Aneelah Afzali, a Harvard law graduate who is the executive director of MAPS-AMEN (Muslim Association of Puget Sound-American Muslim Empowerment Network), talks at the forum. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Community leaders discuss hate crimes at forum

Hate crimes should never be tolerated in neighborhoods and residents are urged to report them.

That was the clear message law enforcement leaders delivered to a concerned group of people who gathered for a public forum on the topic at the Khasla Gurmat Center in Renton last Saturday afternoon.

“These types of incidents escalate,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Siddharth Velamoor, a guest panelist who fielded questions from the crowd. “If the smallest acts, which might not even be criminal or might be criminal under state law, not federal law, are allowed to happen, then bigger things could happen in the future.

“It is really important that you report it early on. Don’t hesitate about bringing it to our attention,” Velamoor said. “I can’t emphasis it enough. It doesn’t happen enough.

“If you’re uncomfortable talking to law enforcement, then talk to your school counselor, and if it’s in a religious setting, see your leader who might have a connection with somebody in law enforcement,” Velamoor said. “If there is some way that you can tell somebody about it, then we can take action. Think about that in your daily life as you move forward.”

Law enforcement officials joined community and faith leaders and representatives of organizations and agencies that offer problem-treating resources at the forum organized by the Sikh Coalition. Experts took turns addressing the problem of hate crimes and discrimination and offered ways residents can approach and respond to them in their neighborhoods, workplaces and schools.

The country has witnessed a recent stream of hate crimes. According to the FBI, Seattle alone reported more hate crimes than 33 states in 2015.

Closer to home, FBI and Kent Police are trying to solve a shooting that injured a Sikh man in front of his East Hill home last month.

Federal and local law enforcement leaders said steps will continue to be made to protect witnesses and victims of hate crimes. Police chiefs Ken Thomas (Kent) and Kevin Milosevich (Renton) and the FBI’s Gregory Leiman also reiterated that a person’s immigration status would not be questioned during the criminal process.

In response to hate crimes, the Sikh community is working to offer new advocacy and diversity initiatives, as well as investments in public training programs for responding to incidents.

“The community wants to figure this out and address it head on, not try to sweep it under the carpet,” said Jasmit Singh, of the Sikh Coalition. “That’s the honest conversation that we can have.”

The conversation brought perspectives from faith and community leaders of different ethnic groups. The Kent shooting has shaken many.

“What affects one person, affects us all. The incident in your community stirs up old wounds. The wounds never get an opportunity to heal,” said The Rev. Linda Smith, a Church Council of Greater Seattle board member and longtime Renton resident. “It’s hurtful and difficult to put your hands around it.”

Aneelah Afzali, a Harvard law graduate who is the executive director of MAPS-AMEN (Muslim Association of Puget Sound-American Muslim Empowerment Network), urges open conversation among leaders, education and training for police officers who deal with hate crimes, the importance of building relationships and the need to dispel misconceptions about Muslim Americans.

“We need to be coming together during these times,” Afzali said. “We have not just faith leaders, but we have community leaders, law enforcement, elected officials all coming together of different faiths, ethnic backgrounds and saying that basically an attack on one is an attack on all. … We will not stand for this. … We stand against this type of anger, hatred and violence.

“We need to come together and talk about how we stand together, united against hate,” Afzali said. “We need to talk about solutions. What can we do to adjust this?”

On a national scale, a subcommittee of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety has recently been created to combat hate crimes.

Federal and local resources are also available to help prevent hate incidents and discrimination.

For instance, the DOJ’s Community Relations Service (usdoj.gov/crs) serves a “peacemaker” for community conflicts and tensions. The Anti-Defamation League, civil rights organizations, community agencies and schools offer resources to help prevent and treat incidents.

“I look forward to local governments, where the action is, being able to take leadership roles in having the conversations and the engagement within our communities,” said Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke. “This is the time for all of us to make sure we are visible with each other and truly mix it up.”

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