Diverse Group of Leaders Call for Concerted Action Against Hate Crimes

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September 27, 2012

By Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON – Pledging to stand in solidarity against hate, influential leaders and advocates of diverse fields and faiths addressed a packed press conference, following a historic hearing on hate crimes and the threat of domestic extremism, held in the US Senate, in the wake of the massacre at the Sikh Gurudwara in Wisconsin.

Their message reverberated loud and clear: the hate must stop and concerted action is the need of the hour, indeed the time!

September 27, 2012

By Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON – Pledging to stand in solidarity against hate, influential leaders and advocates of diverse fields and faiths addressed a packed press conference, following a historic hearing on hate crimes and the threat of domestic extremism, held in the US Senate, in the wake of the massacre at the Sikh Gurudwara in Wisconsin.

Their message reverberated loud and clear: the hate must stop and concerted action is the need of the hour, indeed the time!

Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, who led the hearing, warned, “We cannot overlook the growth of these hate crime groups, the fact that many of them are extraordinarily well armed.  They have arsenals of weapons which I think would absolutely amaze and stun many Americans.  We need to have our Department of Justice (DOJ), our Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), following closely.  When they cross the line beyond speech into conduct which is threatening to the American population, we need to move and move quickly.  When we know that there are targeted groups and religions, we need to warn them and work with them to keep them safe.  This is part of our responsibility”.

Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, addressing a press conference, following a historic hearing which he led on hate crimes and the threat of domestic extremism

The lawmaker lauded the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act which he believed “is critically important in this country”.  He told the press corps, “I was proud when President Obama signed it into law and made it clear that there are certain crimes which go beyond the ordinary physical violence into a level of hatred that needs to be officially discouraged in America by branding it a specific crime”.

The hearing was marked by the heart-wrenching testimony of 18-year-old Harpreet Singh Saini who lost his mother, Paramjit Kaur Saini, in the terrible tragedy at the Oak Creek Gurudwara.  Later, at the press conference, Senator Durbin said, “the testimony that we received from the son of one of those victims is something I will never forget.  His message was not just one of sorrow at the loss of his mother.  His message was for all of us because he basically reminded us that we need to stand up against all forms of discrimination – discrimination against all religious groups, all ethnic groups, all races”.

The lawmaker marveled at the turnout.  “Hundreds of people came to this hearing today, an indication of the level of interest in this important topic”, he said.

More than 400 people packed the event, on a Wednesday afternoon, with an overflow crowd being accommodated in an adjacent room.  It was a strong show of strength by concerned citizens, mostly Sikhs from across the country, deeply affected by the massacre in Milwaukee.

The press conference, organized by South Asian Americans Leading Together and moderated by Deepa Iyer, the Executive Director of SAALT, was also packed.  Together with Senator Durbin, it featured such influential leaders and activists as: Amardeep Singh, Director of Programs at the Sikh Coalition; Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel at the Anti-Defamation League; Valerie Kaur, an award-winning film-maker, civil rights advocate and founding director of Groundswell which is a multi-faith social action initiative representing 40,000 Americans; Linda Sarsour, National Advocacy Director at the National Network for Arab American Communities; Reverend Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.; Mark Potok, Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center; Lisa Mottet, Transgender Civil Rights Project Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Haris Tarin, Director of the Washington, DC Office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council; Floyd Mori, Executive Director Emeritus, Japanese American Citizens League; and Alba Lucero Villa, Bickel and Brewer Latino Institute for Human Rights Fellow.

Senator Durbin noted, “The people who have gathered here today represent many different ethnic groups, many different religions, and many different backgrounds.  But, we all come together with this common theme: first, sorrow for what has happened with the Sikh American community.  Second, a resolution by all of us that we will work together to end this kind of discrimination and violence against any group in America.  We will stand together”!

Deepa thanked the lawmaker for his “leadership and for setting a tone for all of us here in the halls of Congress … Over the past 10 years, Muslims, South Asians, Sikhs and Arab Americans have faced discrimination, backlash and hate violence”, she said.

Deepa commended the Sikh Coalition, under the leadership of Amardeep Singh, which, she said, “has done ground-breaking work in response to the tragedy in Oak Creek”.

Amardeep lamented the lack of resources devoted to tackling the threat of domestic extremism.  He pointed out that at the hearing, Daryl Johnson, who authored a 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism and headed the DHS unit on violent domestic extremists, told the Subcommittee that there were eight analysts looking at violent extremism and that number has now dwindled to one.  “The blinders from government need to come off”, Amardeep asserted.  “Daryl said his report was withdrawn by DHS on account of a lack of resources.  That is wrong!  Resources need to be put back.  We need more Daryl Johnsons at DHS, not less”.

Amardeep Singh Kaleka, son of the Gurudwara President, Satwant Singh Kaleka – a victim of the shootings in Wisconsin – addressing a press conference, following a historic hearing on hate crimes and the threat of domestic extremism, in the US Senate

Amardeep voiced the all-too-familiar cautionary, eerie reminder: “What happened in Oak Creek could have happened to any one of us.  That man hated everyone.  The groups he was associated with hated everyone”.

At the same time, he underscored, “What happened in Oak Creek was also preventable.  There is something wrong, but something wrong that we can correct being optimistic”.

Amardeep emphasized, “We need to track crimes against the Sikh community.  We have too many Sikhs who have suffered hate crimes and not even had the dignity of being a statistic.  That is going to end in Oak Creek”, he vowed.

