A North Carolina convenience store was heavily damaged in a middle-of-the-night fire apparently started this week by an arsonist who sprayed hate graffiti marking the anniversary of 9-11. It is the latest in a string of violent crimes, including murders, where the victims are Sikhs – apparently mistaken as Muslims by the hate crime perpetrators.
The message “9-11 Go Home” was spray-painted on the exterior wall of State Line Grocery, heavily damaged by the fire reported at 2:40 a.m. [EDT] on Wednesday, Clay County Sheriff Vic Davis told Hatewatch. The convenience store, reportedly owned by a Sikh family, is located three miles south of Hayesville, N.C., in Clay County, on State Highway 69 near the Georgia border. It was closed at the time of the fire. Arvinder Singh, who operates the store and lives nearby, was not injured. He could not be reached for comment.
“There’s a possibility,” the sheriff said when asked if the arson fire appeared to be a hate crime. “What leads us to believe it may be a hate crime is what’s written on the side of the building,’’ the sheriff said. “These are foreigners that run that place, you know.”
The sheriff said two of his deputies responded to the fire and used fire extinguishers to help douse the flames. It was apparent to them, the sheriff said, that a flammable liquid had been used.
“We’ve turned the investigation over to the arson investigator with the SBI [State Bureau of Investigation],” Davis said. A spokeswoman with that organization – an agency within the North Carolina Department of Justice – didn’t immediately return telephone calls and an E-mail seeking comment.
It also couldn’t be confirmed whether the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in North Carolina had become involved in the arson investigation. A press officer in the FBI headquarters in Charlotte didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.
Becky Long, the editor and publisher of the Clay County Progress, a weekly newspaper in Hayesville, said it appears to her the fire was a hate crime. Her newspaper web site published a brief news article and two photographs of the fire damage and graffiti. “You’d have to be blind not to think that,’’ she said when asked about the possibility of a hate crime. “Wouldn’t you think, ‘9-11 Go Home?’”
The store owners apparently are Sikhs and not Muslim, “but in a small town like this a lot of people don’t know the difference,’’ Long said.
“Sikhs have been disproportionately targeted since 9/11,” said Sandeep Amy Kaur, a staff attorney with the Sikh Coalition, based in New York City. “We are deeply disturbed that a Sikh-owned business was targeted in what appears to be a dangerous hate crime. We look forward to a thorough and swift investigation by law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice. This type of hate will not be tolerated. We encourage the family to contact the Sikh Coalition if we can be of any assistance.”
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sikhs increasingly have been the targets of hate crimes. In March, Surinder Singh, 65, was shot and killed in Elk Grove, Calif., while walking with his friend, Gurmej Atwal, 78, who was critically wounded and later died. Both men were wearing dastars [traditional Sikh turbans] and long beards common to men of that faith.
There have been no arrests in that double-murder investigation.