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How ‘Un-American’ are Peter King’s Congressional hearings?

On Friday, March 4, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down without provocation while they were out for a casual stroll in a suburb of Sacramento. One of them, Surinder Singh (67), died immediately while his friend Gurmej Atwal (78), who was shot twice in the chest, is said to be in critical condition. The police who are investigating the attack have called on any witnessed to come forward and said that while they are still searching for evidence, there is a high probability that the there was a “hate or bias motivation for the crime.” This unfortunate attack took place just days before Rep. Peter King (R-NY) began his controversial House Homeland Security Committee hearings on the “The Extent of Radicalization” among American Muslims. With the upcoming 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the endless spate of hate crimes against minority groups, it is difficult to ignore the implications that this Congressional hearing will have on the future of this country.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  heightened national security measures and increased suspicion of immigrant communities have placed a harsh spotlight on Muslim Americans as well as the wider South Asian and Arab American communities, deeply impacting the ways in which these communities are perceived and damaging their sense of national identity.

The first of the King hearings took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. Rep. Peter King said that he initiated these hearings in response to a string of arrests in 2010 concerning Muslim Americans who were connected to intercepted plots against American targets. In an interview with the Associated Press, King stated-

There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.

The committee yesterday heard from a panel of witnesses that argued for and against the premise of the hearings. Those who argued that the country needs to be more vigilant about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community included Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and Navy veteran who called on his fellow Muslims to be more outspoken against radical Islam, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American activist whose nephew joined a militant group in Somalia and was subsequently killed in 2009. During the hearing, the most pointed questions against the premise came from Representatives who raised concerns over why other extremist groups – affiliated with various religions – were not even being considered by King and his committee. Speaking to the press after the hearing yesterday, King called it a success, emphasizing that the purpose was to “inform, not to inflame.”

The run-up to the hearings saw a very polarized response, with groups like Fox News expressing substantial support for them, while human rights advocates consistently condemned them. The greatest criticism of the hearings was not that extremist acts of terror pose a threat to national security and need to be investigated, but that King’s approach is biased and isolationist. The criticism holds that by scapegoating a community based on their religious affiliation, the King hearings will have widespread repercussions on how American Muslims will be perceived by the wider public. For a community that is already the subject of suspicion and profiling, the Congressional hearings, by calling for greater accountability for American Muslims above any other group, has very real implications for community identity, public perception, integration and collective healing.

One of the most vocal opponents of the hearings is the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that Peter King has accused of conspiring with radical Islamist groups. In addition to asserting their identity as a peaceful organization, CAIR said that they would have supported the hearings if they were “balanced and fair.” Also opposing King’s approach to the issue is the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that stated in their 2010 annual report on “hate and extremism” that the “radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,” as the number of hate groups topped 1,000.

A number of critics also held that this kind of focalized criticism of a specific community could result in the loss of trust these groups have towards law enforcement agencies and the government, impeding the work of law enforcement and thus work against ensuring the safety of all communities. At the hearing, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, gave an emotional testimony about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who was under suspicion for being involved with the attacks even as died trying to help victims on September 11, 2001. Breaking into tears, Ellison described -

After the tragedy…some people tried to smear his character … solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

This anecdote, from an event still fresh in public memory, highlights the deeply damaging impact that continued demonization of an entire religious group can and does have on people’s lives. Moreover, by coming from an institutionalized source such as the House of Representatives (despite a marked distance by the Obama administration), the hearings put out a very strong message to the American public, and need to be understood for the authority that they wield. Even after Rep. King diluted his more aggressive original agenda, the hearings signal and amplify a deep sense of suspicion towards one group of Americans. Especially when ratified by the political leaders of the country, such trends pose a threat to the fundamental American principles of dignity and respect towards everyone. And that, perhaps, is a bigger threat to national security, especially in these testing times.

For a lighter, yet insightful take on King’s track record and alleged hypocrisy in this issue, watch Jon Stewart’s analysis of the hearings here:

Photo courtesy of www.upi.com

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Bloodshed in Arizona turns spotlight on political landscape of anger and hate

As Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona battles for her life after an assassination attempt, the nation is trying to grapple with the violent tragedy that took the lives of 6 and wounded 14 people on Saturday morning, casting a dark shadow on the start of this year. On the morning of January 8th, while U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was meeting with constituents at a ‘Congress on Your Corner’ event at a local shopping center in Tuscon, a gunman opened fire on the gathering. Within seconds, Congresswoman Giffords was shot in the head at point blank range, along with 19 others including Christina Green, a 9-year old girl, Phyllis Schneck, a grandmother from New Jersey and 76-year old Dorwan Stoddard, who lived a mile from the grocery store.

A suspect was apprehended at the scene after two men pinned him to the ground and waited for the police to arrive. The suspect, 22-year old Jared Lee Loughner, has been charged with five federal counts on Sunday, including the attempted assassination of a Member of Congress, and the killing and attempted killings of four other government employees including John M. Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, who was killed, Gabriel Zimmerman, a Congressional aide, who was also killed, and Pamela Simon and Ron Barber, Congressional aides who were wounded. Mr. Loughner could face the death penalty if convicted.

Investigators found evidence at Jared Loughner’s residence in Southern Arizona to show that he had planned the attack on Gabrielle Giffords, including an envelope on which the words “I planned ahead,” “My assassination” and “Giffords” were written. In addition to a website linked to his name which contains anti-government writings, Mr. Loughner’s motives for committing the crime remain unclear. In spite of indications that Mr. Loughner is mentally ill, the tragic incident has quickly focused attention on the degree to which a political climate increasingly characterized by hate, fear and vitriolic rhetoric might be complicit in leading to a tragedy of this nature.

In a New York Times editorial written after the Arizona shootings, Paul Krugman refers to an internal report brought out by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 that warned of the violence that could accompany the growth of extremist rhetoric that was apparent in the political landscape. The last few years have also seen a growth in the numbers of threats against government officials. In 2010, following the health-care overhaul, Capitol Security officials had said that threats of violence against Congress officials, including death threats, harassment and vandalism, had tripled from the previous year. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a strong and vocal supporter of heath-care reform had her district office door smashed with a bullet following the health-care vote. Judge John Roll, who was killed on Saturday, had received thousands of threatening messages and phone calls after he had allowed undocumented immigrants to proceed with a case in which a rancher had assaulted 16 Mexicans who had crossed through his land.

While it would be misguided to directly attribute the Loughner’s violent actions to the surge of inflammatory language characterizing politics and media, it is important to understand that there are real consequences to framing political discourse through violent rhetoric. The extent to which hateful and angry rhetoric has made its way into mainstream politics was evident in 2010, during the debate around Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law, SB1070, and during the 2010 mid-term elections, where campaign ads openly promoted hate and divisive sentiments. In March 2010, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin announced a target list of Congressional candidates to be defeated in the 2010 midterm election. Launched through her personal profile on Facebook, Palin’s “Don’t get Demoralized. Get Organized. Take Back the 20” campaign was symbolized by a map of the country which had crosshairs over the districts represented by candidates that she wanted defeated. Ms. Giffords, who was among the candidates marked on this map, had expressed her concern about it at the time-

We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.

At a press conference about the shootings on Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik spoke about the “vitriol” that characterized political discourse. Saying that it was time for the country to do a little “soul-searching” he said-

The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

There is never an explanation for senseless acts of violence such as this that take the lives of innocent people. While Saturday’s shooting can be seen as an isolated action of a mentally ill individual, it can also be seen as emblematic of a political landscape that is angry, divisive, intolerant and eliminationist. Can this tragic incident become the pivotal turning point towards a more humane and peaceful political discourse?

Photo courtesy of examiner.com

Jury Rules Immigrant’s Murder a Hate Crime, Even as Vicious Ads Continue to Stoke Racial Tensions

Guest Blogger: Jackie Mahendra from America’s Voice.

While the mainstream media has been largely absent, Latina Lista has been busy covering the dramatic trial of the two men charged with the hate crime killing of immigrant Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pa. It turns out the 2008 murder was, indeed, a hate crime.

A federal grand jury has convicted the two Pennsylvania men, in a verdict that many argue was long overdue.

On July 14, 2008, Ramirez was beaten to death by a group of teenagers who yelled racial epithets throughout the killing.  A retired Philadelphia police officer said she heard one of the defendants yell to Mr. Ramirez’s friends, “Tell your [expletive] Mexican friends to get the [expletive] out of Shenandoah or you’ll be [expletive] laying next to him.”  Defendants were reported to have yelled, “Go back to Mexico” as they beat him to death.

Despite the evidence, an all-white jury found two of the defendants “not guilty” of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation last year, to cheers in the courtroom and the astonishment of the Latino community.  The Federal government took up the case and finally justice was served.

