Bigots on a warpath: Donald Trump’s election brings surge of hate crimes and questions about Sacramento Sikh youth’s murder

Activists plan to protest upcoming inauguration at state Capitol and in Washington, D.C.

The consequences of a Donald Trump administration are already being felt by minority groups, which reported a spike in hate crimes after the election.

The consequences of a Donald Trump administration are already being felt by minority groups, which reported a spike in hate crimes after the election.


This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the December 29, 2016, issue.

It started with a murder on election night.

It was 10:41 p.m. November 8, the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency was all but confirmed when Sacramento police responded to a shooting in a quiet Natomas suburb. They arrived at a corner house on Kandinsky Way, likely speeding past the neighborhood watch signs that forewarned unwelcome guests. Some neighbors were startled by the noise. One was in bed when he heard gunshots; another took his eyes off the election night coverage at the spill of sirens.

Officers found Gurnoor Singh Nahal lying in the garage, unresponsive and perforated by gunshot wounds. Without success, they tried to resuscitate him. Firefighters arrived soon after and pronounced the 17-year-old Inderkum High School student dead.

Nahal’s death made international news, and some early online reports in the Sikh media speculatively reported his death as “a possible hate crime.” Online commenters expressed fear that the incident signaled a wave of what’s to come under a President Trump, who has been widely accused of sympathizing with white nationalist and racist movements.

“When people elect a president not for his capability to govern, but capability to gimmick, such incidents will be common, and will be called stray ones and allowed to go unpunished,” one man wrote in the comment section of a Times of India report. “Leave USA soon, if you have a choice.”

It’s been more than a month since Nahal’s death, and police are still actively investigating the crime. They haven’t found a motive, suspects or enough evidence to characterize the homicide as a hate crime, but they’re not ruling one out.

“It’s an option, but we don’t know either way,” cautioned Officer Matt McPhail, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman.

The tragedy may have been hastily assigned a hateful motive, but the fear driving the rumors is real.

Amar Shergill, a Sacramento attorney and Sikh activist, understood the unease. In 2012, he coordinated an interfaith rally at the Capitol in response to the Oak Creek, Wis., massacre, where a white supremacist opened fire in a Sikh Temple and killed six people. Shergill also helped lead the community effort to build a new park in Elk Grove next year, constructed in the memory of Gurmej Singh Atwal and Surinder Singh. Both were shot and killed in 2011 during an afternoon walk on East Stockton Boulevard. The case remains unsolved, and city officials have expressed the belief that it was a hate crime.

Especially since 9/11, crimes against Sikhs have served as a sort of bellwether of rising Islamophobia in the nation. Even though they have no association with Islam, Sikhs have been mistakenly attacked by anti-Muslim extremists because of their complexions, turbans and beards.

But their group isn’t the only victim of mistaken-identity identity terrorism, which is why hate crime laws apply to the intent of the perpetrators—to account for an absurd reality in which bigots are too dumb to even get bigotry right.

Absurdity doesn’t make the world any less perilous, however, and caution is a Sikh way of life in the United States, Shergill said.

“If you’re a Sikh, you have grown up knowing that you are a target,” Shergill said. “We are always wary that our people are the subject of violence because of some hateful bigot.”

Shergill is in contact with Nahal’s family to set up a reward to find suspects. He also warned that it wouldn’t be responsible to connect the incident to a hateful motive until a suspect is found. But if we’re talking about fear, Shergill said there’s a sure culprit.

“There is plenty of clear evidence across the country that since Trump began his campaign, minorities have been targeted,” he said.

In the 10 days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted reports of 867 hate incidents across the country—compared to two during the same period following President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012.

The largest numbers were classified as anti-immigrant (280), anti-black (187) and anti-LGBT (95). The data was collected by submission to the SPLC’s website, and didn’t include instances of online harassment. Confirmed hoaxes were excluded, but the report admitted that not all the accounts could be verified.

The anecdotes were nonetheless shocking. A white man in Natick, Mass., received threatening letters warning him not to bring black people into his neighborhood. The first letter reportedly read, “We have just cleared the white house of niggers! Do not bring niggers in our neighborhood. … We will kill them.” A San Jose State University student reported being choked by a man who pulled her headscarf from behind in a parking garage. In Sarasosta, Fla., a 75-year-old gay man was taken from his car and attacked by an assailant who reportedly said, “You know my new president says we can kill all you faggots now.” Local media outlets described the attacker as a Hispanic man with a beard.

