A Bellingham man has been charged with a hate crime for allegedly assaulting an Uber driver who is a follower of the Sikh religion.
The Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney charged 22-year-old Grifin Sayers with second-degree assault and malicious harassment this week.
According to court documents, the Uber driver picked up Sayers on December 5 to get fast food and cigarettes before taking him back to his apartment. When they arrived at the residence on the 1400 block of Barkley Boulevard, Sayers allegedly became verbally and physically abusive.
The Uber driver told police that Sayers grabbed him by the front of his throat and squeezed while he was sitting in the vehicle. Sayers made comments about the driver’s “dark skin” and the “turban” the driver was wearing while assaulting the driver, according to court documents.
The Uber driver told police that his “breathing was restricted for approximately 5-10 seconds” while Sayers had ahold of his throat. The driver was able to escape and left his car in the apartment parking lot with the passenger still inside. The driver then called 911. The driver said he believes his race was the reason for the attack.
Officers found Sayers on the back porch of his apartment. He admitted riding in the Uber driver’s vehicle and having a conversation with him about where he was from but denied assaulting the driver, according to court documents.
Gursewak Singh knows the victim and said he's a selfless man who drives an Uber to support his family. To Singh, an attack on an innocent man is an attack on the entire Sikh community.
"It sort of lingers on in the backs of our minds," said Singh. "Am I safe coming home from work or if I'm out late? It's pretty challenging."
Sikhs come mainly from India and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, are the third most targeted religious group for hate crimes in the United States.
The driver is now concerned for his family's safety, according to Bellingham Police Department Lieutenant Claudia Murphy.
"It's an awful thing to happen," Murphy said. "I understand how the Uber driver is frightened. It's an unfair, unacceptable, inexcusable thing to have happen."
To Gursewak, whose dad drove a taxi, the hate crime charge is an important step forward.
"They'll think twice about pulling a Muslim woman's hijab or being racist toward any ethnicity,” said Gursewak. “It'll just put that second thought into their head that they shouldn't do this. They can't get away with it."
The Sikh Coalition said there are around 60,000 to 75,000 Sikhs and 15 gurdwaras, which are Sikh houses of worship, in Washington state. The coalition estimated that Washington is the third most dangerous state in the U.S. for Sikhs.
“We are grateful to the Bellingham Police Department for recognizing the clear influence of bias from the beginning of this case, and to the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for reaching the right decision,” said Amrith Kaur, Sikh Coalition legal director. “Acknowledging the role of targeted hatred in acts of violence is the first step in combating further such incidents, and taking hate crimes seriously and prosecuting them with the right tools is the surest way forward to making our communities safer.”