Sammamish residents speak out after claim of racially-motivated incident

For some, what may seem like an everyday occurrence may be interpreted as an indictment of a larger, deeper issue.

Such is the message of Tarul Kode Tripathi, a Sammamish pharmacist and mother of two. On March 4, Tripathi, an Indian American, was driving home from a youth basketball game in Issaquah with her two young children. At a gas station along Front Street, she noticed a white male driver trying to pull out on to the road. Tripathi said she was late in noticing the man, but still attempted to allow him to pull out in front of her vehicle.

“But I noticed that he was already in a state of rage,” Tripathi recounted. “So I rolled down my window and said, ‘Hey, could you please calm down? I’ve got two kids in the back,’ and he shouted ‘F*** you, c***!’ very loudly to me and was going on and on, raving at me.”

Tripathi said the man also yelled for her to “get out” before driving away. The incident left her shaken up. On her drive home, she encountered two Sammamish police officers and decided to relay what happened. She knew her encounter in Issaquah wasn’t likely a reportable crime, but she wanted to gauge the officers’ reaction to the incident.

Tripathi said she was struck by how quickly one of the officers, who was a white female, tried to normalize the situation.

“She said, ‘The important thing is not to personalize the situation. That could’ve happened to anyone. That could’ve happened to me,’” Tripathi recalled. “That obviously did not sit well with me because I completely disagree with that. I don’t think it would’ve happened to her, had it been a white woman in the car with her kids in the back. I don’t think he would’ve reacted that way.”

Tripathi declined to file a police report. She said she opted not to do so because she didn’t have many other details from the incident. She didn’t get the driver’s license plate nor a make and model of the vehicle.

But Tripathi said she doesn’t believe such actions should be dismissed as routine or par for the course. She journaled the incident and reached out to her sister, Minal Kode Ghassemieh, who is an immigration attorney, as well as her friend Christa Gatewood, a local freelance writer and activist. She said the small group of residents has been trying to “do what we can to mobilize around incidents like this.”

“I know what happened to me and I want to make sure that somebody doesn’t try to explain it in another way,” Tripathi said. “While our state is a blue state and we’re saying all the right things at a leadership level … it is not trickling down to the people we’re surrounded by. There’s a sense of discomfort when we bring up the topic of race and threats of intimidation because nobody wants to believe it’s in our communities.”

Approaching local leaders

In the immediate aftermath of Tripathi’s confrontation, Ghassemieh coordinated a meeting with Rep. Dave Reichert’s office, which she said is scheduled to take place in April. She also brought Tripathi’s story to Sammamish City Council members on March 7, addressing the council about the issue of hate-related incidents, along with fellow Sammamish community member Rituja Indapure. Indapure mentioned the recent incidents of the Indian man killed in Kansas, the bomb threat at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island and the Sikh man shot in his own driveway in Kent, which all took place within the last month. Ghassemieh implored the council for swift action to ensure the city of Sammamish is able to “safeguard our community from hate, violence and oppression.”

City Manager Lyman Howard delivered a prepared statement on March 7 in response to Indapure’s public comment. He referred to a proclamation the City Council issued in December, which he said affirmed the “community’s inclusive values” and stated that “no discrimination would be tolerated on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Howard added that everyone at City Hall “understands and embraces the inclusive policies” outlined in the proclamation. Subsequently, each of the City Council members stated their condemnation of hate-inspired acts in the community.

“I want every one of you, the residents of Sammamish, to know that I will administer and deploy the resources of the city on behalf of each and every one of you,” Howard said. “Your city, your police department, your City Council and your city manager will defend and protect the dignity and well-being of all people in Sammamish.”

Too serious or not serious enough?

One critical detail regarding the Issaquah traffic incident is the lack of racially-charged language from Tripathi’s account of what transpired. Another is that Tripathi declined to file a report with police officers.

In the King County Sheriff’s Office General Orders Manual, cases of hate crimes fall under investigations of malicious harrassment.

Malicious harrassment is defined as “an act done maliciously and with intent to intimidate and harass persons because of, or in a way that is reasonably related to, associated with, or directed toward that individual’s race; color; religion; ancestry; national origin; mental, physical or sensory handicap; or sexual orientation.”

The manual states that for a case to be classified as malicious harrassment, there must either be a “cause of physical injury to another person; cause of physical damage to, or destruction of, the property of another person, or; by words or conduct, place another person in reasonable fear of harm to their person or property, or to the person or property of a third person.”

“Speech or acts that are only critical, insulting, degrading or do not constitute a threat of harm to the person or property of another are not criminal,” the manual states.

In an email to the Reporter, Sgt. Peter Horvath with the King County Sheriff’s Office stated that “ … based on the information provided to the police officer, it was determined the incident [in Issaquah] did not meet the criteria of a malicious harassment offense, nor a threat, but was merely naming calling with no biased undertones.”

