With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, dozens gathered at the for a legislative about continued discrimination against Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities, and to collaborate on potential legislative solutions.
Panelists ranging from high school students to senior citizens told heart-wrenching stories of harassment they face constantly at school, work, airports and even their homes.
"I'm from New York; we all lost family members and friends during the attack," said Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh Coalition. "And we're also, in turn, being accused of being part of the attack, wrongly so by our fellow Americans."
Hate crimes against these communities spiked immediately after 9/11, with 645 incidents of bias reported in the first week alone, according to a study by a group called South Asian Americans Leading Together.
But widespread incidents of harassment continue in school and work environments, particularly toward those who are Muslim or wear religious head coverings, panelists said.
The panelists acknowledged that the backlash is cyclical, making comparisons to similar pasts of Japanese-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Irish-Americans. The panelists discussed possible plans to protect against future backlashes, create and maintain a diverse police force, and support school children and employees.
The attacks on 9/11 created a backlash against anyone perceived to be Arab or Muslim, including people from the South Asian, Greek and Latino communities. Panelist Harsimran Kaur of the Sikh Coalition reported that the violence has included murder, physical assault, arson, vandalism at places of worship and death threats.
In March, were shot in Elk Grove in what is being investigated as a hate crime; the perpetrators may have thought the men were Muslim.
Even if investigations prove that the men were victims of a hate crime, Singh said that because there is no "category" for Sikhs, they won't be able to gather statistics on violence against them.
"They don't even have the dignity of being a statistic, either locally or federally," he said. "So if you're law enforcement, how do address an issue that you're not actively measuring?"
This and other gaps in policy were at the center of the discussion.
According to attorney Veena Dubal of the Asian Law Caucus, a major part of the problem is the FBI's unchecked ability to relentlessly interrogate those they think may be a threat, post 9/11.
"We have government agents who are allowed to open investigations on individuals, even when they don't have a shred of suspicion connecting those people to criminal activity," she said.
Dubal said she receives one or two clients each week from all over the world related to these invasive investigations.
"The two things they have in common is that they're Muslim and that they've never committed a crime," she said. "But they've been contacted by the FBI." The result of the profiling has been a broken trust in law enforcement, she said, which discourages people from reporting instances of discrimination.
Dubal suggested passing a binding resolution that encourages local law enforcement and sheriffs to follow California law when they work with federal agencies—as California has stricter laws on privacy and racial profiling.
Rajdeep Singh, a member of the Sikh Coalition, said more laws are needed like the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), which makes it harder for people to discriminate against people because of their religion. Current laws allow employers to reject potential employees if they determine their religion will cause them "undue hardship." The WRFA changed it to "significant" hardship—the same standard that's in the Americans with Disabilities Act. WRFA was passed recently in New York City.
Anoop Prasad, another attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, added that immigrants are being deported for things like minor errors on their visa applications and broken taillights.
"The last decade since 9/11 has probably been the worst single decade of immigration enforcement in our nation's history," he said. "Things have never been this bad."
The issue is about civil rights for all Americans, said Buttar.
"Muslim, Arab, South Asian communities are not the only ones facing threats; we are the canaries in a coalmine," he said. "And the threat is not to any distinct set of communities—it is to democracy."
Buttar added, "What we see in the last decade is a pervasive and broad-based erosion of the checks and balances that have historically guarded civil rights and civil liberties in the country."
BULLYING AND WORKPLACE HARASSMENT
A 2010 study revealed that 80 percent of Muslim teenage youth had experienced harassment, said Maha ElGenaidi, CEO of the Islamic Networks Group, a Bay Area nonprofit that seeks to educate and promote dialogue about religion.
"The same survey found that 50 percent reported being called names in front of teachers and administrators," she said.
She said her organization has found that teachers are either ill-equipped to handle bullying, mistakenly believe that they cannot intervene, because of First Amendment rights, or simply agree with the bullies' sentiments.
Young Muslim and Sikh Bay Area students expressed frustration and grief at the harassment they experience in their schools.
was among those who spoke out against workplace discrimination, after being fired from her job at Abercrombie and Fitch because of her hijab, or Muslim headscarf. Khan, who attended San Mateo High School, had taken the job to save money for college and had worn the hijab for four months before getting a call from a stranger at corporate. She said this was the first time she felt targeted because of the headscarf.
"Instead of boosting my confidence and getting some real life experience, it did the reverse and brought my self-esteem down," Khan said. "When I was asked to remove my scarf after being hired with it on, I felt demoralized."
Navneet Singh, a soft-spoken junior at American High School in Fremont, described being isolated and constantly teased in school, because he wore a pagri, or Sikh turban.
"All throughout elementary, I've been that kid who only has one friend or doesn't have any friends, who sits in the back—because they don't accept me," he recalled. "And what's the problem? It's my turban. That's it."
When Singh was in fourth grade, a high school student went up to him and punched him in the face. That's when his dad decided it was time for a haircut.
"People said 'good job,'" he said. "They accepted me. But I didn't feel happy. I didn't feel happy at all. I was the same person—I just got a haircut, and now they accepted me?"
When he decided to grow his hair out again in eighth grade, he said the teasing was worse than before. But he said he realized what he had to do, with help from a teacher and his parents—stand up for himself.
"People respect me now," he said.
Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) said a direct dialogue and discussion with the schools is needed and that more schools should support the "Stop the Bullying" campaign.
The panel noted that no school district official was at the event.
Satnam Singh Gill, an elderly man who has worked for the Transit Union for 10 years, was a victim of a hate crime after an unknown person vandalized a flier with his picture on it, with the comment, "Don't trust anti-American." This was after he found many of his fliers, which campaigned for a treasury position at work, were thrown in the trash.
After 9/11, Gill said baseless rumors of him supporting the attack were spread around his workplace for days, with little support from his employer.
"In any workplace, there's a big sign that says 'equal opportunity employer.' There is no such thing," he said. "I can tell you from my experience—there is no such thing."