Yet, two years after Ramirez’ gruesome murder, we continue to see egregious examples of race-baiting and immigrant bashing for political gain. This campaign season, a number of candidates are running race-baiting campaign ads that demonize immigrants. They use extreme, anti-immigrant rhetoric instead of offering real solutions to our immigration crisis.  Republican Senate candidates David Vitter (R-LA) and Sharron Angle of Nevada are both running anti-immigrant ads that paint Latinos as dangerous criminals, freeloaders, and the enemies of “real” Americans.

The FBI reports that hate crimes against Latinos rose 32% between 2003 and 2008 (the last year for which data is available), and groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented a correlation between anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-Latino violence.

According to Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice:

Hateful campaign ads and rhetoric that demonize immigrants have no place in America today.  It’s as if some politicians think there is no cost for immigrant-bashing.  Well they are wrong.  This type of rhetoric creates a climate where violent crimes are committed against human beings simply because of the color of their skin.  Yesterday’s verdict in the Luis Ramirez murder is just, but it’s not nearly enough.  Politicians and pundits must stop using immigrants as scapegoats and instead use their microphones to spread a message of tolerance, humanity, and the need for common sense immigration reform.

In light of this tragic case, we believe it’s time for politicians and pundits to end the hateful rhetoric and immigrant bashing that has created a hostile climate for Latinos and encouraged hate crimes like the murder of Mr. Ramirez. Luis Ramirez lost his life because of the unaccountable, incendiary, and out-of-control immigration debate in this country.

Politicians who stoke racial fears and hatred need to realize that their rhetoric has severe — but not unforeseen– consequences.

The ruling on Luis Ramirez’ murder should serve as a wake-up call to those who refuse to end the politics of division and fear.

Photo courtesy of americasvoiceonline.org

A spotlight on race relations brings change in small ways

November 7th 2009 marked one year from the day that Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, was killed in the Long Island suburb of Patchogue. But rather than act as a stand-alone instance, the act of violence put a national spotlight on race relations and has emerged as one among dozens of cases of violence against Latinos in Suffolk County over the past ten years.

A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that follows hate groups across the country, found that these attacks were spurred by an atmosphere of racism and fear fostered by anti-immigrant groups and local officials.

Latino immigrants in Suffolk County live in fear…Political leaders in the county have done little to discourage the hatred, and some have actively fanned the flames…Although Lucero’s murder represented the apex of anti-immigration violence in Suffolk County to date, it was hardly an isolated incident.

In one example cited, Michael M. D’Andre, a county legislator from Smithtown, at a 2001 hearing on a bill to penalize contractors who hire undocumented workers said that if his town were “attacked” by an influx of Hispanic day laborers, “we’ll be up in arms, we’ll be out with baseball bats.” He later apologized for his remark.

On November 7th 2008, 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero was walking with a friend near Patchogue train station at midnight, when they were surrounded by a group of teens. Lucero’s friend managed to get away but he was unable to do so and after attempting to fend off the attacks with his belt, he was stabbed to death by 18-year-old Jeffrey Conroy. Lucero had lived in the U.S. for 16 years at the time of his death.

Following the arrest of the teens accused of Lucero’s death, a number of Hispanic residents from the area began to come forward with personal stories of acts of hatred and intolerance. It emerged that many of the victims were too scared of being questioned about their immigration status to come forward and tell local police about the attacks. According to a New York Times article,

Many Latino immigrants in Suffolk say they have been beaten with baseball bats and other objects, attacked with BB guns and pepper spray, and been the victims of arson. Latinos, it added, are frequently run off the road while riding bicycles or pelted with objects hurled from cars.

Two weeks ago one of the accused, Nicholas Hausch, finally admitted to participating in the assault, while also testifying against the others accused (who continue to plead not-guilty to the offense), talking about how he and his friends took part in numerous similar attacks against Hispanics. They would scour the streets of their town looking for potential targets, referring to the the “hobby” as “beaner hopping.”

Jose, Kevin and I started popping and Jose punched him so hard he knocked him out,” Anthony Hartford told police, according to prosecutors. Hartford said he didn’t do it often: “Maybe only once a week.”

The incident also allowed for dialogue to emerge around race relations. A short film “Taught to Hate” whose message is to stop hate crimes in America and all over the World was inspired by what happened to Marcelo. And a performance, “After Grief and Anger — Healing and Change” was created in an effort to promote better understanding between Latinos and non-Latinos in the area.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times