The #WeBelong vigil took place shortly after the shooting in Kent and two weeks after Srinivas Kuchibhotla was fatally shot dead in Kansas. • Photo by Kamna Shastri

“Go back to where you came from,” “Go home”—these were the words uttered by perpetrators just before they pulled their triggers in hate crimes targeting South Asians over the past two months. In February, Srinivas Kuchibhotla of Kansas was shot and killed while his friend Alok Madasani was wounded in a hate crime. Locally, the shooting of Deep Rai, a practitioner of the Sikh faith, in his own driveway in Kent caught the attention of local and national news. The man was approached by his assailant who had covered his face on an early March evening. An argument ensued. Then the gunman shot Rai in his arm. For the South Asian community in the Pacific Northwest, these incidents have sparked new concerns as well as activism.

Neeti Mittal, president of The India Association of Western Washington, is seeing the emotional consequences take shape around her. Families that once spoke in their regional languages in public, and people who wore traditional salwaar kameez to run errands, are changing their habits to keep a low profile. Mittal says that this environment of hostility has created tension for the community’s American-born children: “I just feel bad that the kids who were born here, they are starting to feel confused and that is not good for the fabric of our nation,” she said.

Crimes targeting South Asians are happening at rates comparable to post-9/11 panic after dipping over the past decade, according to a report published last month by the organization South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). In a report published earlier this year, SAALT found that 94% of the crimes collected in their database between January and November 2016 were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. The victims of these crimes however held varying identities and spanned countries of origin from Ethiopia to Bangladesh.

What the data says

The Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) Bias Crime Unit reports its citywide bias crime data, collecting and categorizing incidents by motivation. Since the beginning of 2017, the SPD has collected 50 incidents of bias-motivated crime in total. Twenty-one cases of malicious harassment have been reported, compared to 16 cases of non-criminal bias incidents, where derogatory comments—though protected under free speech—might incite fear in a person or group. Under racially motivated crimes, eight targeted Blacks, one targeted a Latino, one a multi-racial person, and three targeted whites. Religiously-motivated incidents targeted Muslims and Jews. Ethnically motivated incidents targeted Arabs and “unspecified” groups.

A large South Asian population clusters to the east of Seattle, namely in Bellevue, Redmond, Sammamish, and Kirkland. The Bellevue Police Department’s 2016 data reports 16 hate crimes overall for that year. Seven explicitly note anti-Muslim motivation and one crime details a Sikh Uber driver who was threatened and beaten by his passenger. 2017 hate crime data is not yet available. The BPD has stood in solidarity with the South Asian community and other immigrant communities.

On Sunday March 5, shortly after the shooting in Kent and two weeks after Kuchibhotla was fatally shot dead, Tasveer took the lead in organizing a vigil for the shooting victims in Kansas. Over 43 other local organizations—many based in the South Asian community, but many others as well—joined a diverse group of community members at Crossroads Park in Bellevue. Along with speakers like Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Kshama Sawant, a Bellevue Police representative took to the stage to assure community members that the BPD stands with them and that they should turn to the police department at any time.

The mood was somber at the #WeBelong vigil. Homemade signs were hoisted in the air. A gray sky and the bone-biting cold mimicked the tragedy behind the vigil’s premise. Even in extreme weather, more than a hundred-people huddled together listening to speakers who unanimously called for the South Asian community to organize and get involved rather than to stay at home, worried and fearful.

IAWW has been organizing hate crime workshops in Bellevue, with help and support from Bellevue Police Department. So far, two workshops have taken place, with March’s workshop bringing 200 attendees. The workshops provide attendees with a combination of best practices for self-protection, emergency response, and awareness. Upcoming workshops plan to expand to other places and focus on appropriate physical and mental steps to take in the face of a hate crime.

Lalita Uppala is the community program director for IAWW’s programs. “There is … the realization that we are not necessarily emerging unscathed from the irrational anger and racism towards immigrant communities hence the need to act has intensified and the understanding of what other immigrant communities experience dawned clear,” she said.

South Asians are already immensely diverse, with intertwining and diverging histories, religions, and cultures that brush up against one another under the same label making collaboration across and beyond South Asian communities necessary.

So, what should we do?

During IAWW’s workshop in March, Mittal brought up a question: What do we do when verbal harassment is protected under the freedom of speech clause, but has the consequence instigating fear in an individual or community? The Bellevue Police Department’s response was to report any instances of verbal harassment and derogatory speech just as one would report a violent hate crime; reporting will help law enforcement track these instances and create a record.

SAALT lists recommendations to combat hate crimes on the governmental, legislative and community levels. The recommendations call for more action and less lip-service from government agencies, and for a state, federal, and community-based cooperatives to improve crime reporting. They also stress the importance of political and civic engagement education for South Asian, Muslim and Arab communities, something that is already happening.

Tahmina Watson, a lawyer and community advocate at Watson Immigration Services who also spoke at the #WeBelong vigil, said the South Asian community is already taking the first, crucial step: civic engagement. “Being part of the dialogue and decision making is absolutely crucial at this point,” she said, listing local and national political leaders like Pramila Jayapal, Kshama Sawant, and Vandana Slatter.

Watson also brought to light an interesting and contested situation in the South Asian community. While there is a range of incomes and issues faced by the many groups that make up a larger South Asian regional diaspora, South Asians’ image as educated, skilled professionals calls into question how such privilege should be used. “We are a very large part of the King County for sure and just in general … we are one of the most educated, and high skilled … communities in the country,” she said. “Why are we not out there, representing our communities even more?”

Watson notes that some people are hesitant to get involved due to a lack of time, or feelings of helplessness. Her suggestion, echoed by others like Mittal, is to tackle challenges head-on by organizing people with varying skill sets who can “come to the table” and work together, much like dividing and conquering. Those people need not only be lawyers and educators, nonprofit organizations, and healthcare advocates. Everyone must bring their talents and interests to the forefront, using unique strengths to create an environment where hate crimes and hostility are not ‘just the dark side’ of society’s status quo.

Watson put it this way: “Every drop makes an ocean. Every drop done by somebody will ultimately have a bigger impact, but sitting back and thinking someone else is going to do it? That notion must go away.”

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