Jayapal, Crowley introduce House Resolution calling on DOJ to commit more resources for investigating ethnic attacks
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, March 10, 2017 – Given the recent spike in hate crimes against Indian-Americans and other minorities, influential US lawmakers sought to calm rattled nerves pledging their full support for all those affected by the senseless attacks.
Standing on the steps of the US Capitol on an unseasonably cold afternoon for March, the weather matching the mood, House members denounced the violence at a vigil spearheaded by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national advocacy organization which operates on a social justice framework.
Among the elected officials who addressed the event were three Indian-American lawmakers, Ami Bera (Democrat – California), Pramila Jayapal (Democrat – Washington) and Ro Khanna (Democrat – California), who were joined by Joe Crowley (Democrat – New York), a staunch supporter of the community and close India-US ties on Capitol Hill.
Earlier, on Friday, Representatives Jayapal and Crowley introduced a Resolution calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to dedicate robust resources for investigating and prosecuting ethnic attacks, and urging President Trump to end his inflammatory rhetoric. By mid afternoon, the Resolution had garnered 66 signatures from their colleagues in the House.
“We have to make sure that these attacks are prosecuted as hate crimes. We have to make sure that we have the resources” to protect our communities, Jayapal declared at the vigil. “We have to make sure the rhetoric matches the actions. You can’t just say you oppose violence if through your policies and your words you are creating an environment where people feel that it is okay to do these things”, she said about President Trump’s actions, including his immigration executive orders banning people from some predominantly Muslim countries.
“There is no question that there is a tie between policies that target immigrant communities and hate entire swaths of people as being terrorists or being foreigners who are taking American jobs or any of the stereotypes that have gone along with these executive orders”, she said. “So, it is the Muslim Ban, it is also the interior immigration enforcement order that has immigrants across our country terrified. In my District in Seattle, Washington, we have a lot of Indian-Americans, a lot of South Asian Americans, a lot of immigrants who are literally writing to me to ask if they can leave their homes. This is not an isolated phenomenon. This is happening around the country”, she bemoaned.
The lawmaker expressed the hope that “the Resolution sends a strong message to this administration that we are expecting much more in terms of helping us stand up against hate violence in our community across our country and preserving a country that allowed somebody like me to come as a 16-year-old by myself with nothing in my pocket to become a US Congress person today. That’s the country that we believe in and that’s the diversity and the tolerance and the opportunity that we must continue to stand for”, she emphasized.
In two of the recent incidents in which Indian-Americans were shot, the suspects reportedly yelled at them to go back to their country.
Congresswoman Jayapal lamented, “I have been told numerous times to go back to my country. America is my country”, she told the Capitol Hill gathering. “So, one of the messages I want to send to people out there who are listening is that America is your country. You belong here and we will stand up to protect your rights”, she pledged.
Crowley who hosted a Congressional briefing earlier that day on the surge of hate violence in the South Asian community told activists and journalists at the vigil, “I feel very strongly there needs to be more acceptance, more tolerance”.
Bemoaning that “hate crimes are up overall”, he said, “We need our President to speak out much more strongly than he has so far, to take action beyond rhetoric, to ensure that people have safety, be they Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu. We need to see our government protecting all Americans, not just a few”. The lawmaker underscored, “An attack against one is an attack against all of us”.
He noted, “Americans do listen to the President. They are looking for tolerance, they are looking for acceptance and when they don’t see that they think they can take actions in their own hands. That is exactly what happened in Kansas and we see happening elsewhere as well”.
According to police accounts, on the evening of February 22, Adam Purinton, 51, a white US Navy veteran, opened fire in a bar killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injuring Alok Madasani, both 32-year-old Hindus originally from Hyderabad, and engineers by profession employed by GPS device-maker Garmin. Reportedly, the suspect mistook the two Indian men for Iranians and yelled, “Get out of my country”. A good Samaritan, Ian Grillot, 24, who came to their rescue was also shot and injured.
At the Capitol Hill vigil, Congressman Crowley said, “The attack in Kansas sent a shiver down my spine because I know that this is something that has developed because of hate rhetoric and hate speech. It started during the campaign and has continued afterwards. President Trump not only has to speak out against this, he has to take action against this as well, commit resources to ensure that the South Asian community in the US is protected. Much of this is directed because of anti-Muslim rhetoric in particular, and people assuming that people from South Asia must all be Muslim. Regardless of what the motivation is, it needs to stop, it needs to end”.
Without mincing any words, Congressman Bera put the onus for the hate crimes right where it belongs: President Trump.
