With reports of hate crimes on the increase, officials take time out to instruct members of targeted communities on how to deal with discrimination and when to call the authorities.
It was late January, and Lalita Uppala was driving home from an event she had presented for seniors at the North Bellevue Community Center. As she pulled out of the parking lot, she said two teenagers yelled a misogynistic slur, made an obscene gesture and started tailgating her.
Uppala, the director of community programs for the India Association of Western Washington, didn’t know what to do. She was near her home but just kept circling the block until the car behind her went away. Then she went inside and shut the blinds.
“I felt like, I’m a community leader and I froze. I don’t know what to do,” Uppala said. “And that’s when I felt we need to do this for the community.”
On Sunday, on the first sunny weekend in what felt like an eternity, about 200 people spent two hours indoors at the North Bellevue Community Center, learning about how to de-escalate such conflicts, protect themselves and avoid potentially dangerous situations.
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What do you do if someone yells “go back to where you come from” at a middle-schooler? How do you explain racist graffiti to a child?
Uppala said that, after the November election, with reports of hate crimes and incidents increasing, the Indian Association began to think about what sort of services they could offer to help their community deal with rising fear and anxiety.
“We understood that this was going to be our new norm,” she said. “Kids are coming home from schools saying they were called brownie. We were getting a lot of reports of things that weren’t quite hate crimes.”
At Sunday’s forum, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake, who leads the hate-crimes task force for the U.S. Attorneys office of the Western District of Washington, told the audience about what constitutes a hate crime.
“When an immigrant is told to go back to your country and is beaten, it’s not just that person that feels the pain and feels the anxiety, it’s the entire immigrant population,” Miyake said. “The insidious thing about hate crimes is the fear that it causes.”
Representatives of the Bellevue Police Department and the Bellevue school district addressed specific scenarios – answering questions about how best to react – understand your surroundings, remain calm, do what feels most comfortable.
Whenever possible, they advise, remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation.
And, if you’re ever in doubt about whether to call the police or report a situation, do it.
Ravi Sanga, 51, came from Normandy Park to learn how to deal with such situations. He wanted the information for his children, his son at the University of Washington in particular. His children, Sanga said, grew up in a largely white community, with white friends, and can be a little oblivious to racial issues.
“It’s happening all over the place,” Sanga said. “We just want to make sure our children are safe and don’t make a bad situation worse.”
Miyake talked about incidents of hate or discrimination that don’t necessarily rise to the level of a crime but are unsettling nonetheless.
Several weeks ago, Sonali Sikchi was leaving the Bellevue Square Mall with her 13-year-old daughter when she said a man yelled “go back to India.”
Don’t look at him, she told her daughter, don’t say anything.
When she posted about the incident on Facebook, she was bombarded with commenters asking why she didn’t do this or that differently.
She came to Sunday’s forum not only to learn more about how to respond to such incidents but also as part of an active effort to get more involved in her community.
“I never would have dreamed a year ago of doing anything like this,” Sikchi said. “You just have to draw a line in the sand and say am I going to be quiet or am I going to do something about it.”