There have been local ripples since the election as well.

On November 26, the Davis Islamic Center received a threatening letter addressed to the “Children of Satan.”

“There’s a new sheriff in town—President Donald Trump,” it read. “He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.” The letter was signed “Americans for a Better Way.”

Several other mosques across the country received the same letter.

At a December 6 press conference, Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel clarified that the incident was not being investigated as a hate crime, since the letter contained no direct threats.

The area saw examples of hate speech in the months leading up to the election as well. On the morning after the Pulse gay nightclub shooting in June, a Sacramento Baptist pastor praised the massacre during a sermon, calling the 49 dead victims “pedophiles” and saying that “Orlando, Fla., is a little safer tonight.” In May, a white supremacist who distributed fliers calling for the extermination of Muslims and Mexicans was arrested for an unrelated probation violation.

By comparison, anti-Trump-inspired hate incidents were among the lowest reported to SPLC in the days after the election, at 23. In Chicago, a viral video circulated showing a white motorist being attacked by black teenagers. A woman who was possibly recording the video shouted, “Beat his ass! Don’t vote Trump!”

The SPLC recently updated its count of post-election hate incidents to 1,094 as of December 12, but also noted the pace had slowed.

Still, reasons for spikes in hate crimes and incidents are challenging to pin on Trump’s campaign, said Phyllis Gerstenfeld, chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Department at California State University, Stanislaus. It’s tough to get an accurate national pulse when looking at existing data, which can be too old, and too easily skewed by a single event, like the San Bernardino terrorist attack last year.

“We’re going to have to wait a year to see on that,” said Gerstenfeld, who’s studied hate crimes for more than two decades. “We’re certainly hearing more from extremist groups that have felt validated by the election results, but whether there’s more going on, or the media is covering them more, we don’t know.”

The FBI counted 5,850 nationwide hate crime incidents last year, according to its most recent statistics released in November. It reported a 6 percent increase in single-bias incidents (5,818) compared to 2014 (5,462). Multiple-bias incidents, in which someone was targeted for belonging to more than one protected class, meanwhile, rose from 17 to 32.

This included 24 hate crimes in Sacramento County, with city police reporting a third of them.

The national majority of FBI-tracked offenses involved intimidation (26.9 percent), destruction/damage/vandalism (24.7 percent) and simple assault (24.6 percent). The majority of offenders were white (48.4 percent) and African-American (24.3 percent).

The most common racial, sexual and religious biases were against African-Americans, gay males and Jews, respectively, a stable trend since the FBI began tabulating these reports in 1991, Gerstenfeld said.

But the FBI data is also unreliable, due to underreporting for several reasons. First, classifying a hate crime is challenging to begin with.

On December 22, for instance, Jeffrey Michael Caylor was sentenced to life in prison following a first-degree murder conviction for gunning down a Muslim man in a Home Depot parking lot on Florin Road two years ago. Although witnesses said Caylor made anti-Muslim comments prior to the shooting, prosecutors didn’t charge a hate crime enhancement.

Part of the difficulty with tying a hateful bias to a crime is that investigators have to make subjective determinations, Gerstenfeld said. “They require you to make a guess about the offender’s motive, which is problematic,” she said.

Secondly, the FBI gets its data from local agencies, and not every department is equal when it comes to identifying and submitting hate crimes. Out of the 14,997 agencies that participated in the survey, about 88 percent of them reported zero in 2015. An additional 2,700 agencies haven’t participated at all in the last six years, according to an Associated Press report from June.

California reported the highest number of hate crimes statewide (837) in 2015, while Mississippi reported zero. A larger state population leads to bigger numbers, but California police departments are also generally better equipped to identify these sorts of crimes, Gerstenfeld said. Some cities, like San Francisco, even have designated hate crime units.

Finally, most victims don’t report. An estimated 60 percent of hate crimes went unreported to the police in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice’s latest Hate Crime Victimization report, released in 2014.

The FBI reports are “highly unreliable in that regard, and they always have been,” Gerstenfeld said.