Reflecting upon the heartening response, Amardeep told the press corps, “there is nothing I could say that would be as powerful as the statement that was made today by the presence of the community at this hearing and by the testimony of Harpreet Singh Saini”.  Looking at family members of the victims, he said, “Harpreet Singh Saini, Kamaljit Singh Saini, Amardeep Singh Kaleka, Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka – not only the Sikh community, but every community owes you a deep debt of gratitude.  What we saw after Oak Creek, as difficult as it was, was an outpouring of love and support.  So, Sikh values of love, American values of love, come together”!

Amardeep called on leaders to take a public pledge to do all in their power to end the xenophobic rhetoric.  “Words from leaders matter”, he said.  “We will keep coming back until things change”.

Michael Lieberman underscored, “The horrible tragic incident in Oak Creek was not only another demonstration of the impact of hate violence, but also demonstrated the critical importance of partnerships between government and community groups like those around us today to effectively prevent and respond to domestic extremism and hate violence.  We need all hands on deck!  Many of us are advocates used to coming up with action agendas.  That’s what we need today … It does not take very many people motivated by hate and extremist anger to cause a great deal of harm and misery.  We must be ready and able to respond”.

Valerie Kaur, an award-winning film-maker, civil rights advocate and founding director of Groundswell, addressing a press conference, following a historic hearing on hate crimes and the threat of domestic extremism, in the US Senate

Lieberman acknowledged that the Justice Department and FBI have done a very good job in the initial steps of implementing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  But, he believed, “much more needs to be done in terms of training and outreach.  We know we cannot outlaw hate, but effective enforcement of the Shepard-Byrd Act can demonstrate that investigating and prosecuting hate violence is a priority”, he said.

The Anti-Defamation League is the nation’s leading organization tracking hate crime groups and training law enforcement officials in how to respond to hate violence.  “We know a lot about the nature and magnitude of these threats”, Lieberman said.

He noted that while the FBI has been tracking hate crimes in America for the last 20 years, its numbers are incomplete.  “We have reiterated our call that anti-Sikh, anti-Arab, anti-Hindu, hate crimes should be explicitly disintegrated from the hate crime data collection that the FBI has been conducting for two decades”, he said.

Valerie Kaur, who spent most of last month in Oak Creek with families of the victims, told reporters: “Harpreet found tremendous courage in the midst of great, deep suffering and grief in order to come to Congress today and call for an end to hate, not just against Sikhs, but against all people.  He was not alone.  People of every color, faith, gender and orientation were behind him today, not just in person but also in spirit”.

In a heart-wrenching testimony, Harpreet asked the most powerful lawmakers in the world to give his mother the dignity of at least being counted as a statistic.  The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs.  At the presser, Valerie disclosed that 4,000 Americans have signed a petition to stand with Harpreet, including the Police Chief of Oak Creek, John Edwards.

“It’s time for the US government to help our law enforcement to combat hate and domestic extremism in America”, she said.  “I believe the day we see a turbaned Sikh on the street and think not foreigner, not terrorist, will be the day when all of us will be truly and fully embraced in America”!

Representing the National Network for Arab American Communities, Linda Sarsour, told reporters, “We reiterate the call of Sikh Americans to add a category to track hate crimes against them.  This hearing is not the end of the road.  It is just the beginning of a conversation that we must have nationally”.  She bemoaned that hate crimes against Muslims and South Asians have increased ten years after 9/11.  “We have been living in the most hostile environment that we have ever faced as a community even in the days after the tragic events of 9/11", she said.  We, as a country, continue to pass laws, but we do not enforce them”.

Harpreet Singh Saini (left) and his brother Kamaljit Singh Saini, who lost their mother, Paramjit Kaur Saini, in the terrible tragedy at the Oak Creek Gurudwara, are seen here at a press conference in the US Senate

Mark Potok pointed out that hate-motivated “attacks are occurring in the midst of an enormous growth in the radical right in this country over the last three years”.  He noted that there has been an eight-fold growth of anti-government, so-called patriot, groups which were formerly known as militias.  “With this has come an upsurge in domestic terrorism”, he said.  “To us (at the Southern Poverty Law Center), I am sad to say, the attack in Wisconsin was not much of a surprise”.

Reverend Dr. Caroll spoke about how the African-American community has for long endured hate violence.  Calling for a united front, he told advocates and leaders at the press conference, “We need to ask the White House to consider establishing an inter-agency task force on hate crimes and domestic extremism similar to what was established by President Clinton following the Church arsons in 1990.  We must fight for these changes together”, he stressed.

Amardeep Singh Kaleka, son of the Gurudwara President, Satwant Singh Kaleka, who lost his life on that tragic day, August 5, in Oak Creek, mentioned that he was getting text messages throughout the hearing by people keenly interested in the proceedings.  “All of Oak Creek is here with you in DC”, he said.  The people of Oak Creek are highly affected, he told reporters.  “They do understand the importance of the situation – the first steps towards making change whether they be legislative or cultural”, he said.  “They do understand the challenges and that this one step, though it is a small battle won, there is a war to fight and it is going to take every person, every citizen who has ever been affected by a hate crime, everyone who has ever been racially profiled or bullied in school, to come out and say, ‘this has got to stop’.  It’s going to be the populace that is going to change it.   The people in Congress are reflections of you.  We have to group together, we have to unite, we have to stand up and this is our time to do so.  Otherwise, the six people who were slain, my father included, would have died in vain”.