Hate crimes continue to strike minority communities in the Valley

Shoshana Simones and her family returned home to Phoenix from a vacation last summer and found their mailbox defaced with anti-Semitic symbols. (Photo courtesy of the Arizona Anti-Defamation League)

PHOENIX – The day after the 9/11 terror attacks, Rana Singh Sodhi received a phone call from an employee at his brother’s gas station in Mesa, telling him to come down as soon as possible. Someone had been shot.

Sodhi rushed to the station, where he found his brother’s body stretched outside the entrance.
Balbir Singh Sodhi was planting flowers with a landscaper when Frank Silva Roque, a white aircraft mechanic, drove past and shot Sodhi five times, killing him, under the presumption that he was Muslim. He was not.

Sodhi was the first Sikh in the United States to be killed in a hate crime in the aftermath of 9/11. Hours before he was gunned down, he had emptied his pockets at a local Costco, donating all the cash he had on him to support the survivors and victims of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Roque – who is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the murder – claimed he thought Sodhi was a terrorist Muslim because he wore a turban, which is commonly worn by men following the Sikh religion. Muslim men often wear a headwrap known as a keffiyah or a cap called a taqiyah.

Seventeen years after Sodhi’s murder, a memorial in Mesa commemorates his life, but minority communities across Arizona still are experiencing a lack of safety, harassment, violence and even death due to hate crimes.

In Arizona, as in much of the United States, the groups most targeted for hate crimes are African-Americans, Muslims, homosexual men and Jews.

On a national level, President Barack Obama spearheaded passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which, among other things, increased federal definitions of hate crimes and allowed federal law enforcement to assist investigations by state and local agencies.

Through the death of his brother, Rana Singh Sodhi became an activist in the U.S. Sikh community and a voice against hate crimes. Sodhi was invited to the White House to talk about his brother’s death to help pass the Hate Crime Act of 2009. (Photo Courtesy of Rana Singh Sodhi)

Shepard, 21, was abducted Oct. 12, 1998, by two men in Laramie, Wyoming, who tied him to a fence, tortured him and left him to die. A bicyclist, who at first thought Shepard was a scarecrow, took him to the hospital, where he later died.

James Byrd Jr., 49, an African-American in Jasper, Texas, accepted a ride on June 7, 1998, from three white men, only to be beaten, chained by his ankles to the back of their pickup truck and dragged to death.

Both examples fall under what the FBI defines as hate crimes: a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

The latest FBI data available is from 2016, and out of the 213 hate crime incidents reported that year, 51 percent were motivated by the race/ethnicity and ancestry of the victim.

One of the issues law enforcement faces when investigating such crimes is the number of incidents that go unreported. According to the FBI, reported hate crimes in Arizona fell slightly in 2016 compared with 2015, but part of the decline is due to the inconsistency of the 15 or so state agencies reporting to the Hate Crime Statistic Program.

That assessment was shared by FBI Special Agent Dan Johnson, who spoke Feb. 20 during the State of Hate summit at Temple Chai in Phoenix, sponsored by the Arizona chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

“I have great skepticism about all of our statistics on hate crimes because we don’t do a good job tracking hate crimes,” he said. “I don’t know if we are actually seeing more or less crimes based on race, religion or anything else … which plays into the ambiguity of the data.”

The Anti-Defamation League is among several local advocacy organizations combating hate and discrimination, focusing on secure and just treatment for all. The ADL primarily works with the Jewish community to end anti-Semitism, but it also works to help all victims of hate crimes and bias related incidents.

“There has been a rise in hate crimes and hate incidents that we’ve been called upon to be supportive of victims,” said Carlos Galindo-Elvira, the Arizona regional director of the ADL. “We don’t believe that people should be hated for who they are or for what they are.”

While working with the ADL, Galindo-Elvira said he has seen dozens of homes vandalized with anti-Semitic symbols, prompting worry and fear within Arizona’s Jewish community.

Evan Bernstein, the New York regional director of the ADL, spoke about recent national events involving anti-Semitism and the rise of white supremacy.

“What we saw in Charlottesville was an eye-opening moment for the rise of white supremacy. We have seen a tremendous rise from the Alt-Right,” Bernstein said. “The face of white supremacy has changed dramatically in this country. What we saw were young men in khakis and blue oxford shirts, that looked like they could be working next to you in your place of business, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.'”

He was referring to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, when hundreds of torch-bearing white nationalists took to the streets, protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. During the Unite the Right rally, white nationalists chanted “Blood and Soil!” or “Blut und Boden!” slogans used by Nazis during the ethnic cleansing of Europe under Adolf Hitler.

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Symbols used by white nationalists, including the Nazi swastika and the blood-drop cross of the Ku Klux Klan, have started appearing throughout Arizona universities.

“We have seen flyering happening on the ASU campus by white supremacy groups trying to attract college students,” Galindo-Elvira said.

On Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, students interviewed by Cronkite News said they recognize the importance of freedom of speech but fear hate speech will motivate violence and harassment.

Tabark Abdelhabib, executive director of the ASU group One Resistance, began wearing a hijab her sophomore year in high school. “The reason I started to wear a hijab was to take and shift that perception people have about Islam and women in Islam. For people to feel like they have to hide part of their identity because of fear, that doesn’t sit right with me.” (Photo by Lerman Montoya/Cronkite News)

Tabark Abdelhabib is executive director of One Resistance, a student coalition that promotes social justice and social equity in Arizona. The group also focuses on promoting political activism and empathy throughout ASU.

“With One Resistance, we want to create a safe space for people to talk about their identity and to be proud of it,” Abdelhabib said. “Your identity is not something you could separate from yourself. You should be OK to express yourself and your identity without any fear.”

FBI data shows Muslims are the second most targeted religious group in Arizona and the United States; Jews rank first.

Ahmad Alakoum, imam of the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, said harassment of his community has risen since Donald Trump began his run for the Oval Office.

“During the campaign of President Trump, the level of harassment directed towards the Muslim community spiked really high,” Alakoum said. “The Trump presidency has given empowerment to those people who have hidden feelings of racism and prejudices. (sic)”

Alakoum said the women in his congregation are harassed the most.

“Hate is directed directly at our women,” he said, “because they visibly wear the (head) scarf. My daughter and my wife go out and notice the higher level of prejudice that is directed towards them. I have seen girls now remove their hijab when they go to school because they are afraid.”

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