At best, the FBI data can be useful for general trends, Gerstenfeld said. Including, she pointed out: Hate crimes have actually declined over the years. The FBI reports show an estimated 24 percent decline in reported incidents, from 7,722 in 2006 to 5,850 in 2015.

The hateful comments and actions by Trump and some of his supporters still represent a minority, Gerstenfeld said. Another possible silver lining: Racism in the U.S. is not transpiring in the dark anymore.

“In the past, you could have talked to a lot of straight white Christians that would tell you that racism doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “You’d have to be really blind to say that now.”

But not everyone thinks things are getting better.

The California chapter of the Center for American-Islamic Relations reported a 71 percent spike in anti-Muslim bias incidents between 2014 (115) and 2015 (197), according to a report released in July. The civil rights advocacy group based its numbers on direct reports to the organization, said Masih Fouladi, a CAIR Los Angeles civil rights attorney. The FBI reported a similar 67 percent uptick in anti-Muslim hate crimes between 2014 (154) and last year (257).

Fouladi attributed the rise to two factors: biased mainstream media reports that generated hostility toward Muslims following the San Bernardino and Paris terrorist attacks at the end of last year, and fearmongering by Republican candidates during the election.

“Whether it’s Trump saying that we’re going to ban all Muslims until we figure out what’s going on, or Ben Carson saying that there should be a litmus test for Muslims running for president, people are much more empowered to follow through with their anger and resentment toward the Muslim community,” Fouladi said. “It seems we’re going backwards instead of forward.”

Berry Accius, a Sacramento activist and founder of the Voice of the Youth mentorship program, doesn’t see the silver lining, either. Instead, he said that race relations in the United States have reached a boiling point.

He noted the neo-Nazi rally at the Capitol steps in June, where seven people were stabbed and 10 were injured in a bloody brawl between members of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white-nationalist political group, and hundreds of protestors.

“That doesn’t tell you the pulse of where we are?” Accius asked rhetorically.

The FBI stats also don’t account for systemic racism, he said.

“I’ve traveled across this United States, and every Martin Luther King Boulevard is a hood,” Accius said. “When I see the disproportionate number of black men and women in prison and in poverty, you don’t have to tell me that racism is still alive. What, because we have LeBron James and a black president, now this world’s not racist?””

Accius said that closet racists have been emboldened for three reasons: unpunished police brutality, social media and the election of Trump.

“Society, right now, is saying ‘do as you want, because you may get away with it,'” Accius contended.

With less than a month away from Trump’s inauguration on January 20, Sacramento activists are taking a defensive stance in their communities. A protest organized by a local chapter of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition garnered some 200 people to march down Broadway on December 10, Human Rights Day. A cartoon banner of Trump, which read “The People Are United Against Racism” in Spanish, was met with car horns, pedestrian applause and one street-side heckler.

To Jamier Sale, an A.N.S.W.E.R. organizer, the protests serve two functions in this post-election climate: to remind victims of hate that they’re not alone, and to counter a rising, racist movement that he believes is emboldened by Trump.

“At the end of the day, they’re the minority, and these protests are about showing those forces that it’s not okay to preach hate,” Sale said.

Sale and Accius will be among those flying to Washington, D.C., to join A.N.S.W.E.R.’s larger march at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Around 20,000 people have RSVP’d to the January 20 march, according to the group’s website. Thousands more are organizing demonstrations in support of the president-elect, including members of Bikers For Trump, a national group that has over 160,000 followers on Facebook. The bikers are expected to ride from across the country to a demonstration at John Marshall Park, just off the parade route.

One of the largest demonstrations, the Women’s March on Washington, is scheduled for the day after Trump’s inauguration, with around 200,000 attendees reportedly expected in D.C. Local versions are slated nationwide, including a Women’s March on Sacramento, which may draw some 7,000 people to the Capitol Building on Inauguration Day, according to its Facebook event page.

While the Women’s March obtained a permit to protest, groups like A.N.S.W.E.R. haven’t yet. The National Parks Service has secured the most prominent spots for activities organized by the Trump Inauguration Committee during the ceremony, as well as in the weeks before and after it, in an attempt to block protestors from acquiring permits to highly symbolic spaces like the Lincoln Memorial, Constitution Avenue and The Ellipse park.

A.N.S.W.E.R. leaders have said they will protest with or without permits.

“It’s going be a fight,” Accius said.