Just four months into his tenure as the nation’s first-ever Muslim chairperson of a state political party, Faisal Gill has become the target of an alleged hate crime.
Gill, who took over as chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party in March, received three threatening emails within a seven-day period in May.
The emails, allegedly sent by Christopher Hayden, 48, of Burlington, are peppered with racial and religious epithets, and call Gill an “agent for creeping sharia law” who should “get out [of Vermont] or we will make you wish you did.”
“I want to terminate my registration as a Democrat,” Hayden allegedly wrote on May 24. “You make me sick. I want you out of my state you freak.”
Gill, who emigrated to the United States from Pakistan when he was 8, says the first email was “disconcerting, but it didn’t worry me.”
When the second and third emails arrived within hours of each other a week later, Gill says he decided it was time to contact law enforcement authorities in Burlington, where he has a law practice, and Montpelier, where the Vermont Democratic Party headquarters is located.
“The second one it did worry me, because it was much more hateful, and at this point I didn’t know what this guy was talking about, who this person was,” Gill says. “The subject line was extremely offensive and he was telling me to get out, go quietly, last chance, so that really concerned me.”
The third email included perhaps the most explicit threat of violence, saying, “Get out now. Last chance. Do it quietly. But get out of my Green Mountains.”
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George confirmed Friday that Hayden has been charged with disturbing the peace by electronic means, with a hate crime enhancement. The alleged crime is still a misdemeanor, however Hayden, who has a long criminal record, faces an additional two years in prison - on top of the three-month maximum for disturbing the peace - as a result of the enhanced charge.
Hayden faces a separate charge of disturbing the peace for alleged online harassment of a state representative from Burlington. (It is VPR's policy not to name the victims of crimes without permission.)
Hayden has been released on conditions, including that he abide by a 6 p.m. curfew.
The case involving Gill isn’t the first time Hayden has been charged with a hate crime. In December of 2015, Burlington police arrested Hayden after people reported he was making threats and using racial slurs toward people of color on Church Street.
He was charged with simple assault, with a hate crime enhancement.
Gill says the party’s offices were on lockdown for a period after he received the emails. Vermont Democratic Party Executive Director Conor Casey says the incident has shaken staff at the Montpelier headquarters.
“At party headquarters we’ve got this person’s picture up, so if we’ve notified the building of the person, so if anybody sees him, they can alert the authorities,” Gill says.
Gill, who emigrated to the United States from Pakistan when he was 8, says it isn’t the first time he’s been the target of racial and religious harassment.
“People saying, ‘Get out of politics, go home,' stuff like that. Not just me, my children as well,” Gill says. “It makes you question, what are you doing? It does make you question, are you safe? I will say in the last few years though it’s gotten a little worse.”
Gill, who Vermont Democratic Party officials say is the first Muslim in the nation to be a state-level party chair, attributes the increased frequency of race- and religion-based harassment to the presidential campaign of now-President Donald Trump.
“He’s made it okay for all these people who have all these hateful thoughts against immigrants and against Muslims to say them,” Gill says. “And they feel that it’s perfectly legitimate, they can voice them and express them and express thoughts and it’s okay, whereas before, some of these people, I’m sure they still had these thoughts, but they were not expressing them in open public.”
Gill says he’s also become more fearful that verbal threats will be followed with physical violence. He cited an incident in Portland, Oregon in late May, when two men were stabbed to death when they tried to stop a white man from directing an anti-Muslim tirade at a two young women.
“In this day and age with people being the way they are, and the violence that’s going around, I just didn’t want to take any chances,” Gill says about his decision to contact police.