Where is America’s Outrage over Hate Crime Killing in Olathe?

February 28, 2017
Srinivas Kuchibhotla (right) and his wife Sunayana Dumala (left). (Photo credit: AP)

Last week, a man was shot and killed because of the colour of his skin.

It was a warm Wednesday evening in Olathe, Kansas. Rather than to work late into the night as was his custom, 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla decided to leave work early and have a drink with his friend and co-worker, 32-year-old  Alok Madasani, at their local watering hole, Austin’s Bar & Grill. The two men were both nationals of India who had immigrated to America more than a decade ago to pursue graduate degrees in electrical engineering, and who had stayed in the United States to work as highly-skilled engineers. Madasani and Kuchibhotla had become friends in 2008 when both were employees of Rockwell Collins, an American-owned company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For six months, Kuchibhotla even gave Madasani a ride to-and-from work every day until Madasani could afford to buy a car; he never complained, remembers Madasani. The two remained close friends when both were hired within months of each other to work at Garmin International in Kansas.

Kuchibhotla and Madasani were known as “the Jameson guys” by the employees of Austin’s, where the two would frequently unwind after a day’s work over some whiskey. But, last Wednesday was unseasonably warm, and the two men decided to have a couple of beers, instead. And so, on the evening of February 22, 2017, Kuchibhotla and Madasani found themselves seated on the patio, sipping Miller Lite beers while surrounded by college basketball fans had gathered to cheer on the University of Kansas Jayhawks.

There aren’t many more ostentatiously all-American scenarios than this.

And yet, none of this was enough to protect the two men from racism, xenophobia, nativism and cold-blooded hate. To the man who would destroy this peaceful scene with the pull of his shotgun trigger, Kuchibhotla and Madasani’s Brown-ness had marked the two men as interlopers and Others. To 51-year-old Adam Purinton, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani’s Brown-ness meant that they did not belong — in Austin’s, in Kansas, or in America — and, for that, Purinton decided they should die.

Witnesses say that shortly into the night, Purinton — who is also a regular at Austin’s and who was seated near them that night — began harassing Kuchibhotla and Madasani. Purinton confronted Kuchibhotla and Madasani demanding to know what visas they were on while uttering racial slurs at them. Purinton further accused the two men of being illegal immigrants. (They are not.)

Madasani eventually left to notify a manager of Purinton’s rude behaviour and returned to the patio to see the older man being escorted from the premises. But Purinton returned moments later with a firearm.

According to several eyewitnesses, he yelled “get out of my country” seconds before he opened fire on Kuchibhotla and Madasani, ultimately firing roughly nine shots into the crowd. Before fleeing Austin’s, Purinton also wounded 24-year-old Ian Grillot in the hand and chest after Grillot attempted to tackle Purinton to the ground. Madasani was hit in the leg by a bullet ricochet. Kuchibhotla was critically shot and died hours later in a nearby hospital.

Purinton fled the scene and drove 70 miles southeast from Olathe, crossing state borders into Missouri where he ended up in an Applebee’s in Clinton. There, he told a bartender he was on the run from cops for having killed two “Iranians” in Olathe. The bartender notified police of Purinton’s barside confession, and they arrived to take Purinton into custody. Purinton now faces one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

These charges are not enough.

Last Wednesday, Adam Purinton targeted two men for their Brown skin. Based on their race alone, he presumed them to be “Iranian” and “illegal immigrants”. He expressed hatred for who they were, for the colour of their skin, and, indeed, for their very existence in America. He deemed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani to be illegitimate, and declared that they should get out of “his” country.

Never mind, of course, that this thinking was not rational. Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani are Indian, not Iranian. They are South Asian American, not Middle Eastern. They are highly-skilled engineers whose expertise have enabled technological advances for two American-owned companies. They are legal immigrants who have called America home for the last decade. But, racism is not rational; and what happened last week in Olathe, Kansas, is a textbook example of racism.

More than that: it was clearly a hate crime. (Indeed, today, the FBI announced they had officially begun investigating the Olathe shooting as a hate crime.)

And yet, America has been noticeably, painfully slow to react to this outrageous act of hate. For two days after the Olathe shooting, mainstream media outlets failed to pick up the story. The New York Times first reported the story on Friday, as did The Washington Post. It took CNN another 24 hours to pick up the report.

Above all, the President of the United States has been conspicuously silent.

Donald Trump  — normally a prolific tweeter who commented on both the San Bernadino and the Pulse nightclub shootings (as well as other attacks globally) within hours of each attack — has said nothing on his personal Twitter account about the Olathe shooting. Yet, he has tweeted several times since last Wednesday about “fake news“, White House leaks, and the national debt. He even found time to suggest that his supporters hold their own rallies for him. But, he had no time to denounce a hate crime targeting non-white immigrants in a state that voted for him by over 20 points over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In fact, it took six days — six days — for the White House to respond to the shooting in Olathe. Moments ago, the White House issued a statement calling the Olathe shooting an “act of racially motivated hatred”.

“The president condemns these and any racially and religiously motivated attacks,” said a White House spokesperson. This is an about-face from just 24 hours ago, when White House press secretary Sean Spicer labeled criticisms of the White House’s silence on the shooting as “absurd”.

What happened in Olathe last week is connected to the current policies of the White House. The president campaigned on a promise to wage war against American immigrants, and took the White House on the coattails of racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Within weeks of moving into the Oval Office, President Trump passed executive orders that caused confusion and chaos for all of America’s immigrant population. Not only has the president promised to deport all undocumented immigrants, but he has also promised to overhaul the country’s H1B visa program which affords opportunities for many highly-skilled Asian immigrants — such as Srinivas Kuchihotla and Alok Madasani — to enter the country as employees. He has sold these proposals to Red America by fomenting fear and distrust of America’s non-white immigrants, including his decision to invite three Americans whose families were killed by undocumented immigrants to his appearance before Congress tonight.

When Trump rallies America to hate immigrants, Asian Americans are affected. Two-thirds of the Asian American community are foreign-born; and yet Asians and Asian Americans have been virtually invisible in the national debate. Why are we, time and again, erased? Are we only to be mentioned when these policies lead to our people’s bloodshed?

Mainstream Democrats have also been slow to react to the Olathe shooting. Hillary Clinton called on the president to “step up & speak out,” but she issued the tweet a full five days after the attack. Meanwhile, I have yet to see the mainstream Democratic party heed Secretary Clinton’s advice and speak out against the Olathe shooting.

Whether Democrat or Republican, this nation’s leaders have been largely silent and I can’t help but wonder: Where is America’s outrage over this senseless hate crime? Where is our grief? Where is this country’s sense of urgency over this hate-motivated violence? Why is this nation unmoved by the pleas of Kuchibhotla’s widow that the United States do something to protect its immigrants from losing their lives to hate?

According to the Kansas City Star:

“I have a question in my mind: Do we belong?” said Sunayana Dumala, who like her husband traveled from India to attend a U.S. college.

“We’ve read many times in newspapers of some kind of shooting happening,” she said at a news conference at the headquarters of Garmin, where Kuchibhotla worked as an aviation systems engineer. “And we always wondered, how safe?

…I need an answer from the government. …What are they going to do to stop this hate crime?

We all need that answer. We all deserve that answer.

But perhaps, the most relevant answer is that we cannot be complacent in trusting “them” to stop crimes of hate committed against us. Instead, it must fall to us to stand up against the hate that would claim our own. Yesterday, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) issued a statement — one of the few to emerge from the Capitol — on the Olathe shooting. In it, CAPAC chair Rep. Judy Chu called the attack “abhorrent” and “unacceptable”, and demanded that the President respond to the rash of racist and xenophobic attacks that have swept across America. Advancing Justice-LA has created a petition calling on the White House to end anti-immigrant policies that have encouraged Islamophobia and nativism.

Many in the Asian American community have compared the shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla to the 1982 hate crime killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was beaten to death by Ron Ebens and Michael Nitz in Detroit after he was mistaken to be an ethnicity he is not and to be less American than he is. I would compare last week’s attack to the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American gas station owner mistaken by his skin colour and the articles of his faith as an American Muslim, and brutally shot to death in Arizona in the days following 9/11.

Both comparisons might be apt.

In the wake of Chin’s murder, Asian America came together across ethnic boundaries to march in the streets in protests tens of thousands of people strong. We united as Asian Americans to demand justice for Vincent Chin. I must wonder: will we do the same for a Brown Asian? Will we once again take to the streets? Will we again reach across ethnic and racial divides, and join hand-in-hand with our Muslim brothers and sisters to demand justice for Srinivas Kuchibhotla?

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