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July 13, 2007

Beating death symbolic of local tensions

Today, those who knew Satender Singh will gather at a Sacramento mortuary to mourn a young man whose life ended too soon, in a flash of violence his friends say was fueled by bigotry and fear.

Today, those who knew Satender Singh will gather at a Sacramento mortuary to mourn a young man whose life ended too soon, in a flash of violence his friends say was fueled by bigotry and fear.

They will come together to remember the 26-year-old, a Fijian immigrant, as meticulously dressed, always sharing a smile and a loud, melodic laugh that infused a room with joy.

Many who didn't know Singh will be there as well. In death, he has emerged as a symbol of wounds that have festered for some time between Sacramento's gay community and members of the Slavic evangelical community, a thousands-strong group that has become a vocal force denouncing gay rights. It is that rhetoric, some contend, that fueled the attack on Singh earlier this month at Lake Natoma.

"This homicide sort of brings to light what has been feared," said Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who attended a vigil for Singh last week. "It's tragic evidence of a larger point."

The circumstances surrounding the July 1 beating remain under investigation, but Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said this week "there is a strong probability" the assault was a hate crime. He characterized the case as high priority, and said detectives still want to speak with those involved and find the person responsible. As of Thursday, no arrests had been made.

Singh was picnicking near Lake Natoma with a small group of Fijian and Indian friends when the attack occurred, according to two people with him that day. The Bee is not identifying the friends because they fear retribution.

Singh was at the park that Sunday to celebrate a promotion he had earned at his call center job, according to the friends, and the group was drinking and dancing to Indian music. Singh was the only one without a date, and was hugging and dancing with other men.

In the hours preceding the attack, a group described as Russian-speaking hurled explicit gay slurs and racial remarks at Singh and his party, according to witnesses and sheriff's officials. When Singh and his friends tried to leave around 8 p.m., they were confronted by the Slavic group and a fight ensued, the witnesses said.

Singh was punched -- once -- in the face. He fell backward and cracked his head, rupturing a part of the brain stem that controls most of life's functions. He died four days later.

Singh's death has struck a deep chord in Sacramento's gay community, whose members have expressed concern in the past year over aggressive anti-gay protests Slavic evangelical Christians have staged at area schools and the Capitol.

"We could read the writing on the wall," said Nathan Feldman of Sacramento's "Being Gay Today" cable-access show. "This was not a random thing; this has been building up."

For the past year, Feldman said, he has documented the growing volatility around the protests, and was moved to stage a counter-protest last July at Bethany Slavic Missionary Church, the region's largest evangelical congregation.

The Sacramento area is home to about 100,000 Russian-speaking residents, community leaders say. About a third of those residents are evangelical Christians who espouse a literal interpretation of the Bible. Those leading the anti-gay protests -- many of whom fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union -- maintain they're exercising their newfound freedom of speech to spread the message that homosexuality is a sin.

"What's going on is very complicated," Feldman said this week. "It's almost a social war starting in Sacramento."

Steinberg, who last year rode as a dignitary in the city's annual gay pride parade, said he has been struck by the magnitude of vitriol emanating from the evangelical protests.

"Some of the epithets, some of the signs are not only disrespectful of the gay and lesbian community, but they are disrespectful of the entire community," he said. "The words are vile ... and words may give people the implicit license to take the next step and hurt people."

Though sheriff's investigators have yet to identify Singh's attackers, leaders in the area's gay and Asian Pacific Islander communities have united behind the belief he was a victim of a hate crime and are responding in force.

Last week, the groups held vigils in his honor, and this week local leaders formed the Satender Justice Coalition, a task force that plans to host forums and letter-writing campaigns to call attention to acts of prejudice and bigotry.

"Why has Mr. Singh's death galvanized this community?" asked Georgette Imura of the Council of Asian Pacific Islanders Together for Advocacy. "He was targeted because of his ethnicity and his perceived sexual orientation ... and possibly, his racial background. It's touched us on so many different levels."

Florin Ciuriuc, a former executive director of the Slavic Community Center of Sacramento, said he was disturbed but not surprised to hear of the attack at Lake Natoma.

Ciuriuc said he was among those leading anti-gay protests a few years back but that he stopped participating as the movement became more menacing.

"I saw that people were hungry for violence, for blood; different ideas where we have to be aggressive, where we have to scream," he said. "I don't want people from my community killing each other or other people because they are getting aggressive."

Viktor Chernyetsky, administrator of Bethany Slavic Missionary Church, strongly disagreed with Ciuriuc's assessment. Chernyetsky said Slavic leaders teach homosexuality is a sin, but do not support physical violence.

"You can express your view legally. You can go to the Capitol. You can put up signs," Chernyetsky said. "But to resort to physical violence, we are strongly against this."

He said the community will continue to fight against gay rights because that is their moral duty.

"We see danger that comes from the gay community, in Sacramento especially," said Chernyetsky. "This issue is so important for our families and for our kids, and by the way, for the future for our country.

"So probably," he said, "we need to be more vocal."

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