Feathered Bastard

Phoenix's "Elements of Hate" Panel Discussion, What Was Good and What Was Missing

Mayor Phil Gordon is to be congratulated for the Elements of Hate panel discussion his office organized, which took place Wednesday at the newly-renovated AE England Building at Civic Space Park in Downtown Phoenix. The event coincided with the visit of the Southern Poverty Law Center's representative Heidi Beirich. In many ways, it was a gratifying event to witness, and I hope that the city will help organize other such events in the future.

The panel included eight members of the civil rights and law enforcement community, as well as some of those targeted by extremists, such as Don Logan, the former director of Scottsdale's Office Diversity and Dialogue, who was injured by a mail bomb allegedly sent to him by two white supremacists, and Rana Sodhi, a Sikh man whose brother Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down shortly after 9/11 because some murderous idiot, blinded by hate, apparently perceived his brother to be a Muslim.

Also on the panel were representatives from the FBI and the GLBT group Equality Arizona, as well as Sgt. Jerry Hill, the head of the Phoenix PD's Bias Crimes Unit, Bill Straus of the Anti-Defamation League, and the SPLC's Beirich. Ted Simons, host of the PBS show Horizon, acted as moderator.

The most riveting and moving parts of the discussion came from Logan and Sodhi. Logan described the extent of the damage caused to his office, to himself and his co-workers by the mail bomb that he opened in 2004. To say the least, that description was chilling.

"My whole life changed as a result of that incident," explained Logan. "I experienced damage to the ring finger from my right hand. and a portion of my forearm was taken out as a result of the blast. Two of my colleagues were injured as well. My assistant received a piece of scrap metal that was embedded behind her eye. Even today they were not able to surgically remove it because of the depth at which the scrap metal had penetrated."

Logan related how, four surgeries later, he was still dealing with the impact of a bomb that shattered the glass windows of his office, riddled one partition of it with scrap metal, left his ceiling looking like someone had taken a machine gun to it, and created a hole behind him that would have left him dead had he opened the package just a little differently.

"Anyone in the room can be a target of what I categorize as hate," Logan observed. "This is clearly hate...Those of us who think our jobs are done because we have an African-American president, I will share this with you...he's the only president who had to parade his family out on a stage and had to stand behind a bullet-proof shield to accept his election as the next president of the United States. Folks, our work isn't done."

Sodhi's tale was as riveting as Logan's. You'd have to have a heart made of obsidian not to be moved by Sodhi's account of how he and his family came to America after the 1984 pogroms against the Sikh community in India, seeking freedom from fear, only to lose two brothers to violence in the U.S.: One to post-9/11 hatred because he was wearing a turban; the other to a more random violence, shot in San Francisco while driving a taxi there.

"We came here to have a better life, because we were targeted in India in '84," recalled Sodhi. "And the same thing here after 9/11 with my family. It was very heart-shaking at that time. But on the other side, I got so much love from the local community, and the leadership locally in Arizona, it's amazing. It made me strong, and it made my family strong to be part of this country and part of this community."

Sodhi recounted as an example, how the ADL's Bill Straus called him after the post-9/11 murder of his brother Balbir, and told him, "You have lost a brother, but now I am your brother."

Mayor Phil Gordon could only be present for part of the event, but I buttonholed him before he left and asked him why he'd become so passionate on the issue of the rise of hate in Phoenix.

"I think it's the pain I've been seeing over the past couple of years," said Gordon, "individuals this extreme hate has been affecting directly, whether it's kids, parents, not just in the Hispanic community, and now that's been most recently translated over into the healthcare [issue], where you can't even have a passionate debate anymore, without extremism -- on both sides, but particularly on the far right.

"This labeling of health care as `death panels,' and immigration as `invasions'...as these confrontations continue to get more extreme, I thought it was time to shine a light. My concern was that a lot of these individuals are labeled by the mainstream media as activists, community members and patriots. As someone once said, people are identified by what's said after the comma. The presentation [by Beirich] this morning showed, especially to those in the mainstream media, how nativist groups, hate groups, how they associate together, and how one feeds on the other."

Gordon was correct to do this, of course. My only hope for future such events is that the Latino community can be included, especially since there is a direct correlation between the rise in hate and the immigration issue. There were Hispanic leaders in the audience, particularly Salvador Reza and Tupac Enrique Acosta of Puente and Tonatierra, and I think it would have been enlightening to have them, or some other leaders from the local Latino community adding their voices to the voices of Black, Jewish, GLBT, Sikh, and others.

To be fair, Gordon's spokesperson Scott Phelps explained to me that the event came together very quickly, and that they originally had Latinos who were supposed to be on the panel.

"At one point we had two Hispanics," said Phelps. "We absolutely wanted to include them. Just one week earlier we had no panel at all -- it came together quickly. One upside to the panel we ended up with is that most hate discussions have been associated with the immigration issue and this was a good reminder that African Americans, Muslims, Gays and Lesbians, Jews and too many others experience hate and unconscionable crimes."

Though it was not mentioned during the discussion, Logan has said previously that he believes that it may have been a Hispanic heritage event sponsored by Scottsdale's Diversity and Dialogue Office at the time that focused the bomb-makers on him. That was a bridge not crossed during the event. But hopefully there will be another chance to do so in the future.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons