

DO: And I have to tell you, I am so fucking pissed.

(CHEERING)

DO: I have been pissed that our elders have experienced increased violence for an entire year now. I've been pissed for the entire fucking pandemic because our community has left - is left to suffer. But I'm particularly extra pissed this month because I asked myself, why are these incidents of anti-Asian violence only picking up traction now with the media and all the middle class and wealthy Asian Americans? Why now?

PERRY: So TiDo works with a group in LA's Chinatown that organizes low-income residents and fights against gentrification.

MERAJI: And like we said earlier, TiDo was yelling all of this before a gunman went on a shooting spree in Georgia. And I cannot imagine how angry she must be now.

PERRY: You know, when I was at the rally, many people have expressed this feeling like they've been screaming into the void for so long. They were saying things to me like, we have been silenced. No one is listening to us. No one cares about us. None of this is new.

I ended up talking to a woman named Sally (ph). She asked that we not use her last name. She's 27 years old and identifies as Chinese American.

SALLY (RALLY ATTENDEE): Because in our American history, we don't learn what really happens in history in America, what happens between America, other countries, how immigrants are treated. And it's something that I personally didn't even learn until college and that's because I had to take those classes for my major, and I, like, actually was interested in learning it. But if you're someone that's not interested in learning it, you're never going to understand our history. You're never going to understand what happened. And you're just going to continue to be ignorant.

PERRY: Another woman I met was Kathryn Bannai. She's 70 years old. And when I approached her, she was standing on the outskirts of the crowd listening to the speakers. She was also bundled up in a jacket and gloves because it was cold, you know, for LA.

KATHRYN BANNAI (GENERAL PUBLIC): I identify as Japanese American. My grandparents emigrated from Japan and were ineligible for citizenship because of the laws at that time. My grandparents and my parents were subject to forced removal and incarceration during World War II solely because of their ancestry.

PERRY: So Kathryn told me that back in the '60s and '70s, she marched during the civil rights movement. She protested against the Vietnam War. And she has always been fighting for Asian American visibility. And now she's passing the baton onto the next generation, including her son, who helped organize the event that Saturday. She said she's really proud of that.

BANNAI: But it makes me sad that, you know, here he's a fourth-generation Asian American in America, and you know - and we're still involved in this struggle to achieve full recognition and ability to participate and to live our lives without the fear of hate and violence or the resurgence from time to time. So I am...

MERAJI: Alyssa, rallies like the one you just took us to, they took place around the country. And they feel like they had similar vibes. There was lots of anger and frustration, but there was also a sense of unity. Now, I know you've been watching different social media forums that have been talking about this issue, and those spaces have had a very different vibe.

PERRY: Oh, yeah, totally. On Asian American Reddit groups and Facebook groups, which some of them have almost a couple million members, the conversations have been much more contentious.

DEMBY: Oh, I believe it. I believe it. So what are the people in those groups - what are they fighting over?

PERRY: OK. Well, let me step back for a second. You know, people say things online that they definitely or hopefully would not say in person.

MERAJI: Right.

PERRY: And then because there are so many people, not everyone's going to have the same thought or be equally informed. Still, as I was reading through all these comments, a big thing that stood out to me was that there seemed to be divide in how different people were talking about the attacks and processing them. A few commenters kept pointing out that the people who attacked these elderly men in the Bay Area were African American. They were saying things like, Black people hate Asians. These are Black-on-Asian hate crimes.

DEMBY: OK. So real quick, 'cause now I'm curious, like, what do we know about who was carrying out these attacks on Asian people?

PERRY: So I talked to a researcher from University of Michigan. Her and her team have been tracking all incidents of anti-Asian racism and violence that were reported in the news during all of 2020. I just want to back up and say that these numbers are spotty because a lot of these incidents don't get reported. So what the team did find out is that white people accounted for 90% of anti-Asian incidents in 2020, but only 5% of perpetrators were Black.

MERAJI: Yeah. And before the Atlanta shooting happened, this Black-Asian tension seems like it was dominating a lot of these online conversations.

