Hundreds turn out for Bellevue hate crime info session

Seattle, and the rest of the country, finds itself in interesting times.

Part of those times includes a marked uptick in hate crimes and “bias-related” incidents since the November presidential election and what many see as a emboldened white supremacist movement.

On the nicest day in months, several hundred people listened to community leaders and public officials explain what defines a hate crime, how to protect themselves from becoming a victim and what the community can do to support marginalized people.

Lalita Uppala, community program director for the India Association of Western Washington, hosted the event and had mixed feelings about the turnout, mostly Indo-American.

“I’m happy you are all here today, even with the sun shining outside,” she said. “I’m not happy you are here for an info session on hate crimes, but at least you are here.”

Uppala was harassed and followed in Bellevue in January in an incident which left her shaken and upset. Another speaker at the event, Tarul Kode Tripathi, was harassed just this month in Issaquah. She reported the incident to two Sammamish police officers and was struck by how quickly one of the officers, who was a white female, tried to normalize the situation.

“She said, ‘The important thing is not to personalize the situation. That could’ve happened to anyone. That could’ve happened to me,’” Tripathi recalled to the Issaquah-Sammamish Reporter. “That obviously did not sit well with me because I completely disagree with that. I don’t think it would’ve happened to her, had it been a white woman in the car with her kids in the back. I don’t think he would’ve reacted that way.”

A four-person panel went into depth for more than two hours about how to avoid becoming a victim and how to de-escalate and report incidents.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake, in charge of the hate-crimes task force for the U.S. Attorneys office of the Western District of Washington, told the crowd of the relatively narrow definition of a hate crime.

“If someone swears at you or calls you a racist slur, that’s stupid, but it’s not illegal,” he said. “Where it changes is if there is a threat of or use of violence.”

Miyake said that being racist and vulgar isn’t a crime, but threatening people or using violence to further racist beliefs is. He said hate crimes are especially insidious because they can impact an entire community.

Dr. Neeti Mittal — the president of the India Association of Western Washington — and Uppala said that Indo-Americans were feeling persecution and anxiety even doing things like going to eat at a restaurant with their families.

Captain Marcia Harnden of the Bellevue Police Department’s special operations group, gave tips on how to be safer during a scary situation.

“We hear about people not calling 911 because they are afraid of escalating the situation,” she said. “Just call and leave the call open. We’ll respond a lot faster if we can hear something is going on and you don’t just hang up.”

Other safety tips such as being aware of your surroundings, carrying keys in your hand to use a defensive weapon and to always lock doors and windows can help people avoid being an easy victim.

Dr. Patty Siegwarth, former principal of Newport and Sammamish high schools and current representative of the Bellevue School District, gave advice on how to react to scenarios in the school district and to answer difficult questions children might have. The last person on the panel, Zarina Parpia, offered her experience as a community organizer and civil rights activist.

The event was meant to inform and reassure members of the Indo-American community, and to people-of-color on the Eastside. Miyake said he saw some unsettling parallels to another interesting time in American history.

“I’m a third-generation Japanese-American,” he said. “And my family was affected by Executive Order 9066 where Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps.”

He said the parallels bothered him, but that Muslim-Americans, Indo-Americans, Latin Americans and other groups feeling unease have more of a support system than nearly any other marginalized group in American history.

“What really makes America great is the freedom to live your life and to live it how you choose,” Miyake said.