“You strike a match and everything goes up in flames,” says Pramila Jayapal who heads the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington. “That’s what 9/11 felt like to me. It provided the opportunity for all of the ignorance and hate to come out.” The day of the World Trade Center attacks a sign reading “Death to all Palestinians” was hung on the West Seattle Bridge. On September 13, a man doused the Idris Mosque with gasoline. The next day, a Somali Muslim woman was jumped at a parking lot by three men, and a Sikh taxi driver was attacked by a man who accused him of being a terrorist.
Reports of hate crimes against perceived Arabs and Muslims have proliferated across the country since the attacks. The Washington, D.C.-based Council on American Islamic Relations reports that by October 22, there had been a total of 959 documented hate crimes against Muslims. The figure includes 226 physical assaults and/or property damage, 168 reports of hate mail, 101 incidents of intimidation by the FBI, INS or police officers, 105 incidents of discrimination in the workplace, 96 reports of airport profiling, and five deaths.
A new coalition in Seattle, Washington has sprung from the turmoil of 9/11 and set its sights on hate crimes legislation. “It was pretty clear there was going to be targeting of individuals who were or perceived to be Muslim or Arab, as well as South Asian communities,” says Eric Ward, one of the members of the coalition. The Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington has rallied communities of color in Seattle to apply pressure to local politicians and officials to pass a bill ensuring the establishment of hate free zones.
Within days of beginning their campaign, the coalition persuaded public officials to declare Washington State a hate free zone at a press conference, sponsored and attended by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D–Washington), Washington Governor Gary Locke, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, and other city and county officials. The city of Seattle passed its own resolution decrying hate crimes soon afterwards. “We knew that by getting elected officials and community leaders to speak out…people would not feel that they had permission to act out their own bigotry,” says Ward.
The coalition is currently focused on getting the Seattle City Council to adopt an ordinance that would allocate resources to activities that promote an anti-hate agenda. Training police units in culturally appropriate responses, instituting an anti-bias curriculum in public schools, and working with the department of health to improve and expand social services for targeted communities will form the core activities. Members of the coalition hope to have a law in place by December, and will turn the campaign’s attention to a statewide version when the state legislature returns to session in January.
The coalition, whose mission is to establish Seattle and Washington State as hate free zones, brings together some twenty organizations in the metropolitan area. Its member organizations include the Arab American Center of Washington, Asian Counseling and Referral Services, the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, the South Asian Bar Association, and the Japanese American Citizens League.
Jayapal says there are efforts across the country that have organized a response to the national climate, but she does not know of any other statewide initiatives against hate crimes. “To bring together such a broad-based coalition of organizations from different ethnic and religious communities, politicians, and government agencies is very unusual,” she explains. Ward adds that in the Puget Sound area a culture of resistance to white supremacist movements has developed over the last 15 years. Despite this anti-hate tradition, Ward warns that communities should be conscious of potential wedge issues that may pose a threat to coalition-building.
“We have to be clear that bias crimes did not just start on 9/11. Physical targeting because of bias is part of the history of the United States,” says Ward. “When we begin talking about the profiling and the targeting of Arabs and Muslims, we need to be aware that this has been happening to the black community for a long time. And when we talk about the attack on immigrants, we have to be clear who suffers from that the most–Latino and Chicano communities. We have to be sure that we are linking these issues.”
“I think people of color are sitting down together in this campaign and finding that no one group really owns the table. We’re trying to figure out how to work together,” Ward adds. “It’s an amazing opportunity to get to know one another, not just by sitting around and talking, but by rolling up our sleeves and working together.”
Samantha Chanse is a ColorLines staff writer.