PERRY: There were other people in these online forums pushing back, though. They were saying, let's stop saying Black people are the reason for these attacks and hatred against Asian Americans. They're not the problem; white supremacy is the problem.

DEMBY: OK. So this is what you found on these forums before the shootings in Atlanta, right? So since then, how has the tenor of those conversations changed? I'm curious.

PERRY: OK. Well, for one thing, the shooter in Atlanta is white, not Black. And the heat getting directed at Asian Americans is getting a lot more attention, like TiDo said at that rally before the shootings. But now it's magnified tenfold, right? It's, like, in headline news. Celebrities are getting involved. Big brands like HBO, Nike are doing the similar thing they did after George Floyd's death last summer - Instagram posts that say we stand with the AAPI community, #StopAAPIHate, all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERRY: You know, and there are also some more specific discussions happening. People are talking more about the way Asian women are targeted, sexualized and exploited.

CONNIE WUN (CO-FOUNDER, AAPI WOMEN LEAD): So communities of color have always been seen as disposable for white men's fantasies and their rage.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Hey, Scott. As you know, we spoke at length about anti-Asian hate, but this was before the mass shooting where six Asian people were killed by a white man. And we were just wondering if there was anything that this attack raised for you that we didn't discuss in the previous interview.

SCOTT KURASHIGE (PROFESSOR, TEXAS CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY): You know, the concept of a teachable moment can be very cliche since it's so often linked to real tragedies that cause death and suffering in our communities. But there's really no alternative. Either we start thinking and acting in new and transformative ways or, as Grace Lee Boggs, my mentor, once said, in this country filled with so many guns, we'll all be at arms with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. Like we said before the break, we on CODE SWITCH - we've been thinking about and talking about and interviewing experts about anti-Asian racism for a minute now. And you know, this issue has so many layers and dimensions to it, right? There's racism, obviously, which is what we're talking about. But inside of that, there are issues of class. There is the interplay of anti-Asian racism with misogyny and sexism, and all that is wrapped up in this history of American colonialism. And then there's a interracial tension between, you know, different people of color and Asian Americans. And it's taken us a while to figure out just how to do any and all of that justice.

MERAJI: And it's been hard to figure out who we're talking about. Right? Like, there are various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, country of origin of people labeled Asian in this country. And so we know that there are all these ways that this issue is incredibly complicated, and it is being simplified. So we're just going to have to come back to this again and again, and we promise that we will. But like the historian Scott Kurashige said, there's just no alternative but to use the racist attack in Atlanta as a teachable moment.

DEMBY: Mm hmm. Scott is a professor at Texas Christian University. He's an expert on Asian American and African American history with a focus on social movements. And his mentor is the late Chinese American feminist and activist Grace Lee Boggs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Not that long after the Atlanta news broke, Scott tweeted about a school shooting that took the lives of five children. And it's a shooting that happened more than two decades before Sandy Hook. It's a tragedy I bet most of us have never heard of. I hadn't heard of it, and I grew up not that far away from where it happened.

In 1989, a 24-year-old white man used an AK-47 to fire 105 rounds into an elementary school in Stockton, Calif. And it was an elementary school with a mostly Southeast Asian student body. Like I said, he killed five children. Four were Cambodian. One was Vietnamese. And according to the news reports, the night before the attack, he was ranting at a local bar about Vietnamese refugees getting government aid. So Gene, I asked Scott, why surface this now?

KURASHIGE: Just to make people realize that, hey, this happened. It's part of a pattern of school shootings. It's part of a pattern of mass gun violence. But it's also a pattern of violence and hatred against Asian Americans.

DEMBY: I did not know that story until just now - until this conversation, Shereen.

MERAJI: Yeah. I called my mom and dad because I needed to check with them to see if they remembered it. They rarely missed the nightly news growing up. And they told me they had never heard this story either, and it's something they would have remembered because they had elementary school-age kids at the time. They did remember another California story that took place 20 years before the one we're talking about. There was a school bus kidnapping, and it got wall-to-wall news coverage. But the big difference is most of those kids were white.

