Saturday, August 25, 2007

Duty to report

On July 14, a man, his fiancee and her cousin were strolling on the beach of Lake Tahoe (a popular tourist destination in the mountains of northern California) when they were targeted with derogatory racial comments by a couple of locals. When the man confronted them, he was physically assaulted and ended up with broken bones in his face. The victim, described as a San Francisco executive, was an American citizen of Indian origin. His attackers, who were Americans of European descent, had called the his group "terrorists" and "relatives of Osama Bin Laden".

The incident hardly created much of a ruffle in this part of this state or outside, but the reaction would have been even less had it not been preceded by a more tragic incident in nearby Sacramento, the capital of California. On July 1, an altercation took place at a local park between two picnicking groups, and the physical confrontation that followed resulted in the death of a 26-year old Fijian native of Indian origin. All members of the victim's group were of similar Fijian/Indian origin while the rival group was made up of East European natives; racial and homophobic slurs were exchanged prior to the fight.

The Sacramento crime had the unmistakable mark of a hate crime and instantly became a rallying point for many. The apparent reasons for the incident were both the victim's racial origins and his (perceived) sexual orientation, thus it mobilized both immigrant advocacy (Sepia Mutiny, a quasi political desi mouthpiece also picked up the story) and gay rights groups. The case was also picked up by a group advocating a hate crimes bill in the California legislature.

There is an interesting side-bar to the homophobic aspect of this incident. Sacramento is home to a large community of about 100,000 Slavic immigrants from the former Soviet Union (mostly from Ukraine). Interestingly, this community isnt of the Orthodox Christian following; instead most of them are Evangelicals (the belief that has become nearly synonymous with American conservatives in recent years). Many among this community who moved to Sacramento from their homes "looking for a Christian country" were shocked to be greeted by the thriving gay community in the city. In recent years the Slavic community has made its displeasure about homosexuality apparent with demonstrations at the state legislature and protests at events of the gay community. Both the suspected attackers in the fatal attack in Sacramento belong to the city's Slavic community.

Apart from the fact that the incidents were separated by only two weeks, they took place in places that are not very likely to be associated with such crimes. Lake Tahoe is known for its clear blue water and aquatic sports, surrounding ski slopes, and other tourist attractions. Sacramento, on its part, is a fairly liberal city. It would be reaching too far to suggest that these two incidents represent a trend, but their timing and location does make you pause.

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