The Sacramento Regional Coalition for Tolerance calls for strength in numbers
The Sacramento Regional Coalition for Tolerance aims to address and prevent hate crimes and bullying
Gurmej Atwal and Surinder Singh were just taking their regular daily stroll on the afternoon of March 4, 2011 when the two elderly friends were gunned down.
Their shooters were never apprehended, which meant that, technically, officials couldn’t classify the killings as a hate crime. But since the men, both of whom were Sikhs, wore turbans and long beards, many in the community suspected the killings were racially motivated. In the wake of 9/11, after all, Sikhs have increasingly become the victims of numerous hate crimes directed at Muslims.
After the shootings, members of the Elk Grove community came together to denounce the incident and mourn with the victims’ families. It also marked one of the first times the Sacramento Regional Coalition for Tolerance offered its support and resources, too.
The group had formed several months earlier when Susie Wong, board member of the Sacramento chapter of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, and Susan McKee, district director at Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg’s office, realized something had to be done to address repeat occurrences of hate crimes in the area. According to a report from the Criminal Justice Statistics Center, incidents of hate crimes in Sacramento County had jumped from 44 offenses in 2009 to 54 in 2010.
“All these different civil rights and social justice organizations wanted to help when they would see a hate crime occur in somebody else’s community,” says Wong. “It was obvious that we’d have a much bigger impact and be able to support each other if an incident happened.”
As part of National Bullying Prevention Month, the group, which meets quarterly and attends funerals of those who are victims of hate crimes, will host its second annual Youth Rally Against Bullying on Saturday, October 11, at the Capitol. With speakers, various cultural performers and information booths, the event aims to educate the public about bullying and hate crimes.
The two are closely intertwined, says Wong.
“We see hate crimes and see bullying among youth that eventually can actually become very vicious,” says Wong.
And sometimes very, very dangerous.
After the firebombings of three local Jewish synagogues in the summer of 1999, the murder of a gay couple in Redding, and then two more firebombings—one of a women’s clinic and then a rural legal-assistance clinic—many Sacramentans became all too familiar with the term “hate crime.”
In the wake of those tragedies, it also became clear to some that members of the community needed to come together and create something positive. Steinberg, then a California state assemblyman, and 29 other prominent Sacramentans forged the Capital Unity Council in 1999. For nearly a decade after, the nonprofit group had dozens of board members, held events, and tried to raise funds for a Unity Center. But then the recession hit, the community center never happened and the group ultimately disbanded in 2012.
By then, however, right before another wave of high-profile hate crimes—starting with the killings of the two Sikh grandfathers in 2011—the SRCT had already stepped in to fill a similar need for the community.
“It’s a forum for sharing information, really,” said McKee, who—as a staffer in Steinberg’s office—was also involved in the first group, “and it kind of takes the place of what we had originally envisioned the Unity Council would do before it fell apart.”
Among the dozens of groups that have become close through the coalition: the Interfaith Service Bureau of Sacramento, the Slavic American Chamber of Commerce, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the NAACP. Local law enforcement departments, the FBI and the United States Attorneys’ Office often sit in on the meetings, too.
“The Sikh tradition is one of community service, and one of the principles that we are the most proud of is that we will sacrifice to defend others of different faith communities, just as much—if not more—as our own,” says Amar Shergill, board member of the Sikh Temple of Sacramento, which is part of the SRCT.
Those values actually align closely with the entire group’s.
For example, when a gay man named Seth Parker, then 26, was attacked outside Elk Grove’s Pins N Strikes bowling alley in June 2011, members of the Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Asian, Pacific Islander, and other communities on the SRCT stepped up, offering a reward to find the attacker. About a day later, they located the assailant, who pleaded guilty to the hate crime and was sentenced to three years in prison.
It’s not just about apprehending someone after a crime is committed, however, it’s about changing the culture.
Shergill—also a lawyer who’s represented a number of families in the Sacramento area that are victims of hate crimes—says education is key.
“What’s important is we educate children, parents, teachers, administrators on the best practices when it comes to bullying on campuses,” he said. “And if you continue to reinforce that, the way you reinforce many other things at schools, it becomes part of the culture.”
Specifically, members of SRCT have helped shape the culture in concrete ways. In fact there were two bills, AB 1156 and AB 9, which were presented by their authors—Assembly members Mike Eng and Tom Ammiano, respectively—to coalition members at an SRCT meeting before they both were signed into law in 2011. Both policies aim to reduce intimidation, harassment and bullying.
The Sikh community in particular is constantly reminded of the challenges of hate crimes and bullying because Sikh youth look different, says Shergill. But, the reality is that everyone needs to know how to respond to it.
“Education doesn’t just mean making people aware of the problem; it really means—it might more importantly mean—giving children the skills to deal with bullying, how to recognize it when it’s happening to you, how to effectively help others when it’s happening to them,” says Shergill. “Parents, teachers, administrators can’t be everywhere all the time. So you need to go over there and teach kids and help them help themselves also.”
Besides, SRCT has had to respond from ignorance from adults, too.
After the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April 2013, Sergey Terebkov, founder and president of the Slavic American Chamber of Commerce, didn’t stop getting calls from members of the media who mistakenly confused the suspected bombers as being Slavic.
“Even the most knowledgeable, sophisticated folks can be really ignorant about things,” McKee said.
Eventually Wong collected statements from both the Slavic American Chamber of Commerce and the Council of American-Islamic Relations, and issued a joint press release.
“It was basically saying no one should be judged based on their geographic origin or their cultural background, and that they don’t support or condone this type of violence,” she said.
Saturday’s rally at the Capitol is aimed at education and outreach, too. But, more than that, the event could empower kids to feel like they can actually make a difference.
That’s what happened to some kids last year, Shergill noted.
“They came to realize that bullying is not something that’s exclusive to their school, or their individual experience, but the whole community cares about it,” says Shergill. “And when children realize that adults in the community care about something, they feel emboldened to fight against it, and that’s the most powerful thing about this event, and the whole anti-bullying campaign.
“We make kids feel like it’s something they can fight against.”