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A SMART Move
A SMART Move
Washington, DC, USA - The hate crimes bill which has been in the works since post-9/11 may still be passed by Congress as Sikh organizations continue to work with other civil rights groups to encourage its passage.
Preetmohan Singh, SALDEF National Director, told SikhNN that although the press had reported the hate crimes bill - called the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, proposed to expand protection to victims of hate crime, and provide financial support for state and local investigations and prosecutions of hate crimes - was defeated in Congress, it actually has not come up for a vote yet. Singh was optimistic though that the bill still may be passed by Congress in the near future.
This summer, the U.S. Senate amended the defense authorization bill to include a strong hate crimes measure – the LLEEA - on a bipartisan vote of 65-33 with 18 Republicans voting in favor. On a procedural vote in September, the House voted in favor of keeping the hate crimes measure in the defense authorization bill by a bipartisan vote of 213-186. However, the provision was stripped in conference committee by a few Congressional leaders who blocked the measure.
According to the FBI report "Hate Crime Statistics 2003," 8,715 criminal offenses were identified as being motivated by hate. Offenses based on race accounted for the highest category of bias crime at 52.5 percent. The third highest category is crimes based on religion at 16.4 percent.
SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund), formerly known as SMART (Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Taskforce), brought together seasoned civil rights activists last month to mark the official changing of its name to reflect the current efforts of the organization. The panelists discussed topics ranging from historical events affecting various minority communities to civil rights issues in the post 9/11 world.
Michael Liberman, Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights Policy Planning Center, talked about how the Jewish community began its fight for civil rights in 1913 when a Jew, Leo Frank, was convicted and later lynched for a murder he did not commit. Anti-Semitism was rampant in American society at that time when a lawyer named Sigmund Livingston started the ADL with only two desks in his Chicago office, $200 and the sponsorship of the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith. Today the ADL works together with other civil rights organizations to form a more powerful collective voice for civil rights. Liberman recalled the time when he went to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) with SMART to discuss the harassment of Sikhs at airports after 9/11. In his words, “It makes a difference in response when SMART shows up with a sea of turbans.”
Ben Jealous, Director of the US Domestic Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, talked about working “in parallel” with the Sikh community. His emphasized the fallacies of racial profiling. “This is an issue we should have gotten over a long time ago,” he said. As an example, Jealous recalled that when someone attempted to shoot former President Gerald Ford, the authorities profiled a Caucasian man. But the would-be assassin turned out to be a woman. “Take race, color and gender out of the equation and we will all be safer.” The authorities didn’t profile young Caucasian men when Timothy McVeigh was convicted of the second largest terrorist attack in the US, he added.
Mary Rose Oakar, former Representative from Ohio and President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League, reminded everyone that minorities could not have come as far as they have without their representative organizations. She called them “the extension of the people.” Oakar recalled an important turning point for her community that occurred during the ABSCAM scandal – an FBI sting operation in 1980 in which members of Congress were caught taking bribes. The offensive part was that they used an ‘Arab sheik’ as the mole. “Why would they characterize an entire ethnic group as being crooked?” When the ADL pointed this out, the US government made a commitment not to use ethnics as negative characters. “Profiling of Arabs was same as profiling of Jews, Blacks and Japanese.” Sikhs are also on that list now. Oakar went on to say, “I think there is a painful ignorance in my beloved US about cultures. The problem is perception. It is no fun to be targeted. We must work together.”
Only one question was asked of the panelists: “When and how can Sikhs cross over from stereotyping to being accepted?”
Mary Rose Oakar said, “Make yourself known in a way that affects public policy.” Michael Lieberman said, “Your goal should be zero instances against you. Push back in the face of discrimination and ignorance.” Ben Jealous said, “Every ethnic group had a pattern of being beaten down and standing up. Catholics had JFK, Blacks had Rosa Parks – there may be that kind of moment for the Sikhs.”
Note: The first picture shows a poster created by SALDEF that was widely distributed throughout the Department of Justice showing the various head coverings of Sikh Americans.
For more information about SALDEF, see www.saldef.org.
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