KURASHIGE: What I try to do as a scholar and what I call on our policymakers and our figures in media to do is to put this in proper historical and structural context. Through the long history of U.S. wars in Asia, we have, in the dominant culture of this country, a tendency to discount the death and suffering of Asians as occurred in the My Lai massacre, for instance, or a similar incident during the Korean War called the No Gun Ri massacre. It becomes so easy to simply see Asians as these faceless hordes that are, at best, sort of statistics and collateral damage and at worst, a danger that needs to be exterminated.

MERAJI: Scott says the U.S. committed mass murder of Asians during the height of its empire building - wars in the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan. Those wars have had a particular impact on Asian women, both abroad and here in the U.S.

WUN: Asian fetishization and sexual violence against Asian women has always been a part of the colonial wars against our communities.

DEMBY: That's Connie Wun. Her group is called AAPI Women Lead. And her group focuses on survivors of violence who are Asian and Pacific Islander women, Asian and Pacific Islander girls and Asian and Pacific Islander gender nonconforming people. The man who was arrested for the attacks in Atlanta talked about being an incel, which is short for involuntarily celibate. He implied that the businesses he targeted were places where he believed that sex work was happening. To be clear, we don't know if any of the people who were attacked were engaged in sex work.

MERAJI: The shooter allegedly said his sex addiction, not race, was the reason why he did what he did. But Connie is calling bullshit.

WUN: So communities of color have always been seen as disposable for white men's fantasies and their rage. On March 16, when the killings happened in Atlanta, that was also the anniversary of the My Lai massacre. The My Lai massacre happened during the war in Vietnam. During this massacre, U.S. soldiers went into a village and sexually assaulted and then killed hundreds of Vietnamese women and children. There have been comfort women in the Philippines or versions of the comfort women in the Philippines, in Korea for U.S. soldiers and then the same in Vietnam.

DEMBY: The violence that we saw in Atlanta is part of the long tale of this imperial violence that happened overseas, Connie says. In order to do that empire building, you have to dehumanize people to justify wars. And that dehumanization doesn't just evaporate when, you know, those wars end or when they're forgotten.

MERAJI: And Connie says just like this history is rarely taught in schools and those connections aren't made, she adds that neither is the history of Asian Americans and Black Americans anti-war organizing together and all the ways those organizers addressed and worked through Black and Asian tension to do that kind of activist work. Knowing that history, Connie argues, making it mandatory to learn this stuff in grade school or in high school might help this cyclical tendency Alyssa talked about in the first half to point fingers at each other.

WUN: Black American soldiers during the Filipino-American war essentially defected from the U.S. and went to support the Filipino anticolonial soldiers. I didn't learn about that in the history books. I didn't learn about, you know, Muhammad Ali's position and essentially risking his whole career to end the war in Vietnam. I didn't learn about Dr. Martin Luther King's famous speech around ending the war against Vietnam. So it's the violence against our communities that is historical, and then it's the ways that Black communities in particular have worked to support our communities that has also been left out of the history books.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Asian American academics and activists like Scott and Connie are asking us to brush up on history because they say we cannot address the problem of anti-Asian hate unless we understand its roots. And they're also saying that we can't fix this if communities of color are turning on each other and blaming one another for problems they didn't create.

DEMBY: And there are still other people who say that learning history is crucial, but, you know, so is just justice.

SHAN WU (FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): I'm Shan Wu, and I'm a former federal prosecutor.

DEMBY: Shan worked for the Clinton administration under Janet Reno. And he wrote an opinion piece for CNN arguing that prosecutors should do more to charge perpetrators of anti-Asian violence with hate crimes. And he wrote that before the March 16 attacks in Atlanta.

MERAJI: And like Connie and Scott, Shan also made the point in that op-ed that disregard for Asian life has a long history. He cited the 1871 lynching of 18 Chinese people by a mob of rioters in Los Angeles and the massacre of 28 Chinese miners in Wyoming that happened about a decade after.

