A Sikh American Uber driver from Washington state was physically assaulted on the job last week by a passenger who made “racially biased” comments about the driver’s religion and ethnicity, police said.
Whatcom County’s prosecutor filed a hate crime charge against the suspect, 22-year-old Grifin Levi Sayers, on Monday, Bellingham Police Department’s Lt. Claudia Murphy told HuffPost. Sayers, who was released on bail Friday, was already facing an assault charge for the alleged Dec. 5 attack.
“This crime is being investigated as a bias incident as Sayers maliciously and intentionally assaulted the victim because of Sayers’ perception of the victim’s race, national origin and religion,” Murphy said in a statement.
The incident occurred in Bellingham early Thursday morning, police say. The Uber driver told police he drove Sayers to make some purchases and then drove him back to the pick-up location. During the drop-off, Sayers allegedly grabbed the driver by the throat and squeezed, restricting the driver’s ability to breath. The attacker made “racially biased comments about the victim’s ‘dark skin,’ the fact he was from India and the turban he was wearing,” police said.
The driver fled on foot, leaving his car behind, and called 9-1-1. Police officers located Sayers nearby and arrested him. The suspect was charged with second-degree assault for strangulation.
The Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group that is giving the driver pro bono legal support, told HuffPost that the driver was “severely choked” during the assault and went to a hospital afterward to address residual pain. Amrith Kaur, the group’s legal director, said that the driver is still “extremely disturbed” by the incident. Kaur said the driver is choosing to remain anonymous partly for security reasons, given that the alleged attacker is currently out on bail.
The Uber driver is a father who recently moved to the Bellingham area from another state, Kaur said.
“Driving for Uber is his primary source of income, which makes this attack all the more threatening to his livelihood,” Kaur told HuffPost.
An Uber spokesperson told HuffPost that the company is supporting law enforcement with the investigation.
“Violence and discrimination have no place in the uber community,” the spokesperson said in an email. “What’s been reported is unacceptable and we immediately removed the rider’s access to the platform. ”
Jasmit Singh, a Sikh leader from Olympia, told HuffPost that the incident has left the local community feeling shaken. Singh said that there are a significant number of Sikh Americans in his area who turn to taxi driving and rideshare apps as an “independent way to earn an honest living.” Those drivers are now feeling “very worried,” he said.
“There’s a lot of uneasiness in the community,” he said.
Today, Washington state is home to over 60,000 Sikhs and 15 gurdwaras, or Sikh houses of worship.
Singh said that Thursday’s attack is “not an isolated case.” Hate-fueled attacks against Sikh taxi drivers in Washington occurred in 2007 and 2012. Two years ago, a Sikh man was shot in his own driveway by an attacker who told him to “go back to your own country.”
Washington’s legislature recently bolstered the state’s law against hate crimes. In May, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law clarifying the definition of hate crimes and increasing the maximum civil liability for those guilty of committing hate crimes from $10,000 to $100,000.
The Bellingham case will be one of the first times this newly strengthened law is tested, Singh said. The state’s Sikh community will be watching the case closely to see how it is handled in the courts and by public officials, he said.
“You really need to be able to prosecute the people who perpetuate these crimes,” he said. ”[Education, enforcement, and prosecution] need to go hand in hand to really be able to address the kind of hate that we see rising in our communities.”