As the war in Iraq began last week, state and local leaders put police forces and emergency workers on alert against terrorist attacks. In Los Angeles, they also announced they would beef up their investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, a clear message that homeland security extends to Muslims and Arab Americans.
The Los Angeles area has the largest population of Arab Americans in the country, a demographic feature that went little noticed in this polyglot region until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Then, hate crimes against Arab Americans or people merely thought to be Arab soared from three incidents in California in 2000 to 73 in 2001.
Most recently, police are investigating as a hate crime the Feb. 22 beating of an 18-year-old Arab American by a pack of 30 young men in Yorba Linda. And earlier this month a man allegedly verbally assaulted three Muslim women in a Venice restaurant, threatening them when they complained.
Nerves already jangled by war were further strained when the faces of U.S. soldiers killed and taken prisoner appeared on television and in newspapers. News that a U.S. soldier accused of a grenade attack at his base camp in Kuwait was a Muslim who studied at a Los Angeles Islamic center adds to the fear and suspicion that fuel hate crimes.
Gov. Gray Davis, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo publicly denounced the Venice incident. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton joined Hahn at a meeting at the Islamic Center of Southern California to promise extra patrols around mosques.
Californians, to their credit, began fighting the anti-Muslim backlash almost as soon as it began. A week after Sept. 11, nearly 200 people of all faiths and from throughout Los Angeles gathered at the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque near USC to talk about religion and racism, the first in a series of such meetings. In Pomona, non-Muslim neighbors turned out to help protect students at a Muslim school closed in the wake of the attacks because of threats. Last week, the neighbors showed up again. Just in case.
Such bonds, forged from the fires of Sept. 11, are the best line of attack against bigotry.
To Take Action: The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission's hate crime hotline is (888) No-2-Hate (662-4283).