By Arlene Dennistoun
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
An overflow crowd of about 500 people packed the Kent Lutheran Church on March 11 for the “Love Not Hate Community Unity” event. Shocked by the March 3 shooting of a Sikh man in an alleged hate crime, organizers who had hoped for a turnout of 100 people ended up adding more and more seats, as people spilled out into the lobby of the church.
Although touted as a rally, there was no sign waving, marching, or shouting. Bailey Stober, who identifies himself as the first 25-year-old, biracial South King County resident to chair the King County Democrats, and Satwinder Kaur, a member of the East Indian Connection and a Kent City Council candidate, had rallies planned on the same day at different times and places. As soon as Stober heard Kaur scheduled to hold a rally outside, he saw the weather forecast of rain and a chilly 47 degrees. He called Kaur, and they immediately teamed up, and the peaceful event occurred inside the church.
Stober kicked off the event by announcing the gathering was not a political event. “We do not have any room here for politics — this is not about one side or the other. We’re here as a community. There’s enough nonsense going on outside of this room — we don’t need to have it in here.” The crowd roared its approval with loud applause.
“I have told the speakers if they veer in that direction (politics), I will definitely tackle them.” Stober said they wanted to emphasize nonpartisanship and bring people together without being divided by politics, religion, zip codes, or class, and to come together as “one community and say that we are South King County strong.”
“We are not going to accept or tolerate hate, bigotry, discrimination, or bullying in any form in any of our cities in too often overlooked South King County,” said Stober. As chair of the King County Democrats, Stober said it’s important to have a seat at the leadership table and ensure diversity. Kaur told the hundreds of people in attendance that their presence showed “we will not tolerate hate crimes in our community.”
The event began with Sikh prayer through song. The prayer group told the crowd “our country is at a crossroads,” and the way for a nation to remain great is “inoculate love and respect among its people. There is great beauty in the mosaic of a country with many different cultures.”
Numerous community leaders spoke, and all expressed gratitude for the larger than expected turnout. Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke reminded the audience of Kent’s motto — “Bringing the world home,” because of the diversity of the city.
Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas noted the support from the FBI, King County Sheriff, many police chiefs across the state, and Washington State Patrol.
Regarding the ongoing investigation, Thomas said about 35 agents and officers had re-canvassed the area for information. Thomas expressed the goal of his office to stop all crime, especially hate crimes.
Maya Vengadasalam, Vice President of the Kent School District Board, shared her experience as a new immigrant in Kent more than 20 years ago. She began public service in the school district and the city after her son was bullied in school as a small child. Love does conquer all, she said, but there’s more. “We need to be aware of all the issues we’re facing in our communities because we’re dealing with it in isolation, and until we feel accepted for our different views and practices, it will be impossible to resolve issues.”
Vengadasalam urged folks to understand immigrant issues and talk with each other. Many people have no idea how much the Sikh community works to raise awareness because “our communities’ belief system” doesn’t lean towards self-promotion. She reminded the audience that many children in the Sikh community were and are bullied and harassed.
Dr. Jasmit Singh, a Seattle-area community leader, made an impassioned plea to define America. He scanned the audience and noted the different races, ethnicities, colors, and backgrounds. “THIS is what America looks like.” The crowd exploded in applause.
“What is going on today? Where have we gone wrong?” Singh asked the crowd. Many communities feel unsafe. When new graffiti marred a Capitol Hill Jewish temple, Singh wondered, “What is wrong with us? Where are empathy, compassion, and love for each other? How is this hate coming out? Doesn’t our heart hurt when we find out a young black Muslim boy was found hung somewhere? Hung! Where did we go wrong?”
Singh dreams of an America where children aren’t worried about being bullied in school or being separated from their parents. He dreams of an America where a grandparent doesn’t fear walking down the street because he’s wearing a turban and a beard, or where a Muslim woman wearing “the beautiful hijab” feels unsafe in public because someone may pull it off her.
“That is the dream I have — a dream of a country that is beyond fear,” said Singh, reflecting upon Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. The crowd stood applauding. “I dream of a country where truth defines us — not hate-mongering and fear.” Singh urged the audience to stand next to a victim of discrimination and speak up when they see it happening.
“Take the religious labels off. If you can’t work with your neighbor … if your understanding of God causes you to hate, to ignore, or to kill, you left God a long time ago,” said Reverend Leslie Braxton to a standing ovation. “We fight with ballots, not with bullets. We fight with love; we fight with unity. Everyone is afraid of all the violence, but people must be “bold enough to say something when we see something.”
State Senator Karen Keiser also urged the crowd to look out for bullying or hate and report it. The “hate is out there — it’s among us. And we must treat it as a public health menace. It’s contagious.”
State Rep. Mark Hargrove spoke of the pain of fear causing us to look over our shoulders. State Rep. Pat Sullivan, visibly shaken, expressed concern and bewilderment about how the shooting of a Sikh man could have happened in “our Kent community.” By coming together, people have said, “that’s not who we are.”
Diane Narasaki was one of the event’s last speakers and said, “We must stand with all those who are under attack right now.” After everything speakers had already stated, she had only one word to say — “Amen.”
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.