Anatomy of a Hate Crime

An attack in San Francisco alarms the high-tech immigrants around Silicon Valley

27 September 2001

By Karen Breslau

The manager of a Pakistani restaurant in San Francisco denounces attacks on Muslims and Arabs

Shave your beard, suggested one friend. Wear a red, white and blue T shirt said another. With each new report of another assault against Arab-, Muslim- or even Indian-Americans since the terrorist attacks, Sean Fernandes got this kind of unsolicited advice from well-meaning friends. “I said ‘that’s ridiculous,’” says Fernandes, 26, a San Francisco software engineer, who was born in India and educated at Wharton. “Even when you hear about racism, you think it’s never going to impact you.”

FERNANDES WAS WRONG. As he and a friend were walking near San Francisco’s PacBell Park late one night last week, they were accosted by a young man out with a large, boisterous group. The man, says Fernandes, seemed to go out of his way to collide with him in a crosswalk. “You’re a dirty Arab,” the man shouted at Fernandes. Someone hit him. Fernandes’ friend Robin tried to help him. That, say police, is when one of the attackers stabbed Robin in the chest, seriously wounding him, before they escaped. San Francisco police have now added Fernandes, a Catholic, mixed-race native of Calcutta, India, and his friend, Robin Clarke, a blond, blue-eyed Australian to the growing roster of “hate crime” victims in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. “If this had happened in segregation-era Alabama that would be one thing,” says Fernandes, who moved to the Bay Area three years ago. “This feels so much worse because this happened in a city where I thought I was safe.”

“I don’t want to change my personal appearance based on what ignorant people think about what Arabs look like. But at the same time, you have to take precautions.”
hate-crime victim

While police say an arrest is imminent, the story of Fernandes and Clarke has circulated for days on a local e-mail network-part cautionary tale, part call-to-arms for the legions of highly educated, high-tech immigrants who have long been welcomed in the Bay Area with open arms. Alarmed by the surge of violence in other parts of the country, a group of San Francisco Muslim activists established a hotline for people to report problems. More than 40 complaints have been received in the past 10 days. “A Muslim engineer in Silicon Valley will ask why his wife can’t go out shopping. A student will ask to be escorted from school,” says a hotline volunteer, who said she was afraid to give her name, after recently being called a “terrorist bitch” while out walking in hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf for women. “We are telling people to keep a low profile.”

Nationwide, there have been more than 300 acts—or threats—of violence against those presumed to be Arab or Muslim, according to the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. These include cases of mistaken identity, such as a Sikh gas-station owner who was shot dead in Mesa, Ariz., by a man who apparently thought his turban meant he was a Muslim. Near Los Angeles last week, an Egyptian-born grocer, a Christian, was shot dead in his store, an attack the FBI is treating as a hate crime. “It’s people lashing out at what they think of as TV Arabs,” says Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the committee. 

Angry, but at the same time anxious, Fernandes shaved off his beard last week. “I don’t want to change my personal appearance based on what ignorant people think about what Arabs look like,” he says. “But at the same time, you have to take precautions.” Fernandes says he is “rethinking” his attitudes about his adopted country, but at the same time, has been overwhelmed by outpouring of support from friends, coworkers and even strangers who heard about the attack. And Clarke, still recovering from serious chest wounds, says his affection for San Francisco is undiminished. “This is still an amazingly tolerant place,” Clarke says, and adds that he tries not to focus on the stranger who stabbed him, but on one who tried to comfort him, after he collapsed on the street. As he lay bleeding, waiting for an ambulance, says Clarke, a homeless man came over to hold his hand. “I can’t stop thinking about that part of what happened,” he says. “I guess I’m going to have to think about how I view certain types of people too.”


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