An Oregon man has been charged with a hate crime after allegedly attacking a Sikh convenience store owner and attempting to steal his turban.
Police say Andrew Ramsey, 24, assaulted Harwinder Dodd in a bias-related incident in Salem on Monday evening. Ramsey entered a plea of not guilty to related charges at a hearing on Thursday, according to court records.
A witness, Justin Brecht, told Fox 12 Oregon he saw the attacker become agitated after having a disagreement with Dodd in 12th Street Market. Brecht said Ramsey pulled at Dodd’s beard and dragged the store owner to the ground while punching and kicking him.
Brecht, a legislative policy adviser and former combat Marine, said he and several other bystanders intervened and held down the attacker until authorities arrived.
“We were really worried. I mean, he could have really injured the store owner. He was beating him pretty good,” Brecht told Fox 12. “He was bleeding, he had gotten punched quite a bit in the face, and kicked on the ground and thrown to the ground very brutally. It was very serious.”
Dodd told local outlet KATU that the incident began after Ramsey tried to purchase cigarettes at the store. Dodd said he refused to make the sale because Dodd didn’t have an ID. At that point, Ramsey became angry and started attacking him, Dodd said.
Police say Ramsey threw his shoe at Dodd and tried to steal his turban, a head covering often worn by Sikhs as part of their religious practice.
Dodd was reportedly left with cuts on his arms and hands, as well as a scrape on his elbow, KATU reports.
The store owner told KATU that he has dealt with discrimination at his store in the past, but that it has never ended in violence.
Ramsey remains in custody at Marion County Correction Facility. Ramsey’s lawyer told HuffPost he hadn’t been able to read the police reports about the incident and therefore was “not able to provide a detailed response to the accusations.”
Prosecutors say Ramsey targeted Dodd because of his perception of his religion, according to the AP.
“We believe it had to do with the worker’s ethnic background and possible religious beliefs,” Lt. Treven Upkes of the Salem Police Department told KATU on Wednesday.
FBI statistics suggest hate crimes in Oregon went up 40 percent in 2017, compared to 2016.
The state’s hate crime laws have come under scrutiny from civil rights groups in recent weeks. Oregon currently punishes hate crimes ― which it calls “crimes of intimidation” ― based on how many people were involved in the attack, the AP reports. If two or more people target someone because of the victim’s “race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin,” it’s treated as a felony. But if the attacker acts alone, the crime is treated as intimidation in the second degree, a misdemeanor.
Civil rights groups are seeking to strengthen the state’s hate crime laws during the 2019 legislative session.
The Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy organization, told HuffPost it has seen a “significant” rise in hate and bias incidents in the Pacific Northwest over the past two years ― although it says not every case was prosecuted as a hate crime.
The group was encouraged when it heard about the “brave” witnesses intervening to help Dodd, said legal director Amrith Kaur.
“We all need to consistently speak up for ourselves and stand in solidarity with others when we witness racism, xenophobia and other types of bigotry,” Kaur told HuffPost.
The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund also condemned the attack.
“As a nation of immigrants with equal rights under the constitution, all Americans have the right to live, work, and worship without any fear or intimidation from anyone,” said Kavneet Singh, who serves on SALDEF’s board of directors. “No American should feel terrorized in their workplace.”
This article has been updated with a comment from Ramsey’s lawyer.