Students organize to raise awareness of hate crimes.
By Sandeep Acharya and Vivek Arora
An American flag should never be waved in fear.
Yet in businesses and homes across the nation, Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans have had to do just that. In order to protect themselves. In order to prove their loyalty. In order to show that they are American.
Perhaps Balbir Sodhi should have been wearing the American flag when he was shot and killed in Arizona. Maybe the mosques and temples across the nation that are facing threats and destruction should prominently display the Red, White, and Blue. But shouldn’t the existence of these “different” people and institutions be tribute enough to a nation whose greatest asset is its freedom of religion and its diversity?
Shouldn’t it be enough that we have to mourn attacks made on our motherland, without also having to fear retribution from our brothers? And if the terrorists wanted to take the heart of America, then haven’t we helped them succeed by turning against each other?
These were just some of the questions that we wanted to ask the people who have committed hate crimes. But living in the bubble known as the University of Pennsylvania was, as is often the case, a mixed blessing. On one hand, we have not really been afraid of being attacked or harassed. On the other hand, it put us in a helpless position by distancing us from the events that have been occurring.
When I found out on Monday, September 17, that a temple 15 minutes away from my home in New Jersey was firebombed the previous Thursday, I (Sandeep) felt helpless and upset. But more than that, I felt afraid for my parents, who were staying at a temple near Allentown, Pennsylvania, for two weeks to study Hindu scriptures. Certain members of the local community did not appreciate the temple’s presence. I asked myself, What if they decide to take matters into their own hands?
But what stunned us more than anything was how little media attention the attacks were receiving. We completely understood that the media was quite busy covering the events of the tragedy on September 11. We were grateful that President Bush visited a mosque to show his support, and that the House passed a resolution condemning hate crimes. But what if hate crimes kept occurring and the public was not made aware of them?
We felt that we needed to make sure that the local and national media gave at least some coverage to the hate crimes and the opinions of the affected communities, if not to appeal to the people who committed the hate crimes, then to the general public. If coverage could not stop hate crimes directly, it could at least control them by raising a public outcry.
The temple-bombing incident on Monday night really propelled us into action. That night we contacted leaders from groups around campus such as Penn Arabs, Muslim Students Association, South Asia Society, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the United Minorities Council, asking them to attend a meeting on Tuesday night. The goal was to get support from all affected groups, not just one, because this would strengthen the effort. We expected about 20 people at the meeting, but over 40 attended. This was the first encouraging sign. The plan was to recruit around 80 to 100 volunteers to encourage local media and politicians to speak out about the recent rise in hate crimes. We recruited student leaders from various groups on Tuesday night. The meeting at which we had planned to organize volunteers was set for the next day.
Working under enormous time constraints, people around campus responded admirably. The administration allowed us to use College Green on less than a day’s notice, and even provided sound. The Daily Pennsylvanian helped bring attention to our efforts by printing up word of the meeting in Wednesday’s paper. Finally, the people at the first meeting did a good job telling people about the second meeting: while we only expected about 80 volunteers, we ended up with about 130.
In the end, it was tough to get a good idea of how much we did and did not accomplish. Although the media has been responsive to our calls, it is tough to tell whether we really encouraged them to report more about hate crimes on a local level. We are trying to work with local political and religious leaders to organize an interfaith meeting as a means of responding to the backlash.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of the whole effort was how responsive Penn was to it. We weren’t working as any sort of student group or organization, yet when we needed help, faculty, administrative, and student resources were made available to us immediately. As much as we ourselves have complained about Penn in the past, our contact with other schools has proven that it hasn’t been so easy to do the same thing elsewhere. As divided as Penn can be both ethnically and scholastically, everyone really came together these last few weeks, in these and other matters.
As far as the future for minorities is concerned, one thing has been made clear. The beauty of America is that all citizens have a voice in society and politics. The best way Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans can contribute to society and protect themselves in the future is to exercise this voice. Certainly, this would be a much better way to honor America than flying a flag out of fear.
Sandeeep Acharya is a junior majoring in computer science and finance and management from Ocean, NJ. Vivek Arora is a junior majoring in politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE) and history from Huntsville, Alabama.