But Tripathi said such a stance, that this incident was not a hate crime, could only be made by people “not living in my shoes.”

“I’ve experienced these incidents over a lifetime, so at this point, I’m not questioning my judgement on whether it was a race-related incident or not,” Tripathi said. “I know it was a race-related incident.”

When asked if the incident can simply be attributed to road rage, Tripathi remained steadfast with her reply.

“Absolutely not, not in this incident,” she said. “Yeah, he may have been angry at the [driver], but it would not have been at the level I experienced. This was absolutely a racially-motivated threat of intimidation.”

Gatewood, who is African-American, said she would ask those who are unwilling to frame Tripathi’s experience as a hate crime why doing so would make them uncomfortable. She points out there were two people in Tripathi’s story, one a victim and one a perpetrator, and wonders why, in this case, people would seemingly align themselves with a stranger who shouted profanities at a mother and her children, she said.

“One of the things that white people don’t understand is that people of color have lived these experiences their whole life and we have a psychic ability to know when someone is just being an a****** and when someone is being a racist a******,” Gatewood said. “Because it’s different, and it feels different. And it feels that way because we’ve lived it and we’ve grown up with it. And it seems odd to us that someone would write off something that feels so very obvious in our framework because we’ve lived those lives.”

Tripathi said previously, she had faith in turning to local police officers for help. Now, she’s not so sure.

“Like I said, I wanted to gauge the response. But I don’t know. I’m not confident how helpful they would be in a situation where I needed help,” Tripathi said.

“If the police want people to report hate crimes, when people report hate crimes, they have to take them seriously,” Gatewood said.

Beginning the conversation

The topic of race is not always an easy subject to broach, but Tripathi and her friends believe the need to have conversations about race are direly needed within the community.

When asked if she’s noticed a trend in the type of responses she’s gotten in discussing her recent roadway incident with people of different races, Tripathi didn’t hesitate to respond.

“Yes, absolutely. I feel like when I talk to white people about it, they get uncomfortable. It’s an awkward situation, they don’t know what to say,” Tripathi said.

Gatewood said she believes there’s a “pervasive need” in a lot of communities for residents to believe that they live in an enclave where things like racism and racist acts don’t happen. But when racist acts do happen, she believes there’s a need for it to be attributed to something other than being an act of racism, that such aggressive acts can occur without having to do with the color of someone’s skin.

“You have a very hard time believing that a blonde woman with her beautiful blonde children in the back seat are going to encounter the same type of vitriol from this white man who had to be delayed half a second from turning into the street. That doesn’t ring true to people of color,” Gatewood said. “It feels very dismissive when white people say, ‘Well, it could’ve happened to anybody. It would’ve happened to me, a police officer,’ which isn’t true.”

Ghassemieh said she believes ethnic studies should be part of the required curriculum in schools to help usher in community conversations about race. She added that she would like to see more cultural competency training in the community, in schools as well as in the police department and at City Hall.

“I think this is the right time based on what’s been happening with the political climate and what’s been happening around the country,” Ghassemieh said. “People of color are being shot in their own driveways [or while] leaving their places of business. People are being targeted and I think that we need to be proactive in teaching our children what that is about, why it’s not OK and how to be better citizens.”

Gatewood said she believed previously, people of color felt safe in ways that may have been “superficial and perhaps even in a bit of denial.” After the 2016 presidential election, she believes there’s been “an unveiling” that has left people of color on edge.

“A lot of racism and acts of hate have been pushed to the margins. You’d feel relatively safe that people don’t want to outwardly express their racism for fear of condemnation, so you’re free to go about your life knowing that the people that really, really hate you are afraid to say it,” Gatewood said.

“But now, it feels more like this unveiling. One of the things people would say about [President Donald] Trump all the time is, ‘He’s saying what we think. He’s telling it like it is and is saying what everybody thinks but is afraid to say.’ And that’s what we fear. That’s the subtle fear that we would have, that we wouldn’t even give voice to, is that all these people really think these things and aren’t saying them. And now, it feels more like people are emboldened to say whatever they want. They can say, to your face, something that is blatantly racist.”

Gatewood added that cultural competency training is beneficial because often, people who may be acting racially insensitive are unaware they are doing so. She said there is an important distinction between some racial offenders and people who are of good will who simply could use the education of cultural awareness.

“There are a lot of people out there in our communities who want to be allies but don’t know how,” Tripathi said. “When you’re asking what else can we do, I think providing the tools would be appreciated. People want to be allies, they just don’t know how.“

“Including standing up for each other instead of being indifferent,” added Ghassemieh. “I think the three of us share the sentiment that it’s not OK to be indifferent anymore. Indifference is leading to hate.”