Hate Crime Forum At UMass Lowell
Chitra Parayath, Nirmala Garimella
WE SHALL OVERCOME
An optimistic note, one full of hope and good will was sounded, collectively, when a panel of distinguished policymakers, lawyers and students met at the Lowell campus of Umass, Lowell, the day before yesterday.
While condemning the act of violence against the Indian students and calling it heinous, each one of the panelist called for swift legal action against the perpetrators.
December 2, 2002: Three Indian students, who had been in the country for about 4 months are walking back to the campus from their apartment to study for some impending tests. The roads are somewhat deserted and the students are startled when a van pulls up beside them. A female (white) alights and asks them for a dollar. The three students say that they don’t have one to spare. The female begins to hurl racial epithets at them going as far to hit one of the students. Thereby the two males get down from the van and ask the students for money. They are greeted by the same reply, no dollars. The men who get down from the van begin to beat up the Indian men. One is on the ground, being kicked on his face, his glasses shattering, his nose a big bruise. All the time the assaulters are verbally abusing the Indian students mentioning Osama Bin Laden’s name. A passerby stops to enquire and the perpetrators flee. The three students, shaken and disturbed, report the incident to the Lowell Police and within hours an arrest is made by the police.
Only the Lowell Sun, as far as we know, covered this incident. No other publication made a mention of this shameful incident.Soon after the attack, Dr. Vanitha Shastri, President, IAFPE, wrote a letter to all relevant organizations condemning the attack and calling it an outrage. The students, fearing for their safety do not want to be identified and could not be contacted at the time.
A shocked and dismayed community rose in protest, community leaders huddled together thinking of the best game plan. This time the monster had struck close to home. The prevalent sentiment was” what if it had happened to me?” voiced, expressed by many who have lived in this state, in this country for decades.
On December 17,at a meeting organized jointly by Dean Krishna Vedula of UMass, Lowell and the Indian American Foundation for Political Education, about 250 students and community leaders gathered at the Umass Lowell’s Cummock Hall to discuss the attack and strategies to prevent hate crimes against minorities.
Mr. Krishna Vedula pledged support to all organizations wanting to combat such acts of violence, acknowledging that there is opportunity in diversity. He proposed that a task force be formed to educate the community about hate crimes. He also said that a unified multicultural task force started here could be a model for the rest of the country. Having lived in Lowell for many years, he said that he never felt his personal security to be at stake.
Mr. Ravi Shakuja of the IAFPE addressed the audience and while condemning the attacks, lauded the community for attending the meeting and showing their support. He also praised the Lowell Police Superintendent Edward Davis III for the department’s swift arrest of one of the perpetrators.
Chief David expressing shock and dismay at this crime said, “ They will not go unpunished. This just not happen in my watch’ He added that the case was being treated as a hate crime. Attorney General Thomas Reilly's office is involved in the investigation and the case will be going to a grand jury. One of the suspects is in custody while the other two have been identified, he informed.
“The suspects have police records and are known to the police for their violent behavior, in fact one of the suspects tried to assault a police officer. They will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and will be punished for this. I take this personally, I assure you that the guilty will be punished,” he reiterated, blaming the incident on prejudice, brutality and ignorance.
Dean Vedula and Mr. Shakuja thanked the police Chief for his support.
"No one is born prejudiced, it is learned and it can be unlearned,” When it is not uprooted, prejudice is just passed along from generation to generation." Said Attorney Neil Sherring an Indian American Forum member and former assistant Massachusetts attorney general. Mr. Sherring pointed out that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, incidents of bias, including hate crimes, assaults and vandalism against individuals perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin have been on the rise. Mr. Sherring said that he had spoken to the victims, who wished to remain unnamed and that they were well, but still fearful of their safety.
Both Mr. Shakuja and Mr. Sherring mentioned that hate crimes has risen 1600 percent since the September 11 Terrorist attacks.
U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan said he is pushing for a vote in Congress on a hate-crime bill that would give local law enforcement technical, forensic and prosecutorial assistance from the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
"It is high time that we in Congress act on this measure and vote on the hate crimes bill. " said Mr. Meehan. "We need to take a horrible incident like this and hold it up to public scrutiny. There has to be an awareness that such a heinous crime has been committed. Everyone in this city is committed to making sure this doesn't happen again."
The panelists emphasized on the need to educate the public, the need to remove ignorance of the kind that leads to racial violence and intolerance.
“ I am proud to stand in outrage,” said State Sen. Steve Panagiotakos. The Lowell Democrat said "Three hundred years ago this was a wilderness. Today this country sets the agenda for the world. We all are immigrants who came here for a better life. Let us not undermine the great values this country stands for. We have to be vigilant. We have the best talents of the world here, in this country, let us not let our differences divide us.” Applauding the contribution of the Indian community to this country, he said that this hatred and intolerance had to be rooted out.
All of last night's speakers agreed that education and understanding are the keys to battling the type of ignorance that led to the assault.
Senator Susan Fargo pledged her support to programs promoting racial harmony and tolerance. “ What we need is an atmosphere where diversity is enjoyed, let us develop healthy youth in a nurturing caring community where there is no place for hatred. “ She said, “ “Tolerance has to be taught at home.” She emphasized.
Dr Dinesh Patel, a leading member of the Indian American Community read from a letter sent by Mr. Tom O’Reilly acknowledging the support and importance of local organizations like the IAFPE to the community.
While labeling the act ‘inhumane’ and ‘unacceptable criminal behavior’ a representative of the Anti Defamation League Mr. Andrew Tarsey remembered the late activist Leonard Zakim saying that “Mr. Zakim was a tireless activist who fought courageously against prejudice and bigotry. He built bridges to unite diverse racial, religious and ethnic groups throughout New England."
He urged all to remember Mr. Zakim's message.
“We shall overcome,” said Mr. Vedula. “Tonight is only a beginning," "We will continue this conversation and work together to find a solution to this problem."
The meeting was also attended by other distinguished guests like members of the NCCJ, representatives of the Governors Task force, Amar Gupta of MIT and Santosh Jha, of the Consulate of New York who had flown down especially to support the event.
The forum closed with a short question and answer session. Bobby Tugbiyele, president of the Association of Students of African Origin at U Mass Lowell and a West African made a point and a plea that a meeting of this nature can definitely help in unifying a community. He hoped that student groups of different cultures would get together since they all shared the same fears and concerns. “One of the barriers to unity at the university is the lack of communication between different ethnic and racial groups”, he said.
Other speakers who raised queries were Sudharshan Chatterjee and Narain Bhatia. Two positive comments were made by a member of the CGA who invited the students for a meeting on January 14 in the evening, and the Race relations Committee where Chief of Police Edward Davis asked the Indian Community for a representative.
We asked some students who had attended the evening’s forum for their reaction. Shyam Shah, a representative of the students had specific questions addressed to the Chief of Police “How should a student faced with a situation of this nature react ?What are our rights ? What should be the guidelines and who should be approached ? The Chief assured them that the victims in this case had acted in the right manner by not retaliating and also helped in identifying the car license plate.”It is best to avoid confrontation and seek for help”, He said. Love Swadia and Zaheer Kalvert, two students who did not know the victims personally felt that the forum was welcome since it brought about awareness. Since the incident happened “the students have been actively discussing it. There is an element of fear, although such a thing has not happened before”, they admitted. International students could benefit more with a forum that would let them know their rights better, they felt.
Dwarika Agarwal of the IAFPE proposed a vote of thanks
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