To most Oregonians, the May killings of two men who confronted an anti-Muslim screed on a Portland MAX train came as an appalling shock.
Zakir Khan was also horrified. He just wasn't very surprised.
The 32-year-old communications instructor at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany has been sending out alerts all year about anti-Muslim incidents across the state. He's a second-generation Indian-American who worked in social justice in Louisiana before moving to the Willamette Valley. In February, Khan and others began organizing an Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group based in Washington, D.C., that responds to anti-religious attacks.
He's seen no shortage of them—verbal assaults both before and after the MAX stabbings allegedly committed May 26 by white supremacist Jeremy Christian.
On May 8, Chad Everett Russell walked into a Eugene mosque with a gun and threatened to kill the worshippers. Last week, he plea bargained for two months in jail and three years of probation.
On May 29, three days after the MAX slayings, Frederick Nolan Sorrell allegedly tried to run an African-American Muslim couple off a Portland road, driving alongside their car for more than 20 blocks while shouting racist epithets, including, "Take off the fucking burka! This is America! Go back to your fucking country!" The couple identified their harasser on social media in just a few days. Khan's organization demanded an arrest. Five weeks later, on July 10, Portland police made one.
(Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson defends the pace of the bias crime investigation. "Our goal in any investigation," he says, "is not just to make an arrest—it's to make an arrest and have a successful prosecution, and depending on the facts, that can take more time than everyone would like.")
Khan remains frustrated by what he sees as a weak response by police and prosecutors. He's been traveling from Albany to Portland to demand changes in how local law enforcement handles hate incidents. This week, he talked to WW about the reforms CAIR has in mind.
WW: Let's talk about the man who followed a Muslim couple and told them to get out of the country. What effect did he have on the lives of his targets?
Zakir Khan: It's definitely put them on edge. They feared for their lives. When you're the victim of what is essentially a terrorist attack, it can cause a lot of trauma. But these are some really brave people. They're also some really patient people.
What about this case do people not understand?
It shows that you can't even be safe in your own car. The Eugene Islamic Center incident showed you couldn't even be safe in your own mosque. And the Jeremy Christian incident showed that you couldn't even be safe taking public transportation. People are starting to wonder, "Where is it that I can truly feel safe?"
Are anti-Muslim attacks on the rise in Portland, or are they just getting more attention because of who's president?
I think that there is a bigger focus by the media. Which is actually pretty responsible of them, because there were criticisms coming out of the Muslim community—even during the Obama administration—that hate crimes were happening and the media wasn't making it a focus. So I think that's actually an important progression. If that's because it's Trump, so be it.
CAIR just expressed outrage at the 60-day sentence for a man who threatened to kill worshippers at a Eugene mosque. What would have been a fair outcome?
Basically, the community had no time to prepare for him getting out of jail. So we want a couple of different things: giving proper time and notice to the community so that they know how to safeguard themselves, and a sentence that sends a message that these hate crimes are unacceptable in the state of Oregon. This is the first in a slate of incidents that set the tone for what our society was willing to accept.
What do you say to the defense that this guy was mentally ill?
If the mental health concerns are large, make sure that that person is put in a place where they can get support. By not making that a part of the probation process, we're not really sure if that help is ever going to arrive. We need multifaceted approaches. In the wake of Jeremy Christian's incident, to sit back and be like, "Oh, hate-crime reform isn't really that necessary"—that sends a really negative message to people of color within Oregon that your needs are not as important as these other needs that we're trying to cover.
And how about alt-right protesters who argue that hate speech is a lawful form of free speech?
Yeah, so the Constitution is beautiful in the sense that it gives people the right to free speech. But this guy Norris Henderson—he's a criminal justice reform advocate in New Orleans—said it best: Some people in our society have really lost the ability to feel shame. I think that's the thing that really screams out to be me when I hear people engaging in what is essentially hate speech. They don't feel shame and a sense of responsibility for their words. That's really troubling. We need to be a society that actually cares about the impact that our words have on other people. And especially from alt-righters, I often see that they just want to spew their rhetoric out and they want so badly to be heard, but they're not willing to go out and listen to other people.
What do you think of Portland City Hall's effort to create hotlines and databases of hate speech?
I applaud the mayor, and the commission that created the grant system for community organizations to conduct intake and then to track and analyze these things, but there's a lot more work that needs to be done. One thing that we're upset about is that it took five weeks for an arrest to be made on a hate-crime incident. We always hear from law enforcement: "Report it, we want to know." If they were quick to respond to hate crimes, that could even be a PR bonus, or a recruitment bonus: "We care about the communities that you come from. We're willing to crack down on the hate that resides in Portland. Come join our ranks and help stop hate crime from happening in Portland." I just thought to myself, in the wake of the Jeremy Christian situation, there was a real opportunity that was lost for them.