DEMBY: In case those examples were too far in the past, Shan fast forwards a century to the case of Vincent Chin in Detroit. In 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men; two white men who blamed the Japanese for job losses in Detroit's auto industry. Vincent Chin wasn't Japanese, he was Chinese American. But for those two men, any Asian American would do. They got slaps on the wrist for killing Vincent Chin - probation and some fines. And there was an uproar around the way they were treated. Back then when Vincent Chin was killed, there were not hate crimes statutes on the books, but they are now in all but three states. And Shan says it's important that we exercise them.

WU: We want to enhance the penalty for people who choose their victims on the basis of that kind of bias or hate for a couple of reasons.

DEMBY: Reason No. 1, he says, is that a lot of these communities, they need extra help. They don't have strong political representation. And crimes against people in these communities have historically been under investigated and under prosecuted. The second reason, he says, is that prosecuting hate crimes sends a message that the system is there to protect these underserved communities and will encourage people to report the kinds of crimes that typically go unreported.

WU: Lastly, I would add that, more from a prosecutor's standpoint, a criminal who selects people or a group of people on the basis of race to direct violent crime against, you know, they are more dangerous than a one-off kind of criminal. If somebody gets drunk, has a fight in a bar with somebody, they're not likely to go around constantly attacking people. But somebody who's walking around looking for Asians, looking for African Americans, that's a much more dangerous person. And they deserve to be treated more harshly.

DEMBY: Shan says the criminal justice system is a blunt, imperfect instrument and acknowledged that prosecuting hate crimes is not the most, like, nuanced or thoughtful approach to fixing racism. But it is a tool that is available. And he says having hate crime laws on the books but not using them is basically like erasing them. And for him, that's as bad as the erasure of the long history of violence against Asians that he and Scott and Connie, you know, the people we were talking to, want us to know all about.

MERAJI: You know, Gene, when I talked to Scott, he also mentioned Vincent Chin.

KURASHIGE: People talk about Vincent Chin as a story of, OK, these white guys killed this Asian American guy, and they got away with it. And it was a hate crime. Like, the justice system failed. They should have been prosecuted with more severe charges. And they should have gotten, like, a prison sentence, right? And, like, the narrative stops there. Like, where does that leave us at the end?

MERAJI: He told me it leaves us without a real solution to the problem. He doesn't think we should be looking to a broken system - the criminal justice system - to provide the fix. And Connie Wun agrees and brings it back to the March 16 gunman.

WUN: This man in particular was able to do what he did because of white supremacy, misogyny, because of anti-sex work culture, poverty. He was able to do all of these things because of a culture and a system that enabled all of this to happen. Labeling it a hate crime individualizes is the problem when it is a systemic and cultural issue.

KURASHIGE: How do Asian Americans - you know, and I was in this position once - how do we see our own oppression or misrecognition as a window into understanding that it's systemic, that it requires solidarity of others if we want to change it?

MERAJI: We started this half of the episode with Scott Kurashige saying we really need to think and act in transformative ways.

KURASHIGE: Even if we feel like we're making advances - oh, the media is treating us better now, oh, the police are treating us better now - all it will do is breed resentment unless we strengthen our ties to each other.

MERAJI: And Connie Wun says that can't happen until we focus on the most vulnerable among us.

WUN: Our poor, working class, elderly, young, queer, trans, women, cis women - these voices, these experiences and their political analyses need to be at the forefront. I think that's the way that we're going to be able to do all of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show, you can follow us on Twitter and IG. We're @nprcodeswitch at both those places. Subscribe to our newsletter by going to npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter. And later this week, we're going to have a Q&A with the author Paula Yoo, who has a forthcoming book called "From A Whisper To A Rallying Cry: The Killing Of Vincent Chin And The Trial That Galvanized The Asian American Movement."

MERAJI: Alyssa Jeong Perry did a lot of the reporting for this episode. It was produced by Alyssa, Kumari Devarajan, Leah Donnella and Jess Kung, with help from our intern, Summer Thomad. It was edited by Leah Donnella. And a big shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Steve Drummond, Karen Grigsby Bates, Natalie Escobar and LA Johnson.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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