With heavy hearts and determination, the South Asian communities of Bellevue and Greater Seattle made one thing abundantly clear Sunday afternoon at Crossroads Park — There is no room for hate here.
Following the hate crime murder of an Indian-born, Kansan engineer on Feb. 22, groups around Puget Sound began to mobilize for a vigil to commemorate the man — Srinivas Kuchibhotla.
Rita Meher, a Sammamish resident and co-founder of the Tasveer South Asian film festival, began organizing the vigil in Bellevue on Monday, March 6. Just a few days later, Deep Rai — a Sikh man of Indian origin — was shot in the arm outside his home in Kent after a masked white gunman told him to “go back to your own country.”
“We are shaken up,” Meher said. “We are worried about our safety. We organized for the Kansas man, we organized for a South Carolina man. A woman was slapped in Fremont, Seattle and told to leave the country. All that accumulated at the vigil.”
More than 250 people braved the unseasonably cold weather to hold signs, listen to messages of hope and gather in song. The crowd sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” followed by the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land.”
Representatives from the offices of Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Maria Cantwell were on hand, along with local officials offering a defiant message to the radical right.
“Hateful halfwits are here and they will act out,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “We will not tolerate hate in our community. Whether your family arrived here a week ago or 10 generations ago, you belong here. This is your place.”
Meher spoke about the rise in bias-related incidents after certain elements were emboldened by white nationalist rhetoric during and after the election. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, between election day and Feb. 7, there were 1,372 reported “bias incidents” ranging from murder to assault to threats.
Locally, a homeless man burned a Bellevue mosque. That was not investigated as a hate crime, but it did put the local Muslim and greater religious community on edge. Additionally, the Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island was subjected to a bomb threat.
Bellevue Mayor John Stokes said he would have hoped things would have changed more in his lifetime.
“In 1963 as a law student in Washington, D.C., I watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give his “I have a Dream” speech,” Stokes said. “I would have thought we would have made more progress since then. We welcome you. This is your city, this is your place. We will go forward and we will resist.”
Many speakers relayed their convictions with righteous passion, electrifying the crowd. Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Atheists of all colors and ages gathered to express solidarity.
Meher said the South Asian community, viewed often as a “model minority,” had to join with Black Lives Matter, American Indian groups, Asian-American groups and white American groups to stand as one unified people.
“It was a very powerful and healing event,” she said. “There was a lot of hope and willingness of people to be involved.”
Meher became an activist after she was screamed at in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. From there, she began screening South Asian films for that community which quickly evolved into the Tasveer festival.
What’s different about a rise in hate-related crimes in recent months is many in the community feel less marginalized — at least in Washington.
“There’s more awareness, more connections,” Meher said. “We can share support, tell people who are victims of hate crimes to call the ACLU and get counseling.”
Bellevue Assistant Chief of Police Patrick Arpin was at the event, along with dozens of nonprofits, political organizations and other activists.
“We condemn the hate crimes going on around the country, whether it be in the Indian community, the Jewish community or any other community,” Arpin said. “The hard part about these crimes is the fear of coming forward. People can be afraid that if they report the crime, we will not be supportive. They are reluctant to come forward. We want them to come forward so we can support them.”
Crimes in Bellevue that look like they may be hate-related are often worked in tandem with the FBI and community groups to spread as much accurate information as possible to help find the perpetrators.
Meher offered a message of hope for anyone feeling persecuted by hateful speech or actions.
“This shall also pass,” she said. “We can give assurance, and ask you not to be fearful. Report about these incidents and do not be scared.”