Flowers surround signs on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services Saturday Oct. 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Photo: Gene J. Puskar
Photo: Gene J. Puskar

Opinion: Violent incidents show Ga. needs hate crimes law

A year ago, an anti-Semitic and white nationalist gunman senselessly murdered 11 peaceful worshippers at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation’s synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While the attack happened far from Georgia, it’s not hard to imagine something as tragic happening close to home; similarly violent incidents across the nation have painted a pattern that we can’t ignore.

While our country has witnessed gun violence all too often, that attack was a jolting reminder that a rising tide of hate and extremism threatens this great nation. Tragedy after tragedy has left families and communities devastated: the 2015 shooting in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, and the deadly shooting spree near El Paso this August which targeted the Latinx community all come to mind as recent instances where minority communities in particular were harmed by violence.

The threat is very real. Can we really live the American dream when our own people are unsafe in their communities, schools, homes, and houses of worship?

The time for action is now. From recent data by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the FBI and other leading agencies, hate speech and hate crimes have been on the rise with no sign of decrease in recent years. The danger is particularly urgent here in Georgia. As one of only four states without a hate crime law — a glaring gap in our justice system — there are little to no specific legal protections against bias-motivated attacks. Effective hate crime law is critical to preventing discrimination. It must provide appropriate sentencing guidelines, ensure that law enforcement is recording critical information, and give communities the confidence they need to come forward and report when they feel unsafe or are attacked.

My own community is, unfortunately, no stranger to this kind of violence. I am a Sikh — a member of the fifth-largest religion in the world. I was raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, went to Dunwoody High School and spent my college days at Georgia State University studying public policy. Despite my family’s history here in Georgia, we have often been targeted because of our Sikh identity, including the turban.

While my younger brother was going through elementary and middle school, I learned firsthand how hate can grow and fester in the lead-up to violence. Over time, teasing became hateful speech, and hateful speech then turned into severe violence. My brother was not just bullied in school, he was beaten with his jaw left broken, turban removed, hair intentionally cut and was left with multiple wounds across his face and upper body. One of his assailants even threatened further violence with “a blade and a 9mm.” My brother required two surgeries from his injuries.

Making a full recovery, my brother was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the hard work of legal advocacy and action resulting in training, more than 100,000 youth have increased protection from the perils of bullying and harassment within the Dekalb County School District. But Sikhs have faced more than our share of violence against our community, too; Seven years ago this past August, Sikhs across America commemorated a deadly shooting at one of our houses of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where another white nationalist gunman killed six worshippers and injured four others.

It is imperative that we all work to protect one another. Thankfully, the Georgia Legislature is poised to take the next step. Our elected representatives must come together not only to condemn hate, but solidify sound and inclusive policy. Earlier this year, the State House passed HB 426, which establishes protections from bias-related violence and penalties for hate crimes. When session begins again next year, the State Senate must work with their colleagues to produce a responsible and just final bill that will keep all residents of Georgia safe.

To do anything less, especially in a time when so many of us live with a growing sense of danger, would be a disservice to the diversity that makes us strong. The United States has to be better than this, and we can start right here in Georgia.

Aasees Kaur works for a national civil rights organization. She is also a former resident of Atlanta and Georgia State University alumna. Kaur and her husband have been serving the interfaith and Sikh communities together for over a decade.

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