In a “strong message”, he said, “Mr. President, it is time for you to stand up and push back. It starts with the leadership and Mr. President, it starts with you. Enough with the hateful rhetoric. Let’s stand up, let’s celebrate the diversity of who we are and let’s put an end to this hate. If we think about what is happening, you are allowing groups to come out of the shadows. We need to push them back into the shadows and say, ‘No’. We are going to stand up to hate”, he pledged.
“We are here because we are not going to let hate win. Hate never does win and that’s why you are seeing not just us come together, you are seeing groups all across this nation standing up and pushing back”, Bera said.
He pointed out that “what makes the United States such a dynamic and great country” is that “we are a nation of immigrants” — people of different religions, backgrounds coming together. “And we’re not going to change that”, he vowed.
“We don’t discriminate based on religion. We don’t discriminate based on the color of your skin or your sexual orientation or your gender. That is not who we are and that’s not who we are going to become”, he said.
Congressman Khanna whose District encompasses the high-tech haven of Silicon Valley, struck an optimistic note citing strides made by the Indian-American community, and the fact that Americans are fundamentally kind and decent. He pointed out that the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, is an Indian-American and a Sikh American, Ajay Banga, heads MasterCard. “This community has a lot to be proud of. We have contributed a lot to this country”, he said.
The lawmaker hoped, “As Americans, we will all come together and stand up for the fundamental values of this country, and that there will be strong prosecution by the Justice Department and FBI when we have hate crimes against anyone”.
Responding to a question about the recent spike in hate crimes against Indian-Americans at the White House briefing on Thursday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “Whether it’s the event that happened in Kansas City, other events, the attacks on Jewish community centers that continue to plague us…. I think we’ve got to continue to call it out, we’ve got to continue to root it out, we’ve got to continue to engage law enforcement, whatever is the applicable level of law enforcement depending on the event”.
Continuing to denounce the acts of hate, the White House spokesperson said, “It’s something that I think all Americans should be outraged and disgusted by – and stand up for the principles that unite us, and that’s what the President spoke so eloquently about during his joint address and made it very clear that while certain policies may divide us as individuals, there are certain principles that can unite us”.
At the Capitol Hill vigil, Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT, emphasized that at a time when Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, other South Asian and Arab community members “are facing hate violence and harassment on nearly a daily basis, we need real leadership from Washington to stem the tide of injustice. Waiting nearly a week before commenting on a deadly shooting in Kansas won’t do it. Issuing a second toxic Muslim ban won’t do it”, she said about President Trump’s response and action.
Led by SAALT, the vigil was supported by a number of organizations including the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), Sikh Coalition, Indiaspora, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), MPowerChange, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), among others.
Addressing the gathering, Rajdeep Singh Jolly, interim managing director of programs at the Sikh Coalition, warned, “We all have to mind our language. Political rhetoric has life or death consequences for our fellow Americans”.
Referring to the repercussions of divisive speech on Sikh children, he mentioned that the Sikh Coalition has documented an increase in incidents of violence and school bullying over the years. “It’s not just adults who are being told to go back to their country or who are being violently assaulted. Our children, some as young as six years old, are being called terrorists. They are being told to go back to their country”, he said.
Rajdeep Singh urged President Trump to step up and convene a task force to prevent hate violence, noting he has a lot of convening power. The task force, he suggested, should bring the best and brightest minds together from the community, interfaith groups, schools, law enforcement, to push back against hate crimes and school bullying.
For Indian-Americans, the Capitol Hill vigil afforded an opportunity to make their voices heard at the highest levels of the US government. Known for basking in the glory of their stellar achievements, they are now reeling from a wave of hate, racism and xenophobia.
Following the Kansas attack, the FBI is now investigating another shooting in Washington state as a hate crime. On the evening of March 3, a turbaned Sikh man, while working on his car, was shot in the driveway of his house in Kent, a suburb of Seattle. The gunman described as a white male yelled, “Go back to your own country”, before shooting him in the arm. The 39-year-old victim is recovering from his injury which is not life-threatening.
A day earlier, an Indian-origin store owner, Harnish Patel, 43, was fatally shot outside his home in Lancaster, South Carolina. While police are investigating the motive, another young life has been cut short. Patel is survived by his wife and a daughter who attends elementary school.
A few days ago, a young Indian-American woman, Ekta Desai, posted a video on social media giant Facebook in which she is being racially abused and harassed on a train in New York.
Earlier in February, a home in Peyton, Colorado, owned by an Indian-American family was trashed with racist messages, dog poop smeared everywhere, and eggs thrown on the walls and ceilings — a sobering reminder of hate.