Ten months after the horrific massacre of Sikhs at Oak Creek gurdwara that claimed six lives, the advisory board of FBI votes to create a new separate hate crimes category to help track such attacks against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs. Aziz Haniffa reports
Exactly ten months after the horrific massacre of Sikh worshippers in the Oak Creek, Wisconsin gurdwara by a white supremacist neo-Nazi, the advisory board of the Federal Bureau of Investigation voted to create a separate hate crimes category in the agency’s uniform crime reporting programme. This, thanks to a concerted lobbying effort by Sikh American groups in conjunction with dozens of United States lawmakers spearheaded by Congressman Joe Crowley.
The highly anticipated decision comes more than two years after Sikh Coalition, the premier Sikh American civil rights advocacy group, requested that the FBI begin tracking hate crimes against the community, the way it does for Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists.
During this period, Sikhs continued to be subjected to a spate of suspected hate attacks in California, Florida, New York, Washington; the worst was the killing of six worshippers on August 5, 2012 at the Oak Creek gurdwara.
The advisory board’s decision came after over 140 bipartisan members of the US house of representatives, the US senate, and the newly minted American Sikh Congressional caucus, as well as the US Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the Sikh Coalition’s request.
The board voted to create new religion tracking categories based on religious groups enumerated in Pew Forum studies and the last edition of the US census bureau’s statistical abstract, which includes Sikhs. The new changes are expected to be implemented by 2015.
The request for Sikh hate crime tracking was also poignantly made at a US senate hearing last September by Harpreet Singh Saini, who lost his mother during the Oak Creek attack.
According to Sikh Coalition surveys in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, approximately 10 per cent of Sikh adults claim they have experienced physical violence or property damage because of their religion. “This suggests that Sikhs may be hundreds of times more likely than their fellow Americans to experience hate crimes,” the Coalition said.
Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition, said, “We are grateful to the FBI’s advisory policy board for recognising that Sikhs are targeted because of their distinct identity, especially their turbans, and for voting to give our community the dignity of recognition.”
He predicted, “The new changes will strengthen diagnostic and deterrence efforts, increase awareness about Sikhs among law enforcement officials nationwide, and encourage Sikhs to begin reporting hate crimes to local, state, and federal authorities.”
Crowley, vice chair of the Democratic Caucus in the US House of Representatives and Democratic co-chair of the Congressional caucus on India and Indian Americans, said, “I am thrilled the FBI’s law enforcement advisory board agrees that the hate crimes incident report forms must be updated to include at-risk communities like Sikhs, Hindus and Arab Americans.”
“This has been a long time in the making, and I am proud to have joined the many organisations and citizens who spoke out on this issue to say that the status quo just isn’t good enough,” he said.
Crowley, however noted that “while this is a monumental step forward, our work cannot end here. That’s why I’m calling on FBI Director (Robert) Mueller to fully and urgently implement the Board’s recommendation.”
Following the advisory policy board’s ruling, Crowley, along with representatives Bill Pascrell Jr of New Jersey, Adam B Schiff of California, Michael Honda also of California, Gary C Peters of Michigan, Eric Swalwell of California, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii -- the only Hindu American in the US Congress, and Ami Bera of California -- the only Indian American in the Congress, immediately circulated a letter to the FBI director urging the investigators to urgently enact the board’s recommendation.
In April 2012, Crowley led a letter signed by 93 members of the Congress urging the FBI to update the hate crime incident report form (1-699) to include crimes committed against Sikh Americans. Following the August 2012 attack on the gurdwara, Crowley spearheaded the introduction of a Congressional resolution recognising the contributions of the Sikh American community and urging action on hate crimes. In March 2013, Crowley led a letter signed by over 100 members of the Congress to the FBI advisory policy board to express strong support to begin tracking and quantifying hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindu and Arab-Americans.
Last week, Crowley submitted testimony to the FBI advisory policy board reiterating his strong support for updating the hate crimes documentation form and sharing feedback and concerns from his conversations. He told rediff.com, immediately after the advisory board’s decision, “This has been a major priority for the Indian-American community and I’m determined to get this done for them.”
“I want every single Indian-American family to be able to tell their children that they are safe in this country,” he said, and added, “ For the sake of Senando Sen, for the sake of those who perished at Oak Creek -- we’ve got to make this change, and fast. Wearing a bindi or a turban isn’t a license to be attacked and it must end now.”
The Sikh Coalition said it was enormously grateful to government officials, who have supported their more than two-year effort, including Congressman Joseph Crowley, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Congresswoman Judy Chu, Congressman David Valadao, Attorney General Eric Holder, the White House and the civil rights division and community relations service of the US department of justice.
“We are also grateful to our coalition partners, including the anti-defamation league, and the interfaith community for supporting our campaign,’ it added.
But “most of all, the Sikh Coalition is extremely grateful to and is inspired by the Sikh American community, especially those in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, for emailing, calling, and speaking with government officials and the media about the need to track hate crimes against Sikhs,” it said.
The Sikh Coalition said that “in the coming months, it looks forward to working with the FBI to quickly implement the new changes and ensure that we have accurate statistics about hate crimes against our community. This will help government officials allocate resources efficiently to address the problem and make our community safer.”
Amardeep Singh, programme director of the Sikh Coalition, told rediff.com, "We're very pleased by the FBI's decision to include new anti-Sikh, anti-Hindu, and anti-Arab hate crime categories. The history of hate crimes against Sikhs in America dates back to riots against Sikh workers in Bellingham, Washington in 1907.”
“However, 9/11 in particular, has led to an onslaught of hate crimes against our communities. The time is long past for the government to recognise that Sikhs and the Sikh identity has led to acute challenges that must be officially recognized and addressed,” he said.
Singh said, "The campaign to persuade the federal government to track anti-Sikh hate crimes was formidable. In the course of two years, thousands of community members called their members of Congress, wrote letters to their members of Congress, signed petitions to them, and attended legislative hearings in support of the issue.”
“It has certainly been a reminder that it is critical for the community to remain vigilant in protecting its rights,” he said.
Image: A man holds his hands in prayer as he walks inside the Sikh Cultural Society in the Queens borough of New York after the shootout at a gurdwara in Wisconsin | Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters