Originally published in The Huffington Post on 7.20.2012
Following my recent article on “Islamophobia, Sikhophobia, and Media Profiling,” I received a number of questions from people about hate-speech and hate-crimes. Some people denied that they occur in modern America, while others asked how we could be so certain that acts of violence were motivated by hate.
The purpose of the narrative below is not to indict, judge or fan flames of anger, but to demonstrate that hate-speech and hate-crimes remain major problems in our society and require our immediate and collective attention. I highlight this point through the story of Frank Roque, the man responsible for the death of a Sikh-American — Balbir Singh Sodhi — whose murder has been classified as the first hate-crime casualty in post-9/11 America.
Frank Silva Roque worked as a Boeing aircraft mechanic at a repair facility in Mesa, Ariz. He returned from work on Sept. 11, 2011 deeply affected by the tragic events of the day. His brother describes him as being inconsolably upset that afternoon, and an employee at a local Applebee’s reported that Roque sat at the restaurant bar that same evening and openly announced: “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.” The next day, Roque was absent from work, and when a colleague called him to check in, Roque mentioned his desire to “shoot some rag heads.”
His coworker also reported Roque as stating: “We should round them all up and kill them. We should kill their children, too, because they’ll grow up to be like their parents.” According to police reports, Frank Roque had told his wife that “all Arabs should be shot” and that he wanted to “slit some Iranian throats.”
In another police report, Frank Roque is quoted as saying: “I can’t take this anymore. They killed my brothers and sisters.” In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Roque’s wife became so concerned by his threats and hate-speech that she removed a gun box and ammunition from their home and hid it in the trunk of their car.
On Sept. 15, Roque visited the Wild Hare, a local bar in Mesa, where he openly threatened to “kill Middle Eastern people.” Roque was reported to have stated: “If one of them came into the door right now, I would slit their [expletive] throat.” According to police reports, Roque was noticeably intoxicated and upset about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He was kicked out of the bar, and before leaving he declared “that something was going to go down real soon and that it might even be tonight” and that they “might read about it in the newspaper.”
Upon leaving the bar that afternoon, Frank Roque drove his black Chevy S-10 pickup truck to a local Chevron station owned by a Sikh-American named Balbir Singh Sodhi. The owner was outside the station and working with his landscaper, Luis Ledesma. Roque approached Sodhi and Ledesma and aimed his .38 handgun through the open window of his truck. Five bullets struck Sodhi, killing him instantly.
Roque immediately sped off to a home that he previously owned and had sold to an Afghani-American couple. He fired multiple shots at their home before proceeding to a Mobil gas station, where he fired seven shots at Lebanese-American Anwar Khalil. Fortunately, no one was killed in these two shootings.
Roque then visited another local bar, where a patron reported Roque as bragging: “They’re investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street.” When the police came to arrest him at his home later that day, Roque put up his hands in surrender and announced: “I’m a patriot and an American. I’m American. I’m a damn American.” On the way to the police station, Roque asked the officers driving the patrol car: “How can you arrest me and let the terrorists run wild?” Roque later added, “I wish that my punishment would be sending me to Afghanistan with a lot of [expletive] weapons.”
Nearly two years after the killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the capital murder trial of Frank Roque commenced on Sept. 2, 2003. In addition to the first-degree murder of Sodhi, Roque was also charged with attempted first-degree murder, reckless endangerment and drive-by shootings at the Chevron station, the Mobil station and the Sahak residence.
Frank Roque and his defense attorney Daniel Patterson did not deny any of the shootings. Instead, they presented a defense of “guilty except insane” and argued that Roque had been dealing with undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses for decades.
After nearly a month of proceedings, the jury came to a decision and convicted Frank Roque of first-degree murder. They announced their rejection of the insanity defense and sentenced him to the death penalty. The jurors also found Roque guilty on all other counts, and the court added a 36-year sentence for the additional charges. In August 2006, approximately three years after the trial, the Arizona Supreme Court reviewed his case and commuted the death penalty for a sentence of life-imprisonment without parole.
Unfortunately, the story of Frank Roque is neither unique nor isolated — it is one among many. And although his story may not give us clear insight as to why people commit hate-crimes, his words clearly demonstrate that his violent actions were deliberate and motivated by hate.
Roque’s story also shows us that hate-speech and hate-crimes are not a thing of the past.
Whether we want to believe it or not, there are countless examples of hate-inspired violence perpetrated in our modern society.
Maybe we’re not as civilized as we would like to think.
In order to make progress, we first have to acknowledge the fact that discrimination continues to permeate our society. We need to stop justifying hate-speech as harmless words, and we need to stop brushing aside hate-crimes as random acts of violence.
Only then can we even think about moving beyond hatred.